1. Rzero

    Rzero Reluctant voice of his generation Contributor

    Oct 29, 2018
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    How do you tell a story out of order?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Rzero, Nov 11, 2020.

    I'm working on a project in which I'd like to jump around in time, scatter flashbacks and tell entire chapters out of order. I love when this is done well in a novel, but I'm not sure I've ever paid attention with my writer's ears on. I think my story would lend itself to the process, but I'm not entirely sure how to go about this and tell it right. It would have to be paced properly, and the jumps would have to be well-timed so as to compliment the main story line, which all seems very daunting to me.

    I've read several books on writing, but none included advice on this particular subject, including Stephen King's book, and he loves to leap back and forth in time. So how does one plot out a book out of order? I know most of the non-linear novels I've read seem to focus on one or two spots in the timeline and make jumps from there, but beyond that, I'm feeling very lost in the brainstorming and especially outlining phases.

    Have any of you ever written a non-linear piece? Do you have any advice? A part of me wonders if this is just something you have to have a feel for to get it right, but if anyone has any tips, I'm all ears. Thanks.
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  2. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

    Jul 7, 2016
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    I, too, have enjoyed these sorts of stories. When done well, they can seem brilliant. I think one thing to keep in mind is what and when certain things overlap. I'm talking about things that can even be small details or a walk-on-role character in one part, but all of a sudden when you get further into the story those things that happened and when they happen more weight, they become more telling. I think the key is to weave the pieces of the story together and not just try and tell a nonlinear story. Readers are still going to get the story and the information in the order it's delivered. I think that's a good thing to keep in mind. But have fun building the layers and dive into complexity, I say.

    You also want to decide if there is any sort of present narrative in your story. I'm not so sure you need one with this approach. But if you do decide to create a present narrative, derailing too far and too often from it can be jarring.

    It's a fun and challenging way to write a story. Good luck, my friend! :)
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  3. Aceldama

    Aceldama free servant

    Aug 1, 2019
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    Currently Reading::
    I think having the end goal or overall effect you want to present in mind when writing it will help. Just because the story is being told in a non-sequential manner doesn't mean its not a story. Just a different way to get to the end goal, which is what?
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  4. cosmic lights

    cosmic lights Contributor Contributor

    Aug 30, 2018
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    Norwich, UK
    I did something very similar years ago and it ended up a complete and utter mess so my advice would be, even if you don't normally, make a plan. Even if you just sit a bullet-point each chapter and the scenes within it so their is some kind of through line that the audience can follow, and that things are being revealed at the right time. Keep the characters consistent and don't jump around too much with their wants, goals and actions. I don't tend to like novels or movies in this style because it becomes hard work to follow, I do like when it starts at the end and ends at the start kind of story.

    Plot is my biggest weakness I think.
  5. hirundine

    hirundine Contributor Contributor

    Jul 25, 2016
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    I've never done this, but if I did, I'd plan it out with the events in the correct order first, most likely with just a brief description of the events. Then I'd transfer a short description of each chapter onto index cards and mix them around a bunch of times until I found an order that worked.
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  6. DriedPen

    DriedPen Member

    Oct 20, 2020
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    I just finished a novel yesterday that had been good, but it was made much better when I started rearranging chapters so that things happened better.

    In my case it was making the timeline more uniform, but you can do so out of order just as easily. And that is kind of my point: once you get the story on paper, then you can assemble or disassemble chapters on a whim to get the look, pace and setting you are after.
  7. jim onion

    jim onion New Member

    Oct 7, 2016
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    I will dare to throw back advice you gave me for just writing a damned normal story (with the note-cards and stuff); have you tried taking a couple of your favorite non-linear stories, regardless of whether it's a book or a movie or a TV show, and tried writing it all down out of order on notecards or something like that? Maybe chapter by chapter, the significant story beats or whatever.

    Some other questions I might have would be: why do you want to tell it out of order? As in, how do you think the technique will benefit your story?

    How do you think you'll execute it? Flashbacks, foreshadowing, etc.?

    EDIT: Your Name, my favorite anime movie, is told in a non-linear fashion. On first watch it makes things things suspenseful, "reveals" are more impactful because they seem to effect more plot elements all at once (re-contextualizing events, characters). Then you get bonus re-watch value, because there's such tremendous attention to detail in this film.

    I hate to spoil such a great anime, but let me explain as simply as I can:

    1. Guy and lady are alive; implication that they have some sort of connection.

    2. Go back a few years when they were in high-school WITHOUT TELLING THE VIEWER. Go through their relationship in which they swap bodies when they dream.

    3. Big reveal: the guy and girl weren't just swapping bodies via dreaming, but were actually time traveling as well. This is discovered when the guy tries to meet her on his own timeline, but she died in an accident. THE DEATH WOULD NOT BE AS DRAMATIC OR OTHERWISE IMPACTFUL, IF THE VIEWER KNEW THAT WE WENT BACK IN TIME ON STEP 2. Because this was sort of disguised, somewhat just obfuscated, we're taken aback at this turn of events because the time-travel aspect and the death hit us all at once. The girl he was in love with died 3 years ago, and due to make-believe time-travel laws, every note she'd left for him on his phone begins to disappear (can't be causing no paradoxes now can we?).

    4. Guy has to make journey to drink this special drink that the girl made three years in the past, that up until now in the film had no known significance except as being an important family tradition to the girl (author fulfilling promise here). In other words: she did not make the drink and leave it at a shrine as an offering, so that this guy who's in love with her could show up and drink it.

    5. This reconnects them, and lets them body-swap / time travel one last time, this time to try and save the girl and her whole town from death.

    6. Success.

    7. However, like dreams, their memories of these body-switches and time traveling are very fragile. They forget one another's names. Eventually all that's left is emptiness, a sense of loss.

    8. As hinted at or made practically explicit at various points in the movie, these two lovers are connected. And so in the new timeline, "present day" in the film (so finally circling back to point 1 here where they're both alive but have forgotten one another), their paths cross. Just simply seeing one another is enough to stir up all the memories, but they only see each other in passing trains.

    9. Both characters get off immediately at the next station and run all over Hell's acre looking for one another, before finally reuniting.

    If you're confused, this will make a lot more sense when you watch the film. I recommend you give it a watch, because the research will be a lot quicker; it will take you about 2 hours, compared to however long it takes to read a 200+ page non-linear novel so that you can take notes on the plot.

    The story isn't technically perfect, as there's a couple of iffy plot-holes, but for me it's nothing bad enough to ruin the experience; after all, I've only seen it like 20 fucking times. It's, like, the second-highest-grossing anime of all time for a reason. The couple technical imperfections are more like things that aren't explained (their ability to remember certain things from their time-travel body-swapping is a little inconsistent for example, and obviously functions as a plot convenience).

    If I'm recalling correctly, there are three timelines:

    a) First opening minute, both characters are in what I will call "The New Present".

    b) 90% of the film is actually one big flash-back from "The New Present", and while it might be going too far to say that the film hides this fact, it doesn't make it super obvious in my opinion. This 80% of the film takes place either in what I will call "Boy's Timeline" or "Girl's Timeline", which are separated by three years (so the Boy's Timeline is something like 2015, whereas the girl's is something like 2012), but this fact, besides one easter egg, is totally hidden from the viewer until it's revealed about halfway through the film.

    c) The original timelines of the characters are then both however-many-years before The New Present, which we return to for the final 15 minutes of the film after Boy saves Girl and their sub-timelines are morphed into one, "The New Present". Which means we flash-forward like 5 or 6 years, I can't remember, after Boy saves Girl and the two are in their early 20s.

    There's obviously a lot going on here with the timelines, timetravel (some of which is hidden until around the halfway point, or maybe the 3rd act, idk it's complicated and I'm too tired for this shit right now lol), the changes of POV, and that all creates lots of opportunities for surprises, reveals, and powerful recontextualizations, as well as plenty of suspense and mystery. I would assume these are the main benefits of a well-told non-linear plot.

    But if you watch the film and have questions, I can definitely answer them.
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2020
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  8. N.Scott

    N.Scott Active Member

    Sep 8, 2019
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    This is my struggle too! Sometimes I come up with all these funny, or sad, or interesting scenes from another time. But for the life of me, I just cannot figure out where to put them. Or a voice would tell me they're all just backstories no one ever needs to hear. What I learn is sometimes you need to let them brew for a while. This is especially hard for plotters like us because we like to be in control. It gets easier. So, my advice is if you aren't sure where a giving scene or an idea of a scene goes, just write it down first and outline the rest of your novel as if they don't exist. And later, if you are absolutely sure you want those scenes, you can find ways to work them in.
    (I tell myself these things to calm the plotter in me: You need some sort of system as a backbone to keep track of things, so go write the main storyline. What do you mean no? Come on! Just think of it as playing solitaire with ten decks of cards. You can play with any decks you want as soon as you figure out how to count from A to K; I promise. Fine, I swear! NOW GO AND WRITE DOWN YOUR PATTERN!)
    Anyway, doing it this way can at least make sure readers see where the story is heading even when they can't keep track of all the jumping around. And if all things fail, you can always get feedback from beta readers or critique partners.

    On a more technical term I find these questions very useful when working with flashbacks:
    A. What's the character goal and stake in this flashback? I meant when the characters were in the flashback? Despite flashbacks by definition are all set and done, they still need conflicts in them. I know, right?
    B. Does anyone in the story want to know about it?
    C. What element promotes this particular flashback? It goes both ways. Sometimes your character sees someone drops a coin and suddenly you find yourself asking when did the last time they pick up one. Sometimes you come up with this super funny coin-related flashback and you make it your mission to throw a coin at your character(but don't; it hurts) at some point.
    D. What basic mood is this flashback? Happy or sad? Determine that and then put the flashback in wherever the story requires this mood.
    E. What will change in the main storyline after this flashback? Or how does this flashback push the overall plot forward?
    F. What is your intention with this flashback? It could be for characters(e.g. reveal clues), for readers(e.g. show character traits), or both.

    I think the two most important questions are A and D. A roughly answers how to make them at least readable; D roughly answers where to put them.
    I love writing flashbacks, but I see a lot of writing guides against them(some readers even skip them like they do prolouges:ohno:). I don't think that's fair, to be honest. Also, a great book to study flashbacks is Little Fire Everywhere. It doesn't have too much jumping, but I learned a lot from it.
    I hope this helps.

    Edited for clarity and typos.
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2020
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  9. LucyAshworth

    LucyAshworth Active Member

    Nov 14, 2020
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    I've never done such a thing. This is how I would do it. Maximize efficiency for desired effect.

    Emotional impact
    Convergence of plot threads
    Message about the flow of time
    Whatever your purpose is

    Write your story chronologically. Break it into important pieces based on the purpose of each piece, as one would if they were editing a movie, book, or song. Rearrange for maximum efficiency.

    Check for links between pieces. Continuity. How does the reader know in what order the pieces go? Or do you not want them to know?
    Items and Props
    Character changes in personality, knowledge, appearance, scars,
    Environment. Weather, news,

    Study other examples. How did you know the order of Pulp Fiction? What did you like about Pulp Fiction?
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  10. Rzero

    Rzero Reluctant voice of his generation Contributor

    Oct 29, 2018
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    It's a fair question. Basically, I have a novella written about a relationship and a breakup. It was originally intended to be two or three chapters of intro into a big sci-fi book, but I got really into it (partially because it was very personal,) and the "brief intro" turned into about 50k, 37k of which makes for a well rounded piece by itself. I decided to write some more sections in the life of the character, and the longer I thought about it and planned it out, the less I liked my first idea of shoving novellas together to make a novel David Mitchell style, and the more I wanted to splice these other episodes into what is already written. If done properly, it has the potential to be a far more interesting story than if told linearly.
    I love that movie, and I love the way it was told. Having one MC (limited POV) at several times in his life though, I'm thinking more along the lines of In One Person by John Irving. That's not actually a book I would recommend, but the non-linear storytelling made it almost worth the time spent. The actual story was boring as hell though, and I don't feel like reading it again for research purposes, if I can help it.

    A better book would be maybe Slaughterhouse 5, but that's not really the style I'm going for either. Still it illustrates my question: How do I plan out which parts go where in an order that makes for good storytelling? In Slaughterhouse 5, if I recall from many years ago, the leaps through time (experienced by the character, not just the reader) present lessons and experiences that are told in an order they might be learned linearly by the reader.

    I like the idea of using bullet points or flash cards for organization. In fact, that part seems almost a total necessity, but the problem is, do I find related themes and put those together? Do I look to action and pacing and forget about connected themes? The story takes place over many years. Should I stick to one main time and splice in the other stories or jumble them entirely? If I stick to a main time, can I splice in past and future both? John Irving did. Dang. I may have to read that book again. Boring or not, he got the order right. Does anyone have another example to which I might look?
    These are useful questions. I think they might help. Thank you.
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