Storytelling Class — Nonlinear Structures

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was nonlinear storytelling.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

I read the usual fiction blogs, and got about half-way through both Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story, and The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz.

Wendig’s book on storytelling is a very in-the-trenches guide to good storytelling structures that can be easily and immediately deployed in whatever story you’re currently writing. It has the exactly same zany energy that makes Wendig’s blog fun, and while it mostly covers tried-and-true ideas about story structure, it’s a good review and packed with useful pop-culture examples.

The Wes Anderson book is a collection of interviews, photos and other Anderson-esque artifacts documenting the director’s work from his Bottle Rocket debut up to Moonrise Kingdom. It looks like the book has become a series as Anderson continues to make movies, so I may have to check out the Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs volumes next.

I also finally finished reading The Lord of The Rings to the kids. Whew! It has been years since I read the whole thing, and I had forgotten a few things. It’s quite a series to read out loud.

What Did We Write?

I wrote my usual bloggery, and finished Razor Mountain chapter 7, which turned out to be a very long chapter. Freya didn’t write any fiction this week.

Nonlinear Stories

The main topic this week was nonlinear story structure. This was something that came up in our previous conversations that Freya wanted to know more about.

Linear stories show events happening in order. Nonlinear stories show at least some part of the story out-of-order from when it happened in relation to the other events. One could also argue that a story told in-order, but leaving some events out is also a form of nonlinear story structure.

Nonlinear structure is more effort for the reader to understand. Using too much of it, or not using it to good effect may end up frustrating the reader. If you’re going to use a nonlinear structure, do it purposefully.

Skipping Ahead

The simplest form of nonlinearity is skipping ahead. This is typically used to get past events that logically need to happen, but simply aren’t interesting enough for the reader to want to see them played out.

This can also sometimes be used to heighten excitement, often as part of a mystery, by leaving out some important event. In this case, it’s typically revealed later on, at the point when the revelation is most important. This can be dangerous because it can sometimes feel “unfair” to the reader that the knowledge was kept from them, especially if it was readily available to the characters.

Events Out of Order

A flashback is the most common way to show events out of order, inserting some previous events into the narrative near the point where they become relevant to the story’s “main” timeline. A flash-forward is a less common version of this, jumping ahead into the future to see some outcome that results from events in the story’s “main” timeline.

A frame story is a case where the bulk of the story is told as a flashback or “story within a story.” The recounting of the story is the “frame.” Examples of this are Scheherazade’s storytelling in the One Thousand and One Nights or the grandfather and grandson in The Princess Bride.

Parallel plots are often employed in stories with larger casts of characters, where individuals or groups have their own plots going at the same time. These stories will cover a certain amount of time for one character or group, then cut back to the start and show what happened during that period for the other character or group.

Events Disconnected

A more complicated nonlinear story may have many events out of their linear order.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind mostly consists of memories of a relationship, shown out of order. Memento follows a man with a brain injury that prevents him from forming long-term memories, starting with scenes at the beginning and end of the story, then going forward and backward in turns to eventually meet in the middle.

The video game Her Story tells a story through a series of interview clips, with the player able to discover different clips through play, and choosing the order to view them in.

Time Travel and Alternate Universes

Time travel stories almost always involve some nonlinear structures, and often complicate them with characters that go into the past and change the future, or muddle it with closed time loops where future characters participate in past events that contribute to the state of the future (their present).

Stories with alternate universes often use similar structures, with the added complication that similar events in different universes can have different outcomes, and at some point the alternate universes typically affect one another.

Homework

Freya and I both slacked and didn’t write anything for the previous class’s homework. This week, we’ll be playing catch-up. We’re both going to write something and either incorporate some non-linearity or use it to discuss beginnings, middles and ends.

Some of Freya’s ideas from our Ideas class were for homemade movies, so the next class topic will be script-writing 101. (I’ve never written a script before, so I’ll probably learn some things too!)

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