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.


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!)

Storytelling Class — Beginnings, Middles and Ends

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 beginnings, middles and ends.

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

What Did We Read?

We each read a lot of things this week!

I read the usual fiction blogs, and a whole bunch of graphic novels from the library:

Freya read:

She also continued reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

(FYI – links are my affiliate links)

Freya really enjoyed the Iliad and the Odyssey, although she said she likes the Odyssey better. She enjoyed the cliffhangers in the Odyssey and the perspective shifting between Odysseus and Penelope.  She didn’t like the limited choice that Penelope seemed to have in the story, and I don’t blame her. We discussed the agency of women in ancient Greece and in our society today.

What Did We Write?

I wrote a few blog posts, and worked on Razor Mountain chapter 7. It’s going to be the longest chapter so far, by a significant margin.

Freya wrote her Ivan reading journal at school, and a 101-word story. She was inspired by my explanation of drabbles, and decided to write one herself! However, she tried to write it in a single draft, and had a hard time finding an ending at exactly 100 words. Hence the 101.

I explained that my process for drabbles is to write a first draft that’s relatively short, but captures the story that I want. Then I trim it down over several drafts until I get to exactly 100 words. Drabbles really force brutal cutting, and I explained that she was making it extra hard on herself by trying to do it all in one go.

Last Week’s Homework: Ten Story Ideas

Freya and I talked through some of the story ideas that we came up with for last week’s homework. She only came up with eight, but eighteen ideas is still a lot to get through, so I won’t go into great detail in this post.

Freya’s ideas included movie scripts and a series of Felix the Cat stories (no, a different Felix the Cat), as well as a story based solely on an interesting title. We got the idea that she often likes to start with a particular media or “shape” of story and figure out the details afterward, which is interesting, and different from the approach I usually take.

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

The main topic for this class was beginnings, middles and ends.

We often split stories into three parts, because three parts feels good (the “rule of threes”) and because the beginning and end tend to have specific things that need to happen, and the middle holds everything together. A lot of talk about three act structure can also be said to be about beginnings, middles and ends.

Beginning (Act I)

Beginnings introduce the important characters, the setting (or world), the situation, and any overarching mysteries.

Beginnings often start with a “hook,” which is something exciting that draws the reader into the story long enough to get them…well…hooked.

The beginning typically includes an “inciting incident,” something that goes wrong or changes the status quo. This incident breaks normality, forcing the action of the story.

Middle (Act II)

In the middle, the characters pursue their goals and try to overcome the main conflict through try/fail cycles. They progress mysteries without completely solving them. Most of the interesting action in the story happens here, and this is usually the biggest chunk of the story.

How do the characters deal with their “broken normal?” Do they try to restore the old order, or make a new order?

Ending (Act III)

The ending should bring the story to a resolution. It may be “happily ever after,” or not. This is where big mysteries should finally be solved. It’s where big questions should finally be answered. Characters succeed or fail at their major goals, or change goals completely.

At the end, the main conflict should be over. The villain should be defeated (or at least no longer in opposition to the good guys).

The major characters will often be clearly changed or have learned something by this point. This is the time to highlight that.

The most important thing here is that the story feels resolved. Finished. The world and characters may go on, but the story is done and they’re moving past it.


We talked through some different ways you can delineate the three parts in some particular stories, including The Martian, The Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter series, as well as Freya’s own Felix the Cat story from last week’s class.

There aren’t hard-and-fast definitions for splitting up stories, so it’s up to each reader’s own interpretation where the transition from beginning to middle or middle to end occurs.


Freya also asked about series such as books in a trilogy (or septology or whatever-logy) and episodes in a TV show.

Typically, each piece of the whole should have a beginning, middle and end, and work at least somewhat on its own. However, there may be larger arcs that span all the books, or a whole season, or only a few episodes. These larger arcs will also have their own beginning, middle and end.

On the other hand, some series, especially comedies, rely on a basic premise that remains the same. Each episode contains a beginning, middle and end. The characters resolve a problem and everything returns to baseline “normal,” ready for next week’s episode.

There are other, stranger ways that series can be handled, but I think this covers the majority. Maybe in a future class we’ll go into other, more unusual styles.


The homework for next class was to write another short 1-2 page story, thinking specifically about the beginning, middle and end, and what happens in each.

Storytelling Class — Turning Ideas Into Stories

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 how to turn ideas into stories.

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

What Did We Read?

This week I read the graphic novel version of Dream Hunters and my usual blogs. I’m continuing to read The Lord of the Rings to the kids. The day has now been saved, and we just have to get through the final 100 pages of endings.

I picked up Dream Hunters from the library. I like anything by Gaiman, and although I read the original Dream Hunters illustrated story, that was years ago and I remembered almost nothing about it. This full-on graphic novel version was a great story with excellent art.

Freya was in the middle of rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in her free time, and The One and Only Ivan at school. We talked about an exciting part of Ivan, and how she likes action sequences more than lots of dialogue.

What Did We Write?

I wrote my usual blog posts, Razor Mountain chapter 6, and my “homework” short story for this class.

Freya wrote things for school, and her homework story for this class.

Last Week’s Homework

Our homework was to complete a story of two pages or less, as practice for finishing stories.

I wrote a drabble version of my microfiction story “No More Kings.” I like how drabbles force you to cut to the essence of a story (and usually force you to cut more than feels comfortable). But unlike microfiction, they actually feel like a complete tiny story that doesn’t require a gimmick to work.

Freya wrote a two-page story called Felix the Cat Goes to School. This has nothing to do with the cartoon character—it’s actually about a green-furred cat named after her little brother. (His favorite color is green.)

Turning Ideas Into Stories

Our main topic was discussing ways to turn ideas into full stories.

As an example of building up ideas into a story, I talked about a story I’m working on that’s still missing some pieces (like a clear ending). It started as a detective story in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, in a world where magic exists. Eventually, it transformed into something closer to a steampunk James-Bond-with-magic spy drama. It also expanded from something short story length into something novel-length. As I built up this story idea, I had to add in a magic system, a setting, and a background and personality for my main character. Each of these things changed what the story wanted to be.

1. Idea Journal and Brainstorming

I’m a big believer in having a writing journal. A place to keep story ideas is one of the most useful tools a writer can have. Sometimes the muse gifts us with ideas, and this journal gives us a safe place to keep them. However, it can also be useful to dedicate some writing time specifically to brainstorming story ideas.

I showed Freya my idea journal. I used to keep an actual, physical journal, but I switched to a OneNote journal that I can sync between my phone (for ideas on the go) and my computer (for writing time).

We also discussed brainstorming time. This doesn’t have to be time spent hunched over keyboard or journal. It can just as well be a walk in the woods or whatever other environment helps you think creatively, as long as it’s free from distractions.

2. Build Idea Combos

Cory Doctorow talks about story ideas coming out of a “super-saturated solution” of things that catch your interest. You can also think of ideas as the bits of dust in space that accrete into planets and stars. The basic idea behind these metaphors is that one idea—a character, setting, situation, etc. is usually not enough to sustain a story. Instead, each story is a mixture or combination of interesting ideas.

3. Fill In Missing Pieces

Most stories need a specific set of components: characters, setting, a source of tension, and so on. Sometimes fleshing out a story idea is a Mad-Libs-esque exercise in determining the “blanks” and filling them in.

This doesn’t have to be a hard commitment. It can be an experiment. If you know you need a setting to make the idea work, you can pick one you’re not sure about and try it out. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

4. Prompts, Challenges, and Games

Another way to expand your ideas is to mix and mingle them with outside influences. These might be writing prompts or challenges, or games/tools like Story Engine.

Next Week’s Homework

In keeping with the theme, we decided that next week’s homework will be to come up with ten story ideas. These don’t have to be fully fleshed out; they might be a single character or some other piece of a story. We can then talk about what other pieces it needs to become a functional story.

The past two class topics have come from Freya’s questions and thoughts in the previous class. This time, she had no strong opinions on what the next topic should be.

Luckily, I had a list of potential topics for us to consult. After some discussion, we decided that next week’s topic will be beginnings, middles, and ends.

Storytelling Class — Finishing Stories

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. In our first class, I asked her if she had any topics she wanted to cover. She said, she sometimes has trouble finishing stories, something that I think many of us can relate to. So this week, our topic was how to finish stories.

The Two Questions

Each class, I start with two questions: what did we read, and what did we write? Then we talk about how we felt about those things, and if we learned anything.

What Did We Read?

Freya has been reading a lot. She’s re-reading the Bone graphic novels and Harry Potter (currently on The Order of the Phoenix). At school, they’re reading The One and Only Ivan.

I had just finished The Martian. I’ve also been reading the ongoing bloggy adventures of Ela the Expert and Grace. I’m also in the midst of reading The Lord of the Rings to the kids. We just finished the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

I explained that I really appreciated the Martian as a great example of the try/fail cycle in action. Freya had a hard time thinking of specific things that she liked about the stories she had read. I suggested that when she reads, she occasionally try to think about what she likes or dislikes about what she’s reading. As a writer, this is a great way to learn from what you’re reading, and pick up new ideas and techniques.

What Did We Write?

Freya wrote about The One and Only Ivan in her writing journal at school. I wrote a chapter of Razor Mountain. In keeping with the theme of this week’s class, I’d been procrastinating getting that chapter done.

I also wrote four or five blog posts, including a reblog of Cory Doctorow’s “The Memex Method.” We talked about his idea that a blog can serve as an idea incubator, growing those ideas until they’re ready to be stories.

Freya said she often has fun ideas, but isn’t sure how to make them into a story. We talked briefly about saving those ideas in a file or journal, and how sometimes the key is to combine a couple different interesting ideas into a story. Turning ideas into stories is a big thing, so we decided this would be a good topic for a future class.

Finishing Stories

On to the main topic: what are some ways to finish stories when we’re having a hard time?

1. Write Shorter Things

As a general rule of thumb, the shorter the story, the less time and effort it takes to write. It’s harder to finish a novel than it is to finish a short story. That doesn’t mean that writing a short story is easy. It just means that if you want to try to finish more things, a good strategy is to write shorter stories.

2. Have a Plan

We talked a little about outlining vs. exploratory writing, and G.R.R.M.’s categorization of writers as gardeners and architects. I’m more of an architect, and Freya is more of a gardener. Either way, we all sometimes get stuck in the middle of a story because we don’t know what happens next. It can help to have some sort of plan. It doesn’t have to be a full outline. It may just be knowing the beginning and ending of the story, or knowing a handful of stepping-stones we want to land on.

3. Make a Schedule

A lot of writers are procrastinators. As the famous phrase goes, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” Sometimes what you really need is a reason to put butt in chair and pen in hand. Personally, I often find that the biggest effort of a writing session is to get myself to write the first sentence. As soon as I start, I remember what I love about the story, and the words flow.

One of the reasons I love having a blog is that it makes me write on a regular basis. If I want to post something every Monday and Friday, then I have to sit down and write something at least a couple times per week. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m working on other projects, but at least I’m writing.

4. Switch Back and Forth

Sometimes we just need variety in our lives. While there are a few authors who are content to write book after book in the same world, with the same characters, most authors I know have so many varied ideas that they’d like to explore that they’ll never have enough time to work on them all.

It can be incredibly refreshing to take a break from a project that you’re struggling on to work on something fresh and new. One of the oddities of human brains is that they’ll often solve problems in the background, when the conscious mind is focused on something else.

This is another great thing about having a blog. If I’m having a rough time working on a novel or story, I can always take a break to write something for the blog. I can switch from fiction to non-fiction, or from one story to another.

Of course, if you’re switching between things, you need to make sure you’re coming back to them. It’s not a helpful technique if you start ten things and finish none of them. Then you’re just telling yourself you’re taking a break, when you’re really serially abandoning writing projects.

5. Be Accountable to Someone

I’ll be honest. My ambitions are usually far bigger than my work ethic. I’d love to finish that novel, but dang it, there’s another Steam sale and I’ve gone and bought five new video games for $3 each. For a lot of us, our own internal motivations don’t always get the job done. Being accountable to something or someone beyond just ourselves can give us that motivating boost we need.

This is yet another place where having a blog helps me. If I know I have readers, it makes me want to keep writing for them. Even if, realistically, nobody is going to be terribly disappointed if I miss a week of posts, I still feel a little bit like I’m letting someone down.

A writing partner, writing group or class can also be a great motivator. Schedule a regular time with a helpful reader to go over new work, and you’ll suddenly be far more reluctant to show up with no new words in hand.

6. Set it Aside

This may not sound like a great way to finish things, but it can be, occasionally. Sometimes you start writing a story and it’s just…missing something. No amount of brainstorming or reworking seems to fix it. In that case, it may just be that you’re not ready to write that story. Maybe it’s missing some crucial idea that will pull everything together, and you haven’t thought of it yet.

If a story just isn’t working, you may need to set it aside. Again, your subconscious can keep struggling with that problem while your conscious does something else. The key is to keep coming back periodically. Re-read it every once in a while. Look through your idea journal and see if there’s something there that breathes new life into that old story. Eventually, inspiration may strike. If not, you’ve hopefully been more productive writing something else.

7. Check for Something Missing

Many stories don’t work because they’re missing something structurally. Make sure you have at least a main character who has a problem or wants something. A character without a goal is rarely interesting, and a goal without complications or road-blocks usually doesn’t make a very good story either.  There has to be a source of conflict or tension.

I told Freya a little bit about chapter five of Razor Mountain, and how it wasn’t very interesting until I added some conflict between God-Speaker and other members of the tribe. We also talked about the characters in the Harry Potter series, and how each of them has their own goals and challenges, even though Harry vs. Voldemort is the central conflict of the series.


First, we have the standard weekly homework: we need to be ready to answer the two questions, what did we read, and what did we write? How did we feel about it and what did we learn?

Second, we’re going to finish a story! Each of us will write a story two pages or less. This will help us practice some of the techniques we talked about: writing shorter things, making a schedule, and being accountable.

Next week, following Freya’s suggestion, we’ll look at ways of turning ideas into stories.