Meet the Reader: Linear Equations – Non-Linear vs Linear Narrative

Over the course of the last decade or so, screenwriters both professional and aspiring have become increasingly fond of telling their stories in non-linear fashion:

  • linear-narrativeUsing an excessive amount of flashbacks and asides.
  • Employing mosaic construction (telling a story in fragments that jump around from one point in time to another rather than in a straight line).
  • Starting the story in the middle, jumping back to the beginning, advancing back to the middle, and then proceeding on to the end.

What’s the reason for this trend? I don’t know exactly – I imagine it originally started because a few screenwriters were tired of traditional linear storytelling and went looking for ways to shake things up. When a few of those scripts (Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects especially) hit, other screenwriters (perhaps because they were inspired, perhaps because they just wanted to jump on the bandwagon) began imitating them and it’s gone on from there to the point where it’s now become something of an epidemic. I think it’s safe to say that at least 75% of the scripts that I read these days are told using a non-linear structure. It’s reached the point where I sometimes wonder if anyone even knows how to tell a linear story any more.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, then you know that I find this to be a problematic development (I complain about it a lot). I feel this way for a few reasons:

1. Movies are inherently linear:

  • The physical medium itself is linear: movies unfold consecutively — one frame at a time, one right after the other from start to finish — without digression or diversion.
  • Movie storytelling is dramatic storytelling and dramatic storytelling is also inherently linear – it presents a series of events that build upon each other with increasing intensity until they reach a climactic moment of catharsis.

Therefore, I feel that a linear approach to storytelling is the most logical and natural one for a film to take.

2. Dramatic stories (and therefore screen stories) require focus. Effective dramatic build requires that all of the elements in a tale be extrapolated from the same core, reflect the same theme and push determinedly in the same direction (toward the climax). The energy of a dramatic story comes from the intensity and momentum of that push and a linear approach is the most direct and effective way of generating that intensity and momentum.

3. Dramatic stories (and therefore screen stories) require clarity. Effective dramatic build results from a very clear and understandable cause-and-effect — A leads to B; B leads to C; C leads to D; and so on until the climax is finally reached — because if we can’t understand the connection between a story’s events, then we won’t be able to follow the build and the catharsis will be ruined. Cause-and-effect is an inherently linear concept and so obviously a linear approach to storytelling is the simplest and most direct way to achieve and maintain it clearly.

When screen stories are told in non-linear fashion, they often compromise one or more of these factors:

  • Constantly jumping around in time or constantly interrupting the primary narrative to accommodate flashbacks or asides this disrupts the story’s dramatic build and therefore makes it much harder to reach an effective catharsis.
  • A non-linear structure also has the potential to muddy the story’s cause-and-effect, which will mute the impact of that catharsis.
  • Also, if a story is constantly jumping around in time, it requires viewers to jump around with it – to constantly redirect their focus and attention. The result of this is that they end up putting the majority of their energy into comprehending how the story is being told rather than into comprehending the story itself.

So, am I saying that you should never tell a story in a non-linear way? No, not at all. What I am saying is that if you do choose to tell a story in such a fashion, you should:

  • Have a good reason for doing so.

I read a lot of scripts and most of the ones that I read that tell their stories in non- linear ways don’t work, mostly for the reasons described above – they interfere with the cause-and-effect, the build and momentum, and the catharsis and they prevent the audience from becoming fully involved in the story – but also because 99% of the time these complications are imposed upon the story rather spring organically from it.

To illustrate what I mean, consider Memento. The complicated, dual storyline (one told in chronological order and the other in reverse chronological order) that Christopher Nolan devised for his adaptation of his brother Jonathan’s story is a   perfect realization of the tale’s premise: a man seeks to discover who killed his wife by uncovering his own lost memories – he seeks to go forward in time by going backwards in time. In other words, the complicated structure grows organically out of the story itself and therefore strengthens, supports, and enhances that story.

In contrast, consider the complicated structure of this summer’s Man of Steel, in    which the story begins in one place, jumps forward thirty years, and then continues to jump back and forth to and from a variety of time periods as the film progresses. There is absolutely no organic reason for this straightforward narrative to be told in such a convoluted manner apart from it being fashionable. This is a terrible reason and it ultimately hurts the movie because we often see the consequences of the protagonist’s choice before we see the choice itself and so their impact is lessened significantly and sometimes completely.

So if you choose to tell a story with a non-linear structure, make sure that structure grows out of and serves the story rather than do so just because it’s trendy or seems cool. In other words, make sure that form follows function and  not the other way around.

  • Know that non-linear structures take an enormous amount of skill to execute correctly. A lot of aspiring writers attempt to tell stories in non-linear  ways before they have learned how to properly tell them in a straightforward manner and the results are usually pretty dire – convoluted messes that are hard to follow and ultimately don’t make any sense. As with everything, you need to learn the rules before you can break them.
  • Know that, no matter how well executed, telling a story in a non-linear way is inevitably going to put some distance between the audience and the story and characters. There’s no way it can’t – perceiving a story through a complicated structure is like looking at loved one through a pane of glass. The view is the same, but it makes it much harder to touch. This is not necessarily a reason not to employ a complicated storytelling structure (after all, the pleasures of the intellectual puzzle that is The Usual Suspects are arguably worth the rather distant relationship we have with its characters) and if a non-linear approach can enhance your story, go for it. Just know it’s going to cost you something and be sure that it’s worth it.

Finally, I think one of the main reasons I’m so iffy about scripts that take a non-linear approach to their storytelling is that when I read them I can often tell that more thought and effort has gone into the non-linear structure than has gone into the story itself and so the end result is like having an elaborate bun with no hamburger inside. It doesn’t matter how clever your story structure is if the story itself isn’t very interesting. So my advice is screenwriters is to put all of your energy into telling a really good story. If that subject matter organically calls for a non-linear approach, then use it. But if it doesn’t, then don’t. Don’t worry about being too  “conventional” or “old-fashioned” – if your story engages the reader and the viewer, if it gives them someone to care about and root for, and presents them with a climax that moves them, then that’s all that matters.

Shameless Plug: Check out my new book — A Quick Guide to Screenwriting. It’s a quick, easy-to-read primer on the nuts and bolts of the craft that will provide you with a simple, understandable introduction to the core concepts of dramatic writing and their application to the screenwriting process; a summary of the important principles of writing for the screen, and some handy advice about the art, the craft, and the business of creating scripts for the movies. The book is published by Limelight Editions and is available at Amazon.comBarnes & Noble.com and in bookstores.

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One thought on “Meet the Reader: Linear Equations – Non-Linear vs Linear Narrative

  1. Dennis SinnedDamonNomad

    Ray,

    Been following you for years. Mucho respect for your insights and sagacity. I’d like to add something to your borrowed metaphors of Physics.

    First, I agree with your article in fact and in principle. I feel that writing — it’s forms, it’s narratives, it’s internal mechanisms — must conform to the physical principles governing the universe. As we live in a linear universe, we are most comfortable engaging stories with this very same linearity –and in fact we can’t escape the physics of it.

    Second, I concur that in a narrow band, non-linear stories are necessitated by the theme and structure of plot and characters. And one always risks alienating the audience doing this. I’ve taken this risk — and I hope it pays off.

    Where I would like to add something lies in the very “Physics” of narrative. Linearity is a result of Entropy — the direction of time, chiefly time moves in one direction only in the universe we live in. Stories, by definition, must conform to this principle, even if the narrative jumps around in time. A story must have a beginning, middle, and end. This structure speaks of Time, of linearity. (Won’t get into the finer points of time-travel.)

    To further the analogy, and I’m not sure I am contradicting you here, a story must also conform to the unpredictabilities of Quantum Mechanics/Physics. In a nutshell, where I see so many writers fail lies in their scene executions. In the quantum world, we only see particles at their crest and at their nadir. In between, a particle acts as a wave, thus we can’t “see” it. In life, we generally don’t notice things until we witness it at its highest and at its lowest. But according to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, we can never know both the position and velocity of a particle b/c it acts as both a point-particle and a wave. Thus, where a particle next appears is impossible to accurately predict. Best we can do is estimate via probabilistic tools.

    What does this have to do with writing stories? Every scene should only be guess-able by the audience — but never accurately predicted. Thus, the beginning of a scene (and/or story itself) should be presented at the high or low point of that scene. It is the writer’s job to make sure the outcome is never as predicted by the audience. Hence, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle SHOULD BE applied (not that is has to be applied). If the writer injects the necessary Uncertainty Principle in every scene, the audience will always be kept on its feet. All the great tv dramas do this. All the great movies do this. All the great stories do this. (That’s not to frown upon guess-able payoffs.)

    So, I add this as a mirror to the astrophysics of linear vs non-linear. Where you laud — and rightfully so — the time-honored technique of sequential story-telling, I laud also the unpredictable quantum of story-telling demanded by the very same physics on your side of the coin — this article. (Hope I didn’t digress too much or confuse.)

    Thanks for this article. It was quite “timely.”

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