I was in the car telling my son that I wanted to watch the latest episode of How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM). He asked me what the show was about and I said, “Well, it’s really not appropriate for kids, but it does have a really interesting way of telling stories. They do it nonlinear.”
At which point he replied, “Mom, if you’re not going to tell me about the show, I really don’t care.”
So, since I formed a thought which I didn’t get to fully enthrall my 11-year-old with, I thought I’d take a minute to discuss nonlinear storytelling today (Do feel free to refrain from leaving, “Mom, I don’t care” comments; I’ve had enough of those for now, though I fear more are yet to come).
Nonlinear storytelling, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than telling a story from A to Z, and moving in a linear fashion down the alphabet, you tell the story in a fashion that’s nonlinear. You might start with point A, but then skip to point G, then return to point B, then move on to point Z, then go back to point D.
Why would anyone want to tell a story like that? Well, the most basic reason is to make the story more suspenseful and engaging. However, if you’re not adept at nonlinear storytelling, you can end up making a mess of a story.
HTGAWM (I call it Hot Gawm, sometimes), does a masterful job at nonlinear storytelling. They give you plot points from way later in the season and you watch, wondering how in the world the characters you’ve got are going to get to this later point. The show’s writers, I’m sure, spend time plotting and editing the show so the nonlinear storytelling gels to perfection.
As writers, the idea of having a story be more alluring and suspenseful holds some sway. But, nonlinear storytelling is not something to do simply to spice up your story, or “hook” the reader. If your story is so boring that it can only hook the reader by revealing something that happens 10 chapters later, consider starting your book with chapter 10 and jettisoning the other stuff. The point of nonlinear storytelling is to tell the story in the most compelling way possible. When you go for nonlinear storytelling, your story starts at the point you’re choosing to start it at, but it’s crucial that readers know more than a quick sentence-or-two slice of back story. They need fully developed scenes illustrating past actions. If that’s the case, then your story is ideal for nonlinear construction. When you tell a story in a nonlinear fashion, you’ll move around to really important details that happened earlier, or later in the story, and then move back to the present.
If done wrong, the reader can feel confused and/or disjointed. For example, author Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. It was an awesome novel, told in a nonlinear fashion (as the time traveler flits about time due to the affliction that forces him to hop to different time periods within his life; if you’ve never read it, think Quantum Leap, but the time traveler only leaps into his own life). In Niffenegger’s original iteration of the beloved book, she admitted that readers were confused by how she organized the book. She re-structured the book (still nonlinear) with date stamps to keep readers grounded in the time.
Nonlinear books should offer real scenes of value to the book, not just information that could be easily summarized. The flashback or flash forward should offer depth and understanding of the overall story and characters. If it’s just a simple rehashing of minor detail, it’s not worth a flashback or flash forward.
Some nonlinear tales jump around a lot, offering both jumps forward and backwards from the present timeline. Others focus mainly on backward jumps, offering layered, important information about relationships and plot points that can only be achieved by the flashbacks (or flash forwards).
In my book Life First, I use a few nonlinear scenes to flesh out Kelsey’s relationships with other characters — particularly Dr. Grant. Understanding this relationship is key to understanding what’s happening in the story. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t work by starting when Kelsey meets Dr. Grant. However, their first meetings, and how he becomes a part of her life are an integral part of her current story, so flashbacks worked best in presenting that. However, there were some flashback scenes I wrote that I didn’t use because I realized they weren’t needed. Their meat could be summed up in a line or two. The reader didn’t need that scene to fully understand the story.
It’s not uncommon in murder stories for people to start with a dead body (a flash forward) and then start telling the remainder of the story with the person alive and well. The reader is then supposed to wonder how the character ended up being murdered. That works if it’s done really well. If it’s not done well, it feels like a ploy. A ploy to get me to read something that couldn’t sustain its forward momentum without revealing the ending. And that shouldn’t be the case. If your flashes (either forward or backwards) start to feel forced or like you’re cheating, that’s a sign to just stick with your actual linear narrative. And it’s fine to move the start of your story forward. It may even be a good idea.
So, what are your thoughts on nonlinear storytelling? Do you like it? Have you done it? Have you ever read nonlinear stories that made you feel cheated or confused?
(As a side note, the first season of HTGAWM is on Netflix, and you can catch up on the current season on Hulu — they keep the most recent five episodes available free.)