What Is a Non-Linear Narrative and How Do You Write One?

A nonlinear narrative in storytelling can be the key to helping you discover the past and present of characters as well as having your spec stand out. But how? 

Telling a story that's a straight line is hard enough, but how can you tell a story whose time frame jumps around? How can you keep an audience on track, flesh out the beats, and even track the theme? 

We call these kinds of screenplays nonlinear, and they exist in both movies and television. 

Today we're going to go over nonlinear storytelling. We'll look at examples, the definition, and talk about using them in a writing strategy moving forward. 

As tempted as I am to present this information out of order...I won't. 

Let's dive in. 

What is a Nonlinear Narrative?

Nonlinear Narrative Definition 

This is a narrative technique where events are portrayed out of chronological order or the logical order presented in the story. The pattern of events needs to jump around and not follow a linear pattern. 

A nonlinear narrative can also be known as a disjointed narrative or disrupted narrative.

Why use a nonlinear pattern? 

Most of the time, I don't come to a nonlinear pattern right away. Usually, I outline or use a beat sheet to break my stories. If I feel like we aren't getting enough character development or that the story feels stale, I try to shake it up and bounce scenes around. 

There are other times where I seek this format out. 

Sometimes I want to write something slick. Maybe something that jumps in time, has cutaways, and maybe even mixes all of these things. 

Nonlinear stories are also great ways to get noticed, They can be their own hooks. Stories told in reverse. Divergent points of view juxtaposed against one another. 

These are all buzz words. Let's look at some film and TV shows that use nonlinear storytelling to their advantage. 

Nonlinear Narrative Examples 

In TV 

Television is probably the best medium for these kinds of stories because you can use entire episodes for flashbacks, have quick cutaway jokes, and bounce around season to season. 

One of the greatest TV shows to ever use this kind of narrative was Lost. It features flashforwards, back, sideways, and even through dimensions  

The show was so groundbreaking because it brought nonlinear storytelling into primetime. It used this storytelling to trick the audience into believing things about characters and then subverting those expectations by jumping in time. 

Recently, This is Us has used the same strategy to do the same thing. 

The show bounces back and forth in time in a more traditional sense than Lost, but it also unexpectedly jumps time. We get deaths, births, and adoptions all at a fever pace. And all with brilliant transitions out of a normal narrative.  

Family Guy takes up the mantle of nonlinear storytelling in the comedy space. 

It's primary narrative and joke device is the cutaway. This takes us out of the character's timeline to deliver punchlines. 

It made the show iconic. 

In Film 

Movies can be tricky when it comes to nonlinear storytelling. 

A film screenplay has only 90-120 pages to get it right. So, you want to make sure your story really sells itself. You want to take chances, but you also want to get things right. 

Movies like Out of Sight split the narrative between two protagonists and jumps in time in both their stories. We cut back to the prison to show information and cut forward and behind in-between those scenes to tell the narrative throughline. 

It feels slick, like a heist movie, and is a different riff on these kinds of love stories. 

One of the most famous movies of all time, The Godfather Part II, uses this form. We begin the movie seeing Vito emigrating. But we jump back to Michael's storyline and then back to Vito as he grows up and becomes the Godfather. 

The movie bends time to its advantage, creating a sprawling father and son tale juxtaposed against one another. 

Lastly, a movie like Memento is pitched and sold on its nonlinear storytelling.

It's a movie that goes backward AND flashes sideways to the story of Sammy Jenkins. 

It put the Nolan brothers on the map and became a calling card for the duo. It certified them as visionaries and built a commercially viable edition of nonlinear narratives. 

Nonlinear Writing Tips 

If you want to write your own nonlinear stories, there are three things to remember: 

1. Keep Your Story Organized 

You want the audience to understand what the main part of the story is and what parts are where. If you're not utilizing flashbacks, but are instead jumping through space and time, like Tree of Life, you need to organize that stuff too. 

This should happen in the outlining phase. 

2. Clearly Define Jumps on the Page 

It's not enough to only use INT and EXT. You need to clearly mark flashbacks, time jumps, and when/where we are. Even in cutaways. Study as many professional screenplays as you can. See how the greats do it. 

I like to clearly mark my flashbacks before the slugline. 

So it might look like....

FLASHBACK: INT. NO FILM SCHOOL - NIGHT 

But there are other ways to do it too. 

Just make sure the reader knows. Otherwise, life gets confusing. 

3. Link the Narratives Thematically 

This is more of a suggestion than a mandate. You want the stories or scenes to really work off one another. If they both are written with the same theme then the story won't feel like the nonlinear elements don't fit. 

Congruency in screenwriting is so important. 

Make sure every scene works well together. What are you trying to say in each? Are they connected enough to resonate or do they feel like two or more non-connected stories? 

I can't wait to read what you write. 

'Memento' (2000)

What's next? Learn all about Film and TV Genres

Film and TV genres affect who watches your work, how it's classified, and even how it's reviewed. So how do you decide what you're writing? And which genres to mash-up? The secret is in the tropes.  

Click to learn.      

Your Comment

2 Comments

This is quite a disappointing article. More time is given to the introduction and mentioning examples than the actual advice and method listed in the last third of the post. And even the advice/techniques are very short and dont offer anything deeper than the superficial. It reads more like someone had to get an article out before 5pm and it was 4.30pm, an article for article sake. I've been reading more and more articles by individuals, students and people who have their own websites that are so much better and more detailed than these posts. I read an article on character wounds written by some guy and posted on a film making fb group. It outlined and defined the character wound, then applied the knowledge to the film Logan, it then broke down the whole story and rebuilt it using the character wound topic and showed how this works for the whole of the film. It then discussed in detail how this idea can be carried over and adopted into your own script. A very detailed article by someone not getting paid. No film school should work on creating articles that are alot deeper. Most people who subscribe and read the articles are filmmakers , so the detail and knowledge needs to reflect that.

October 29, 2019 at 5:02PM, Edited October 29, 5:02PM

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Interesting that Guillermo Arriaga is not mentioned here...

October 31, 2019 at 12:01PM

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Miguel Lozano
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