How to Get the Best Out of a Nonlinear Narrative
The nonlinear narrative is a common feature of contemporary movies (and TV as well).
It has become such a familiar screenwriting quirk it often verges on the edge of a trope. This familiarity obscures how thrilling and dynamic a nonlinear narrative can be.
‘Nonlinear narrative: a narrative where events are portrayed out of chronological order or in other ways where the narrative does not follow the direct causality pattern of the events featured.’
A nonlinear narrative will typically jump around in time. It will take the subject at hand as a whole and put together pieces to tell an overall story.
Nonlinear narratives can be used to tell a wider version of the story at hand. For example, a nonlinear narrative will not just tell the chronological story of one romance but instead tell a story on the theme of romance.
A nonlinear narrative can often be used to speak more generally on a theme. Rather than just focusing on the facts of what happened in a story, it will focus on the why and how of that story.
But how does one avoid using a nonlinear narrative in a way that feels overused? Or to put it another way, how does a screenwriter get the best out of a non linear narrative?
Why Use a Nonlinear Narrative?
Answering this question is essential to giving your use of a nonlinear narrative purpose.
It will help you avoid using a nonlinear narrative for purely superficial reasons. Audiences can often tell when this is the case, particularly when the structure has become such a widely used storytelling technique.
Make sure your use of a nonlinear narrative is inherently tied to the purpose of your story. Moreover, make sure the use of a nonlinear narrative is tied into your story’s theme. This is a surefire way to protect your nonlinear narrative structure.
If telling the story without it means you will be missing a core theme, then you know your nonlinear structure is essential to your screenplay.
It’s also worth noting, however, that a nonlinear narrative can be used stylistically. This style will speak to the tone and feel of the movie at hand.
- For example, a nonlinear narrative could be used to amp up tension in a thriller.
- Or it could be used to disorientate audiences in a mystery.
So a nonlinear narrative can serve a stylistic function. But this is still not an affectation, it is inextricably linked to the purpose and definition of the screenplay.
To help illustrate the best ways to use a nonlinear narrative, we’re going to take a look at nonlinear narratives around four different themes – Romance is Dead, Haunted by the Past, Stronger Together and Styling it Out.
We’ll take a look at the films that fall under these umbrellas and how they use nonlinear narratives in different ways.
This isn’t the only ways that nonlinear narratives are used, but they are some of the most common examples.
1. Romance is Dead
Films focused around relationships often employ a nonlinear narrative. They may do this for a wide variety of different reasons.
Particularly in contemporary cinema, it feels not enough to just tell a straightforward love story. The audience except a twist on this traditional narrative.
Let’s look at how a number of different examples do this in a number of different ways.
The End is Nigh – Blue Valentine
Blue Valentine uses a nonlinear narrative primarily to show the contrast in the beginning of a relationship and the end.
There is a tragedy in this that makes the film powerful. We see the hope in the dawn of the two characters’ relationship and the roadblock they’ve reached later on. Youthful hope and energy clashes with later life regret.
- Dean struggles with alcoholism. Whilst Cindy can’t help but mourn for a life she thought she would have but doesn’t.
- There is a poignancy to this, making the story more than one just of a romantic relationship but one about ageing, regret, lost ambition and paying the price for youthful naivety.
But in flashing back and forward we also see the things about the relationship that cause it to unravel. Blue Valentine uses a nonlinear narrative to take a forensic look at one relationship. In doing so it presents a full view of this relationship but also touches on wider, relatable themes.
Love is Doomed – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Not only does Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind contrast the beginning and end of a relationship, it also employs science fiction to say something deeper about the fate of a relationship between two characters both destined to be together and destined to break apart.
Clementine and Joel seek to wipe each other from their memories, literally.
- But in doing so there is a morsel of memory that remains in their brains. This morsel brings them back together to meet once again.
- But they realise the truth of their meeting and find themselves facing the reality that even if they get together again they will break up again.
- There is something inherent in their personalities that will always doom the prospect of a long and happy relationship.
‘You will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me’
The nonlinear narrative here is ingenious in how it presents a view of how memory works. Indeed, the narrative reflects the process of memory more than it does a straightforward narrative arc.
We’re often disorientated watching this film (particularly at the start), struggling to place where we are in the relationship. But this touches on the nature of memory. The futility of trying to erase memories shows how they both trap us and serve us.
Expectations vs Realties – Annie Hall/500 Days of Summer
In Annie Hall, the relationship Woody Allen’s Alvy has with the titular Annie Hall is presented as summing up so much of Alvy’s personality.
- The relationship is a reflection of Alvy’s characteristics at their best and worst. It’s a place at which all his neurosis comes out and affect this relationship.
In 500 Days of Summer, Tom’s relationship with Summer is presented as more than just a meet, relationship and breakup, it’s presented as a whole period of time in his life.
- The 500 days represent the time in which Tom was preoccupied with Summer, from meeting her to meeting someone else (symbolically called Autumn).
Both these films employ nonlinear narratives to illustrate how relationships can reflect a crucial time in a character’s life.
- We wouldn’t get as much of a sense of both these protagonists if their relationships were presented merely from start to finish.
- Instead, the relationships are presented in context. This gives us both richer protagonists and more meaningful commentary on the nature of romantic relationships.
2. Haunted by the Past
Nonlinear narratives are also often employed to tell a whole picture of a character’s life. They do this by juxtaposing the past and present, showing how the former affects the latter.
Solving a Mystery – Citizen Kane/Memento
Citizen Kane employs a nonlinear narrative to present the life of Charles Foster Kane as somewhat of a puzzle to piece together.
- The film starts with Kane uttering ‘Rosebud’ on his death bed.
- A reporter, Jerry Thompson, is then tasked with figuring out what this might mean. He conducts a series of interviews to learn about Kane’s life.
- We don’t just see these interviews, we see their content come to life.
In piecing together the past, we seek to understand what ‘Rosebud’ really means and who this man we are seeing dying, really was.
It’s a picture of a powerful man told through intimate looks at his life. In knowing where the story will end, we desperately want to know what led to this point.
- Memento has to be told through the structure of a nonlinear narrative. This is the structure of the protagonist’s mind as someone battling amnesia.
- It’s not just us seeking to solve the mystery, it’s the protagonist.
- The use of a nonlinear narrative in this way makes the mystery all the more tantalising and rewarding, whilst keeping the action at an exciting and dynamic pace.
We’ve Come so Far – Once Upon a Time in America
Once Upon a Time in America is an example of a film that had to wrestle with its use of a nonlinear narrative.
Sergio Leone originally constructed the narrative in a nonlinear way, only to have it recut by the studio, who were concerned by its length. Different re-editions and releases of the film kept its original nonlinear structure.
- Once Upon a Time in America is a perfect example of a kind of nonlinear narrative that treats the past and present as two distinct time periods, with the latter reflecting on the former.
- Gangster David Aaronson (played by Robert De Niro) returns to Manhattan, thirty years after fleeing it. He must look to the past in order to understand where his future lies.
The two existing versions of the film, nonlinear and linear, show the virtues of a nonlinear narrative perfectly. So much is added by having the story told in a nonlinear format.
Nostalgia is an additional theme touched on by having David triggered into remembering his past. There is a poetry in this that is lost by having the story evolve in a linear way.
3. Stronger Together
Another kind of nonlinear narrative is one that weaves together a number of different stories around a singular theme.
Sometimes these stories will interconnect, sometimes they won’t. On their own they tell one story. But together they tell a wider story.
A Link in the Chain – Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Death Trilogy’
Alejandro González Iñárritu exemplifies the use of this kind of nonlinear narrative in his ‘Death Trilogy’ (Amores Perros/21 Grams/Babel). All three films employ a nonlinear narrative in a slightly different way.
Amores Perros tells the story of three different characters linked by one car crash.
- This car crash is the only thing that links them together and it does so very briefly.
- The different characters’ stories speaks to an important theme, the patchwork of people of different socio-economic standings in Mexico City.
- This nonlinear narrative utilises the best the form has to offer – raising tension, creating a mystery the audience want to solve and varying the scope of the characters on show.
Of the three films, it’s Babel that is the loosest in terms of its nonlinear narrative. Iñárritu pushes the boundaries of what a nonlinear narrative can look like.
The different stories take place on different continents, in different languages, and only briefly, if ever, meet.
But the film consequently touches on some profound themes. Much more so than it could if the narrative was told in a more straightforward or expected way.
- In presenting characters so far apart in every sense, but still maintaining they are connected, the film suggests the world’s interconnectedness.
- Small moments have large effects and in turn, the film provokes the audience to interrogate how their actions effect others in the globalised world we live in.
Circling Around – Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction demonstrates one of the most well-known and well-loved examples of a nonlinear narrative. There are three different stories unfolding, all interrelated.
As well as nonlinear, the structure can be defined as a ‘circular narrative’.
- This is because the film starts and ends in the same place, with the same characters.
- What happens in between is often hard to piece together and make relevant, with only small clues linking it all together.
One of the reasons Pulp Fiction‘s nonlinear narrative is so beloved is because its meaning is hard to pin down.
- All stories revolve around crime and redemption. But these are loose themes.
- How rich and entertaining the stories are is what makes the themes that unite them both less relevant and more desirable to know.
Pulp Fiction shows how much fun can be had with a nonlinear narrative. It has a purpose and it would be missing the point to suggest otherwise. It’s not just stylistic, it has something to say.
But its purpose is elusive and lost primarily to how engaging the actual story is. To tell Pulp Fiction chronologically would be to lose its beguiling elusiveness, sense of mystery and its musings on the nuances within a life of crime.
4. Styling it Out
Whilst their use of nonlinear narratives do have a thematic purpose, there are some films which make a nonlinear narrative a key part of their style and tone. The nonlinear narrative is still crucial to the story. But it’s executed in a way that puts style at the forefront.
In Run Lola Run, the protagonist, Lola, is given multiple attempts to write a narrative. When things continually go wrong for her, we see her start the sequence of events again. She is given the chance to have another go.
- In a sense this is a linear narrative. Trying to get the story from A to B.
- But in continually restarting and doing things differently each time, the narrative becomes nonlinear.
The use of a nonlinear narrative here is a clever way of raising the tension. It plays on the theme of free will vs. determinism and takes the film from being a simple thriller, to something altogether more philosophical and profound.
Furthermore, it demonstrates how a nonlinear narrative can add to a genre piece. Style is at the forefront of the film, but within this style is elevation of the genre’s potential.
A similar dynamic is at work in the two Kill Bill films.
- The narrative jumps back and forth in time continually.
- It’s a way of spreading out the action. But it also keeps the mystery as to who the protagonist, The Bride, is and what she wants revenge for.
The films could still exist in a linear way. And they would still be great. But telling the story via a nonlinear narrative only heightens the film’s dynamism. It’s a stylish film made all the more stylish by its structure.
Getting the best out of a nonlinear narrative means focusing in on the why. Why use such a screenplay structure? And why for this particular story?
Nonlinear narratives have the potential to make your script touch on themes larger than the genre to which it belongs.
Whether it be a romance, thriller or meditative drama – using a nonlinear narrative can open your script up. Not only will it make the audience cry, laugh or perspire with tension, it can touch on themes larger than the characters within it.
How it can do this means connecting it to the root of your story. Challenge yourself as a writer to think beyond the basic elements of plot, character and theme. By connecting the dots in a different way, what can you touch on?
It’s a familiar aspect of contemporary cinema. But its power comes from its malleability. Nonlinear can mean lots of different things to different stories.
Make sure your nonlinear narrative is innately connected to the purpose of your story, and it could be the thing that sets your script apart, makes it fly and gives you strength as a writer.