10 Quick Tips About Writing Non Linear Stories

Non Linear Stories

My non linear novel, Never Have I Ever, is out this week. To celebrate, I thought I’d put non linearity under the microscope, since Bang2writers LOVE to write books and screenplays with this much misunderstood craft element. Ready? Then let’s go …

1) It’s all about story, not stylistics

If you want to write a non linear story because it’s ‘cool’, STOP. Does your story *need* to be non linear?? This is one of the questions I ask as a script editor … and 9/10, the answer is NO. Don’t think stylistics, but STORY here – concept and characters as well as structure. I call this The B2W Holy Trinity.

2) The story needs to benefit from its structure

If we are rejecting stylistics, this means the story needs to BENEFIT from being non linear. Examples …

  • In Never Have I Ever, my protagonist Sam receives notes from someone shady in her past. For this reason I contrast that past (1996) with ‘Today’. If the past had not happened, there would be no problem *now*.
  • In the movie Premonition, Linda receives the knowledge her husband will die in a car wreck at the end of that week … Easily sorted, she should just stop him going in the car, right? NOPE – she doesn’t know what part of the week she is in, so everything keeps changing.

In other words, if there is  no story without the non linearity, BOOM! You’ve nailed it.

3) Characters’ actions need to have a reason

Groundhog Day is the granddaddy of all non linear stories. In it, Phil has to live the same day, over and over. He cannot move forwards until he solves the issue of why this is happening to him and what this means. We see similar in modern movies like Happy Death Day and TV series like Russian Doll.

Everything the characters do in stories like these are the RESULT of the non linearity problem they find themselves in. The structure presents the problem or scenario. They have to get out of it, or die trying (often literally).

4) Think what’s gone before

Non linearity in  movies and television is no longer considered unusual or ground-breaking. There’s been lots of them, especially post 2000. A whole generation has grown up watching non linear properties and can follow very quickly. This is why it’s a great idea to see as many non linear movies or TV shows as possible.

Novels have always been much more ‘free’ in times of jumping around in time. That said, there are different genres and types of story that do non linearity more often. Work out which ones these are. Again, do your research!

5) Use an outline or similar

For the love all things holy, use an outline if you’re attempting non linearity in your story. Or bullet points. A story map. A treatment. WHATEVER YOU LIKE, just use one!!!

Me, I like to draw the story. HERE’S THE WORKSHEET I designed for this purpose. It’s free, download it now!

6) Know how linear structure works

Actually understand how LINEAR structure works is a must before attempting non linearity. Believe it or not, many writers just dive in regardless … Then end up drowning in what B2W calls The Story Swamp.

This is why I always recommend becoming an expert in structure. Studying it and working out how you see it working pays dividends. Here’s SOME INFO to get you started.

7) Count your story strands

Knowing the conventions of the medium you’re working in really helps. Sometimes, the genre or type of story will have certain expectations too. There’s a certain amount of ‘space’ for story in the time allotted. For example …

No clue what any of this means? Click the links above for case studies!!

8) Figure out what non linear really means to your story

Regardless of the amount of strands in your story, I’d wager there’s only 2 elements to non linearity …

‘Now’ versus ‘Then’ 

Obviously the above can mean whatever you like. But you need to decide upfront what they are. Decide on the rules of what your non linearity means.

9) Make sure you can follow

If we can’t follow our own stories, no one else will be able to either. If we have an ‘anchor’, then our target audiences will be able to understand too.

An easy way to do this is by coming up with a timeline. In Never Have I Ever, I set the events of ‘Now’ in an approx. three week period, August-Sept. In contrast, the 1996 events ran from January to July. Now I had my framework to work within, I could ensure I could follow and construct the plot accordingly. This means my readers can follow too.

Other frameworks may include something that ‘kicks off’ the story, that we return to as the story ‘resets’. An obvious example would be the alarm clock in Groundhog Day, or the bathroom in Russian Doll. 

Alternatively, we could use a framing device. These framing devices are placed around another story, like Bastian reading from the book in The Neverending Story. Alternatively, a framing device might be placed around flashbacks, like the Who Wants To Be A Millionnaire? game in Slumdog Millionnaire.

10) Prepare to go crazy

Your brain will explode at least once. Accept it. There will be times writing your non linear story that you will wish you had never started it … Even if you have done your research, drawn the story, made timelines, etc. Rest assured it is part of the process. Keep going! MORE: All About Plot Devices such as montage, dream sequence, intercut and more

Good Luck!

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3 thoughts on “10 Quick Tips About Writing Non Linear Stories

  1. Reply
    Steynes - December 16, 2019

    Good stuff. One minor comment: I myself wouldn’t designate ‘Groundhog Day’ as ‘grand-daddy of all non linear stories’. Non-linearality was well-established in Europe long before that. Something like, “Last Year at Marienbad” comes to mind, as a better example.

    1. Reply
      Lucy V Hay - December 16, 2019

      Yes of course it was, but you won’t find many British or American writers who have seen that (sadly). Also, the notion of living the same day over and over again is literally referred to as a ‘Groundhog Day story’ over here.

  2. Reply
    Winifred Cruz - December 19, 2019

    Non-Linear narrating is difficult. I’ve composed two books along these lines and let me let you know, it’s simpler to write in a straight manner. But… there are fantastic reasons you ought to write in a nonlinear manner. The main motivation, and the one that influenced me, was needing to arrive at a more extensive subject that applied to a few characters’ circumstances in the course of events rather than only one.

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