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Linear Narrative

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English Literature

A narrative is, usually, a fictional or imaginary story that describes a series of events and actions that lead to a specific, planned conclusion. There are various types of narratives including Linear, Non-linear, Descriptive and Viewpoint. Linear narratives are perhaps the most commonly used narratives in novels and plays.

What is Linear Narrative?

A linear narrative tells a story in chronological order; that is, in the order in which events occur. For example:

  • Atticus got up

  • He went out

  • He met someone

  • They went to the courthouse

  • There was a mad dog, which he shot, etc.

Another example of linear narrative is 'boy-meets-girl, boy competes with another boy for girl's attention, boy wins girl's affections and they go off together'.

Or think of an adventure story: an innkeeper's son discovers a treasure map and sails off to an island to find it, along with some friends and treacherous pirates. After discovering the island (and rescuing its sole inhabitant) they find the treasure and sail home.

In each of these stories, the reader is told what happens in the order that it happens - in other words, the plot moves forward in a straight line.

  • Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones (1749)
  • Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice (1813)
  • Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1878)

Tom Jones and the Linear Narratives

Perhaps one of the earliest forms of the novel, Fielding's T om Jones, follows the comic adventures of the eponymous Tom Jones as he struggles to be united with his childhood sweetheart, Sophia.

The story follows a chronological, order from the moment Tom Jones (who is a foundling) is discovered at Squire Allworthy's house; the sequence of events is narrated in the following order:

  • Squire Allworthy discovers the foundling in his bed

  • The Squire, suspecting it is the child of one of his servants, adopts the boy

  • Tom and Sophia, daughter of Allworthy's neighbor Squire Western, grow up together and develop a relationship.

  • Tom is banished

  • Tom travels across half of England

  • Tom discovers his true parentage

  • Tom marries Sophie.

Pride and Prejudice and the Linear Narrative

Meanwhile, Pride & Prejudice follows the developing relationship between Elizabeth Bennett and Lord Darcy, despite their differences; both are guilty of harbouring pride and prejudice, which leads to misunderstandings. Other obstacles arise: a handsome captain called Wickham, a distant (and disreputable) acquaintance of Darcy's, meets Elizabeth and further prejudices her against Darcy. Wickham's true character is revealed after he elopes with Elizabeth's sister, Kitty. Darcy resolves the situation by persuading Wickham to marry Kitty and settles money on the young couple. Once the misunderstandings are cleared (and their own faults recognized), Elizabeth and Darcy marry.

Linear Narratives, Pride and Prejudice, Study Smarter

Anna Karenina and the Linear Narrative

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina leaves her older husband for a young officer and, ostracized by high society, ends her own life by throwing herself before a train.

The linear narrative is the most usual device in literary fiction/novels and for many films as well.

Film examples:

Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (2003 - )

The Incredibles (2004)

The main advantage of a linear narrative is clarity: the reader is easily able to follow the storyline and so can focus on the characters, their relationships and the description. However, it risks becoming monotonous and a writer may resort to devices such as flashbacks or switching the focus to another character in order to keep up the pace and engage the reader.

Definition: Flashback happens when the reader is transported to an earlier period in the story.

Non-Linear Narratives

A non-linear narrative is when the pattern of the story follows different directions: the events of the story are not told in chronological order. A common device is to use flashbacks, where the reader is transported back to an earlier period in the story. Another device is the frame narrative, where the story is told by more than one narrator.

A non-linear narrative is particularly useful for writers of experimental, mystery and suspense fiction because it allows the author to surprise the reader with new information and background and can, when well-handled, enrich the narrative. It is a popular device in films as well.

The main advantage of a non-linear narrative is the element of surprise and intrigue and it can also help to set the mood and tone of the work. If overdone, however, it can also lead to confusion for the reader and therefore requires a good grasp of the overall plot.

Examples of non-linear narratives:

  • Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) A newcomer to the Yorkshire moors asks his housekeeper to tell him the story of his moody neighbour Heathcliff; the housekeeper does so, and begins her story some 30 years earlier.
  • Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000) - is a story within a story with multiple narrators. The first narrator (Johnny Truant) discovers a manuscript in a vacant apartment. The manuscript is by the previous inhabitant Zampano and describes a documentary about a house that is bigger on the inside than on the outside. There are several different narrators including Johnny, Zampano, and members of the Navidson family who lived in the house; their narratives take the form of a report, transcripts, records and notes.

Omniscient narrative

The omniscient narrative is when the narrator has knowledge of every character and situation in the story. The narrator can describe what every character will say and do, rather than speaking through the eyes of one single character.

The narrative is told in the third person singular and can move from one character to another, revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings.

Note: Omniscient narration can be used with both linear and non-linear narratives.

The omniscient narrator is the most often used in fiction and allows the author a range of characters to draw on, enabling the reader to engage with a richer, broader world.

George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871)

Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett's Good Omens (1990)

George Eliot follows the lives of multiple characters in Middlemarch: Dorothea Brooke, who marries the outdated scholar Casaubon, Ladislaw (Casaubon's cousin), a rising politician and Dr Lydgate who marries shallow spoilt Rosamond Viney. Eliot narrates from the perspectives of these and the other characters populating the novel, allowing the reader a vivid experience of Victorian life in a provincial town.

Gaiman and Pratchett's comedy Good Omens follows the antics of demon Crowley and archangel Aziraphale as they attempt to prevent the End of the World from the Antichrist since they have become too comfortably attached to their lifestyles on Earth. The Antichrist, Adam Young, was accidentally swapped at birth and has no idea of his origins. The authors use omniscient narratives to describe the storyline of these characters and the many others inhabiting good omens.

Limited narrative (third person)

In Limited Narrative, the author focuses on one character alone: the viewpoint remains with that one character, and the reader sees the story through the eyes of that character.

This has its limitations in that the reader can only access the world of the story through one person - if the reader cannot engage with that character, they are unlikely to continue reading, so the burden lies with the author to make sure their character is as engaging as possible.

Because the limited narrative is only from the point of view of one character, this makes it very useful for mystery and detective novels, where not everything can be known until the mystery is solved at the end.

Agatha Christie's Death On The Nile (1937)

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm (1932)

  • In Death on the Nile, the perspective is from the point of view of private detective Hercule Poirot, who has to unravel the seemingly impossible murder of wealthy, unpopular heiress Linnet Ridgeway aboard a river cruise on the Nile. The reader is only allowed the information that Poirot has access to and can draw conclusions based only on what he discovers during his investigation.
  • Pride & Prejudice is told from the point of view of the main protagonist Elizabeth Bennett; her experiences and feelings are shared with the reader from her perspective - her deception by Captain Wickham is revealed only when she discovers the truth - not through an omniscient narrator, but because she hears the facts from Darcy's housekeeper.
  • Stella Gibbon's parody on the gothic and regional novel is told through the eyes of its main character, Flora Poste, as she undertakes to sort out her rustic relatives on a farm and drag them into the 20th century.

The Linear Narrative allows both author and reader to follow a clear direction from beginning to end of a story. It remains a popular narrative device in both literature and film.

Linear narratives - key takeaways

    • A linear narrative is a story in chronological order.

    • In a non-linear narrative the events of the story are not told chronologically.

    • The omniscient narrative is told in the third person singular and can move from one character or situation to another; it reveals the innermost thoughts and feelings of characters.

    • In a limited Narrative, the author focuses on one character alone and the reader sees the story through the eyes of that character.

    • The main advantage of a linear narrative is clarity.

    • The non-linear narrative is particularly useful for writers of experimental, mystery and suspense fiction.

Linear Narrative

A linear narrative tells a story in chronological order.

Examples include: The History of Tom Jones, Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina.

A non-linear narrative is when the pattern of the story does not go in chronological order. 

Linear, non-linear, omniscient and limited

Final Linear Narrative Quiz

Question

What is linear narrative? 

Show answer

Answer

A linear narrative tells a story in chronological order.

Show question

Question

What is an example of linear narrative?

Show answer

Answer

Examples include: The History of Tom Jones, Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina 

Show question

Question

What are four types of narrative?


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Answer

Linear, non-linear, omniscient and limited.

Show question

Question

What is a non-linear narrative?

Show answer

Answer

A non-linear narrative is when the pattern of the story follows different directions,

Show question

Question

Complete the following: 

In … Narrative, the author focuses on one character alone.

Show answer

Answer

In Limited Narrative, the author focuses on one 

character alone.

Show question

Question

Multiple choice (more than one answer may be correct):  Limited 

narrative is very useful for 

Show answer

Answer

action novels

Show question

Question

Complete the following: ... happens when the reader is transported to an earlier period in the story.

Show answer

Answer

Flashback happens when the reader is transported to an earlier period in the story.

Show question

Question

Give an example of omniscient narration.


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Answer

Middlemarch (George Eliot), 

Good Omens (Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett) etc.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: 

The … narrative is the most usual device used for literary fiction/novels and for many films as well.

Show answer

Answer

The linear narrative is the most usual device used for literary fiction/novels and for many films as well.

Show question

Question

The non-linear narrative is particularly useful for writers of …, mystery and … fiction.


Show answer

Answer

The non-linear narrative is particularly useful for writers of 

experimental, mystery and suspense fiction.

Show question

Question

Give some examples of Limited Narrative.

Show answer

Answer

Death On The Nile (Agatha Christie), 

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), 

Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons), etc.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte) is an example of ….


Show answer

Answer

Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte) is an example of Non-linear narrative.

Show question

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