Non-linear Narrative

A non-linear narrative is a storytelling technique in which the chronological order of events is disrupted, meaning the story doesn't progress in a straight line from beginning to end. Instead, the narrative might jump back and forth in time, or it might start in the middle and then reveal earlier or later events through flashbacks or future speculation. This technique is often used to create suspense, build character depth, or reveal events from different perspectives. Read more to discover the advantages, examples, and purpose of this storytelling technique.

Non-linear Narrative Non-linear Narrative

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Contents
Table of contents

    Non-linear narrative: definition

    While a linear narrative describes the events of a story in the order that they occur, 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 as a result. A common device for doing this is to use flashbacks where the reader is transported back to an earlier (or later) period in the story. Other devices include the framed narrative and the parallel plot.

    • Flashback happens when the narration takes the reader to a period of time before the current scene of the story, very often before the story began.
    • The framed narrative, also known as an embedded narrative, describes a story within a story.
    • The parallel plot describes two storylines in one narrative, alternating between the two. The storylines may be happening at the same time, or with a distance of time separating them.

    Parallel plot: Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881).

    In The Prince and the Pauper, young Tom Canty swaps roles with Henry VIII’s son and experiences life at the royal court with all its protocols and complicated rituals, while the young Prince experiences the life of an impoverished commoner.

    Non-linear narrative, visualisation of parallel plotlines, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Prince and the Pauper are an example of a parallel plot.

    Non-linear narrative: examples

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

    Examples of non-linear narratives include:

    • Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818, Gothic)
    • Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847, Gothic)
    • Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897, Gothic)
    • House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski, 2000, Post-modernism)
    • The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern, 2011, Fantasy/experimental)

    Frankenstein

    A sea voyager writes home about how he has rescued a dying scientist called Frankenstein, who then tells his story of how he created a monstrous being ‘the Creature’ – the story flashes back to Frankenstein’s student days, which are spent hunting the secret of life. Frankenstein builds a man from body parts he obtains from dissection rooms and brings it to life. Unable to accept what he has done, Frankenstein rejects the Creature, who disappears into the outside world. The story, after several murders and much travelling, ends with Frankenstein dying.

    The sea captain closes with a description of a meeting with the ‘Creature’ who, informed of Frankenstein’s demise, disappears on a raft across the waves until he is ‘lost in darkness and distance’. (M. Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818)

    There is another story within Frankenstein’s story, i.e., that of the Creature who tells his own story to Frankenstein.

    Non-linear narrative, a visualisation of the non-linear narrative for the novel Frankenstein, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Frankenstein is a non-linear narrative as the story flashes back to Frankenstein's student days.

    Wuthering Heights

    Lockwood, 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.

    She continues the story until the last couple of chapters when Lockwood, returning to the area a year later, takes over the conclusion of the novel. The story begins in 1801, goes back to the 1770s, and then moves forward to 1802, which makes it non-linear.

    Non-linear Narrative, visualisation of non-linear narrative in Wuthering Heights, StudySmarterFig. 3 - In Wuthering Heights, the housekeeper begins her story 30 years earlier than Lockwood's narrative.

    Dracula

    Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor, travels to Transylvania to settle a sale of land with a client called Count Dracula. He narrowly escapes the Count’s clutches and falls into a fever at a convent, where his fiancée joins him and continues the story.

    The narrative is shared by five of the main characters and is concluded by Mina when all five characters unite with Dr Helsing in bringing down the Count.

    Bram Stoker uses different accounts from various character viewpoints through journals, diaries and letters. These extracts date from various times, i.e., they are not chronological and as a result, the structure is non-linear.

    Non-linear Narrative, various characters in Bram Stoker's Dracula, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The are various viewpoints in the novel Dracula that make it a non=linear narrative, starting with Jonathan Harker and ending with Mina Harker.

    House of Leaves

    House of Leaves is also 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.

    The Night Circus

    In this contemporary novel, two magicians wage a rivalry through their pupils, who never grow old although time moves forward. The narrative is very non-linear in that it frequently jumps between time periods (the 1880s to the 1990s, the 1900s to the 1880s, etc.).

    Advantages of non-linear structure

    A non-linear story refers to any narrative that doesn't follow a traditional, chronological order from beginning to end. Non-linear stories can employ techniques like flashbacks, flash-forwards, multiple points of view, or a non-sequential structure that rearranges the order of events. The main advantage of a non-linear narrative is its ability to:

    • mploy techniques like flashbacks, flash-forwards, multiple points of view, or a non-sequential structure that rearranges the order of events.

    the element of surprise and intrigue the ability to set the mood and tone of the work.

    The non-linear structure is popular in both literature and film and offers readers and viewers a fresh and stimulating perspective of the world created in the story.

    Non-linear films

    Non-linear films include:

    • Citizen Kane (1941)
    • Memento (2000)
    • The Amazing Spiderman (2014)

    As well as being non-linear, each film relies on flashbacks which change the structure of the story in different ways.

    Citizen Kane

    Citizen Kane is narrated almost entirely by means of flashbacks from the perspective of different characters.

    The film opens with Kane on his death bed murmuring the word ‘Rosebud’. A journalist is assigned the task of discovering its meaning. By means of a series of flashbacks, he gradually pieces together the early life story of the deceased. One flashback shows Kane as a little boy playing with his sledge in the snow outside his parents’ house.

    The journalist keeps searching but gives up trying to learn the significance of ‘Rosebud’. A final shot of the dead man’s property being catalogued or destroyed closes up on a sledge consigned to fire, on which is written the name ‘Rosebud’.

    Memento

    Memento narrates its story in reverse order as a man with short-term memory loss attempts to find his wife’s murderer. There are two threads involved: one in black and white that gives a chronological sequence interspersed with colour scenes in a non-chronological sequence.

    The Amazing Spiderman 2

    The Amazing Spiderman 2 is the second in the Amazing Spiderman franchise. It opens with a flashback to Peter Parker’s childhood when his scientist father destroys his research files and attempts to escape with his wife, but they are killed by an assassin while on a plane.

    The film returns to the current day with Peter Parker/Spiderman protecting the city. He later discovers why his father had to destroy his research and the conflict in the plot begins when an old childhood friend returns to the city and turns out to be the son of Peter’s father’s original antagonist.

    Non-linear narrative - Key takeaways

    • Non-linear narrative is when the events of the story are not told in chronological order.
    • Common devices used in non-linear narrative include flashbacks, the frame narrative and the parallel plot
    • The non-linear narrative is particularly useful for writers of experimental, mystery and suspense fiction.
    • Flashback happens when the narration takes the reader to a period of time before the current scene or before the story began.
    • A couple of examples of a non-linear narrative include the frame narrative, also known as an embedded narrative describes a story within a story, and the parallel plot which describes two storylines in one narrative, alternating between the two.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Non-linear Narrative

    What are examples of non-linear storytelling? 

    Frankenstein, Dracula, House of Leaves.

    What is a non-linear narrative?

    Non-linear narrative is when the events of the story are not told chronologically.

    What is the purpose of non-linear narrative?

    The non-linear narrative allows the author to surprise the reader with new information and background information.

    Why are non-linear narratives used?

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

    What’s another way of saying non-linear?

    Non-linear is another term for unchronological, or out of sequence.

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