Most of the advice on my blog and in my guide to writing a novel is oriented around classical one protagonist narratives, for the simple reason that it’s easier to illustrate the principles and it’s the most common approach.
But what if you have a non-linear narrative that bounces around in time? What if you veer away from the protagonist at some point or you have several?
Here are some tips.
The plot dynamics should deepen even if the narrative is non-linear
The most important principle about non-linear narratives is this one: Even if you bounce around in time, the underlying dynamics of the novel should deepen as the novel unfolds.
The narrative arc of a novel is like a series of ups and downs that deepen through time. The highs get higher and the lows get lower. This extends to the relationships between characters and for the characters themselves as they experience victories and setbacks over the course of the novel. Things grow more intense as the novel unfolds.
The overall narrative arc and the “intensity meter” of the novel should look roughly the same even if the narrative itself bounces around in time.
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner is perhaps the quintessential non-linear narrative. The narrator, Quentin Compson, keeps circling around some of the same events, but our understanding of those events keeps growing deeper and darker.
Now, bear in mind that it’s tricky to deepen relationships when you’re zooming between timelines. The key here is that the reader’s understanding of the relationships and conflicts should be deepening, even if we’re seeing, say, different points in the history of a relationship.
Think twice about extended flashbacks
An important question to ask yourself if you’re writing a non-linear narrative is this one: does it really need to be non-linear?
Exposition is one of the trickiest craft elements to master, and sometimes writers feel like they need to show an entire scene from the backstory rather than just giving the reader the information they need to understand what’s happening.
I encountered this with my latest novel, which takes place in a slightly-difficult-to-explain futuristic world. I experimented with flashing back to earlier scenes to help explain the concept, but instead I ultimately opted for the narrator just explaining the history to the reader at a key juncture.
You may decide that bouncing back in time shows something crucial and that’s totally fine, just make sure to do a gut check before you proceed.
Some writers get in a somewhat confusing habit of starting off a chapter and then immediately flashing back to what just happened to the character to “get us up to speed.”
I call these micro-flashbacks, and they are very rarely as effective as just letting the scene unfold in a more straightforward way.
This is another case where it’s better to start with the question: does this really need to be non-linear?
Firmly anchor the reader
It’s a continuous challenge for a reader to orient themselves within a novel, and it’s easy for readers to become lost. I always advocate setting every scene with good physical description, the protagonist’s mindset, their motivation, and the stakes, but this goes doubly if you’re going to jump around in time and between characters.
Particularly with non-linear narratives: set the scene as clearly as possible. Help the reader get their bearings. Create mysteries around actual mysteries rather than making the reader wonder what’s happening entirely.
Non-linear narratives take advantage of one of the wonders of fiction and connect us deeply to the way we experience memories, but make sure to be very judicious about how you guide the reader.
Do you any tips for non-linear narratives? Any favorites? Take to the comments!
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Art: Blick auf Gmunden by Anonymous
Marilynn Byerly says
Non-linear storytelling works best in non-genre novels, aka mainstream or literary novels, because plot isn’t that important in these novels. They are all about the characters. Often, the plot is so sneered at that the end is told in the beginning.
Complicated for the sake of complicated is rarely worth it in popular genre.
I have, however, used a more complex plot in one of my novels by using a frame. The first very short section is set in the present to show the hero’s personal and emotional dilemma after he’s left for dead. The next section has him at 9 years old where the inciting incident happens, then in his early twenties where the plot thickens, then back to the present where he’s rescued, and the murder plot moves forward. Since this was the third book of a trilogy and I was threading in events from the other stories, it was more complicated than it sounds, but I was really happy with the results, and my betas never had a problem with reading it.
JOHN T. SHEA says
Interesting, Nathan! I look forward to reading your SF novel.
Stacey Campos says
More often than not, I don’t go to a nonlinear example immediately. Generally, I diagram or utilize a beat sheet to break my accounts. On the off chance that I feel like we aren’t getting enough character improvement or that the story feels stale, I attempt to shake it up and skip scenes around.
Nonlinear stories are likewise incredible approaches to get saw, They can be their own snares. Stories told backward. Different perspectives compared against each other.