Non-linear Narratives and Stories.

Cowgill notes cleverly and concisely that novels are a medium particularly suited to a non-linear structure; it is more likely that a book will fall flat, she says, if it is written with a linear time-structure. Why this might be is another discussion, but it may well be true.

For those not in the know a non-linear structure refers to a story or narrative which does not adhere to the chronological order of the tale. For example the linear story begins as point A and ploughs on to point D, but a non-linear story may begin at C, explain A and B, and then finish with D. Why this style is chosen depends very often on the author and the story they wish to tell, but generally the themes of memory and perception prevail through genres and individuals stories.


Non-Linear Narratives and Stories; the difference.

Though it may seem pedantic there is a difference. Non-Linear stories tend to be third person and rearrange the order of events to preserve mystery, ramp up tension, and highlight certain points, events, or people. A good example is The Rose Petal Beach

A non-linear narrative will generally be a first person story in which the rearranging of events is focused towards representing the state of mind of the character. Good examples are The Sound and the Furyand Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.


The Advantages

  1. You can really give your characters depth; rather than a long-winded story in which you and the reader both have to work hard to flesh out the character, non-linear approaches give the opportunity to build the story around a central, compelling character.
  2. More story per page; some stories beg a non-linear approach in that the history is important enough to require inclusion, but not so interesting as to need full explanation. Non-linear writing allows for the cherry-picking of the really significant moments, the discarding of the dregs, and the creation of a story much shorter, but more gripping. A dense story.
  3. Creation and maintenance of tension; this may speak for itself. By artfully moving events in the sequence of story-telling an author can help to get the reader invest in certain characters, or hooked on a certain line of thought early. The Rose Petal Beach is a prime example; Koomson uses flashbacks and different view points to both endear Mirabelle and Beatrice to the reader, and place them under suspicion. In the end it is still Tami’s story, but events hinge on, rather than centre around her, and the overall effect is to create a tense, unstable story which makes us love and doubt each character in equal measure.


The disadvantages;

There’s only one, really, in my opinion. It’s hard to do all this well; many a writer has simply advised that flashbacks be avoided, but in hundreds of stories well-deployed time shifts highlight and supplement aspects of the story which might otherwise have gone unnoticed or under-appreciated.

Bad flashbacks remind the reader that they are reading rather than experiencing, and a poorly executed structure can simply confuse and annoy readers by making them work far too hard to make sense of it all.



When using a non-linear structure, I prefer to first make a linear outline of the plot, even slotting in some scenes of particular import so that it can be considered as a whole before writing begins. By doing this you can highlight the specific moments which need attention, cross out those that are of little or no importance, and begin to move the points about for best effect before you’re in too deep.

Choosing your start point and end points carefully will help more than you can imagine. Ask yourself what point you wish to get to in the end and why. This could be fairly obvious, for example the death of the character around which the story centres, or more abstract, perhaps ending where it all began, but knowing this will help you to aim all events, flashbacks, and key points to this purpose.

Keep  it simple where possible. This is not a hard and fast rule, but I tend to look twice at any passage which has a time switch every page or so. It may turn out to be very effective, but like with adverbs you should consider flashbacks and time switches more potent for their rarity.


If you want more resources to get you started considered these;


The literary term “non-linear narratives”

Out of order – a discussion

What is non-linear storytelling?

Linear vs Non-Linear story structure

Non-Linear Narratives: the Ultimate in Time Travel.

Using Non-Linear Formats 

First person writing


2 thoughts on “Non-linear Narratives and Stories.

  1. Pingback: First Person Writing – The Merry Writer

  2. Pingback: Picking up the Pieces; returning to an abandoned book – The Merry Writer

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