Today’s post is written by author Clayton Lindemuth.
Reviewers and editors have commended the nonlinear format of Cold Quiet Country—a novel set in a single day, but with shards of backstory scattered across almost every page. Two dueling first-person narrators vie to control the story, each slipping into escalating past-tense flashbacks. A fifth viewpoint—of the missing girl who is the focal point of the war between narrators—is told in third person, forcing the reader to suspect the worst regarding her fate.
The only view on flashbacks that I recall having read is by Stephen King, and his advice was to avoid them. Instead I found that flashbacks are an integral component of a nonlinear story, and provide authors an entirely different toolbox of tension inducing wrenches.
With a linear format, authors choose a beginning and end, and relate events within that span sequentially, as cause and effect dictate in real life. The author delivers story content that occurs outside the chosen time span as flashback, and reveals shorter material through memory or anecdote.
Removing the reader from the present story involves risks. The transition to another time can be jarring and confusing. If the delivery is heavy-handed or the relevance dubious, the reader will wonder why the author distracted her when the plot was just becoming intriguing.
A bad flashback reminds a reader she is reading.
But the risks are surmountable and the rewards great—so great that it makes sense to experiment with a nonlinear story format, essentially dishing scenes in the order that provides the greatest story benefit. The term flashback becomes a misnomer because as flashbacks accumulate, new subplots, character arcs, and the like, follow. Instead of a linear story with an occasional throwback to an earlier period, the nonlinear story is a series of scenes arranged to tell a complete story, but organized for maximum storytelling benefit. Sequence is dictated by effect, and referring to a scene by temporal location is meaningless.
The nonlinear format affords the author several advantages over the linear format.
The first advantage has to do with clarity and pace—points that coalesce in my mind as story density.
Cold Quiet Country includes action that occurs over a fifty-year period. Had the novel started in 1922 with a linear format, showing scenes of gradually growing importance, with nothing truly compelling happening until the last handful of months, the text would have been ten thousand words longer but would have the exact same amount of story, albeit arranged so that no reader could find it interesting.
However, because the timeline is nonlinear, none of the scattered past events require exposition that, while giving the reader context, would bore her to tears. Instead, the nonlinear format allows the novel to start on the day the action becomes explosive. From fifty years of history, only the interesting, tense moments that raise the stakes or add flesh to characters make it to the page. The context surrounding the flashback takes the place of linear narrative, and the story gains efficiency. Story density—the ratio of interesting to boring material—increases.
A second advantage of the nonlinear story is that authors can demonstrate a character’s depth and create a compelling story question at the same time.
Imagine a young woman protagonist fleeing the scene of a murder—dead body, blood, gore. A bloody knife is in her purse. She’s wearing black. There’s vomit on her sleeve. She lurches against a wet brick wall and her eyes roll back. She’s high on whatever drug is in vogue.
In the next scene we see a snapshot of that morning as she argues with her father, pleading with him to attend her baptism at church.
Resuming the present story, we find her in the back of a patrol car, throwing up and praying.
The contrast in present tense character and flashback character adds depth while presenting an intriguing story question. Sure, we want to know something about the dead body. (Did you remember there’s a dead body?) But who the hell is this girl? The next scene might take us to her junior prom, her funeral, or an afternoon fishing at the lake—whatever the author needs to keep story questions urgent in the mind of the reader. The nonlinear author is bound only by the necessity of creating the right effect.
A third advantage of the nonlinear format is that the writer can increase tension by presenting information out of cause-and-effect sequence.
There are two main ways of using cause and effect in a linear story. One is to paint the causes so they point to a harrowing conclusion that will be unbearable for protagonist and reader alike. (Child swings bat. Connects. As the ball arcs to the window, we cringe in anticipation.) In a longer story, each successive cause and effect raises the stakes. Ultimately, a climax occurs where the protagonist makes a discovery that unravels the tension and provides a satisfactory conclusion.
The second main way to use cause and effect in a linear story is to begin with the effect, and have the protagonist go back and discover the causes. That’s great for a mystery, with a detective making successive discoveries. But if the story isn’t about a detective, a linear format will force an author who starts with an effect to try to make the story move forward by looking backward.
The nonlinear story unpacks cause and effect, making them irrelevant. The author can weave in and out of scenes without providing the contextual cause and effect material that the linear story demands. When either becomes necessary, the author provides it. However, the nonlinear format affords greater control of pace and tension. The reader surges forward in the present story and context that would otherwise be provided by slow-moving exposition is instead related visually in snapshots stolen from other timelines.
In a nonlinear telling, instead of starting with the child swinging the bat, we start with dad reaching for a gun as he stares at glass on the floor. The next scene would be a great time to introduce readers to the villain who has dad on edge—before showing dad staring out the broken window at his sobbing son.
The child, bat and ball are only relevant if dad shoots the kid. The causation of the glass on the floor is not necessarily relevant to the action that follows. If it becomes relevant, dad can make a discovery as the action proceeds. Meanwhile, dad is free to create whatever disaster will keep the pages turning.
It is a difference of kind. In the linear story, authors build tension by assembling causes that point toward a disastrous effect. In the nonlinear, we dump the protagonist into disaster, and the causes are only relevant as they have something to do with his journey through chaos. Instead of working by a subtle kind of misdirection that keeps the reader guessing, relying on techniques and tricks to keep the tension high, nonlinear authors create honest cliffhangers at every scene change, as multiple timelines gradually emerge from the pages.
The advantages of the nonlinear format aren’t tricks. They’re embedded so deeply in the story structure that they create an otherworldly depth and reader involvement. It’s like writing a novel with every chapter being the first.
Next time, start twenty-four hours before the end, and see what happens when the effect you create upon your reader is the only thing dictating the sequence and content of your scenes.
Clayton Lindemuth is the author of Cold Quiet Country, a debut novel that received a rare starred review from Publishers Weekly, and exemplifies the nonlinear storytelling techniques described in this article. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, in the U.S. with his wife Julie and puppy dog Faith.
Filed Under: Fiction
Last time, we tried starting a story by writing the end first. You may eventually place the ending you wrote at the actual end of the story, or, as we discussed using an example from The Usual Suspects, you might use part of the last scene to open your story. Similar to starting a story at the end is starting the story en media res (Latin) or “in the middle of it.” Plotlines that start in the middle of the action and jump around in different spaces and times in a story are called nonlinear narratives.
A linear narrative starts at the beginning and reveals each detail as it each occurs in space and time.
A happened, then B, then C, and finally D.
Nonlinear narratives don’t follow rules of space and time. They can start and end at anytime in the trajectory of the plotline.
C is described first, followed by A, B, and then D.
D starts, followed by A, then jumps back to C, and ends with B.
Nonlinear narratives often use flashbacks or flash forwards in which past or future events are revealed through memory or other methods during exposition of a current event. However, there are other ways to use nonlinear narrative in which the narrative flow doubles back on itself while appearing to move forward. (There is an example coming up.)
The movie Memento and the television show Lost are great examples of nonlinear storytelling. Slaughterhouse Five and Time Traveler’s Wife are great literary examples of nonlinear narration. Jennifer Egan’s new novel A Visit from the Goon Squad is another perfect example of this method. The book pieces together a story using different characters, different narrative points of view (such as first-person, third-person, and even second-person), and presents non-consecutive events from different time periods and locations- each of which circles around the same core characters. For example, the turbulent childhood of one character, Sasha, is revealed as a flashback from her uncle who has been tasked with finding her in Italy where she has been living since running away from home. The episode in Italy, the reader knows, is already in the past because first chapter is about Sasha as a grown woman. All chapters are about people who either know Sasha, or know someone who knows her, and while telling their own individual stories, details of Sasha’s life and the lives of those around her are unfolded.
One of the best and most expertly crafted examples of nonlinear storytelling is “Continuity of Parks” by Julio Cortázar. Here, you can read it for yourself:
He had begun to read the novel a few days before. He had put it aside because of some urgent business conferences, opened it again on his way back to the estate by train; he permitted himself a slowly growing interest in the plot, in the characterizations. That afternoon, after writing a letter giving his power of attorney and discussing a matter of joint ownership with the manager of his estate, he returned to the book in the tranquility of his study which looked out upon the park with its oaks. Sprawled in his favorite armchair, its back toward the door--even the possibility of an intrusion would have irritated him, had he thought of it--he let his left hand caress repeatedly the green velvet upholstery and set to reading the final chapters. He remembered effortlessly the names and his mental image of the characters; the novel spread its glamour over him almost at once. He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from the things around him, and at the same time feeling his head rest comfortably on the green velvet of the chair with its high back, sensing that the cigarettes rested within reach of his hand, that beyond the great windows the air of afternoon danced under the oak trees in the park. Word by word, licked up the sordid dilemma of the hero and heroine, letting himself be absorbed to the point where the images settled down and took on color and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the mountain cabin. The woman arrived first, apprehensive; now the lover came in, his face cut by the backlash of a branch. Admirably, she stanched the blood with her kisses, but he rebuffed her caresses, he had not come to perform again the ceremonies of a secret passion, protected by a world of dry leaves and furtive paths through the forest. The dagger warmed itself against his chest, and underneath liberty pounded, hidden close. A lustful, panting dialogue raced down the pages like a rivulet of snakes, and one felt it had all been decided from eternity. Even to those caresses which writhed about the lover's body, as though wishing to keep him there, to dissuade him from it; they sketched abominably the fame of that other body it was necessary to destroy. Nothing had been forgotten: alibis, unforeseen hazards, possible mistakes. From this hour on, each instant had its use minutely assigned. The cold-blooded, twice-gone-over re-examination of the details was barely broken off so that a hand could caress a cheek. It was beginning to get dark.
Not looking at each other now, rigidly fixed upon the task which awaited them, they separated at the cabin door. She was to follow the trail that led north. On the path leading in the opposite direction, he turned for a moment to watch her running, her hair loosened and flying. He ran in turn, crouching among the trees and hedges until, in the yellowish fog of dusk, he could distinguish the avenue of trees which led up to the house. The dogs were not supposed to bark, and they did not bark. The estate manager would not be there at this hour, and he was not there. He went up the three porch steps and entered. The woman's words reached him over a thudding of blood in his ears: first a blue chamber, then a hall, then a carpeted stairway. At the top, two doors. No one in the first room, no one in the second. The door of the salon, and then, the knife in his hand, the light from the great windows, the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel.
(Download story HERE.)
“Parks” showcases the flexibility of nonlinear storytelling. From one vantage point, the man in the chair reads his book while facing the window, which looks out on an avenue of trees at the end of which is another man poised to murder the reading man who is, at that moment, reading the story of his own murder. While the narrative seems at first to move in a direct line forward, it actually doubles back on itself without even moving in time, only in space. If you ascribed a shape to the plotline, it’d be a circle. Other images that come to mind: Two mirrors turned toward each other; M.C. Escher’s hands drawing each other; John Malkovich crawling into his own mind. The creator and the created become one continuous, self-generating entity.
Ok, let’s practice. Using either your own plot or one borrowed from a well known story, revise the original telling using nonlinear narration. Try to preserve the important parts of the original plot, and exploit shifts in time and space to highlight particularly poignant images or important plot turns. Juxtaposing similar imagery or themes can add congruity where the timeline is uneven. (Egan’s book is a champion of this.)
As an example, I have re-written the common fable of Little Red Riding Hood as a nonlinear narrative.
When the woodsman saw the tracks in the mud, he knew something wasn’t right. The forest was too quiet and both sets were fresh, meaning the second set could only have been a moment or two behind the first. Shouldering his axe, he ran down the path just as a scream ripped the air.
Clancy loved her Grandma and tried to visit her whenever she could. It was spring, but it was not warm enough to leave home without her cloak, a red, hooded cape that her mother had made her. She prepared a basket of goodies for her grandma who hadn’t been feeling very well lately. She kissed her mother good-bye and set off into the forest, but not before her mother warned her to go directly to Grandma’s and not to dawdle or talk to strangers.
Wow. Grandma looks worse than ever, Clancy thought when she spotted her bonneted grandmother peeking out at her from under the bed covers. Strange, too, that Grandma had not opened the door for Clancy, but rather called out in a hoarse voice to enter. Usually her grandma left the front door locked, but because Clancy had been late (she’d been distracted during her journey) her grandmother had probably grown tired of waiting and unlocked the door before lying in bed.
The day was truly glorious, and after only a few minutes of walking, Clancy pulled her hood down. The sun peaked through the forest canopy and shafts of sunlight spotlighted little groups of wild flowers. Clancy yearned to pick some, but remembered her mother’s edict to go straight, so she walked on.
As Clancy approached the bed, she could see that her grandmother really wasn’t herself today. Her hands, wrinkly and small on any other day, were large—perhaps swollen—and covered in hair. “Gran, I brought you some flowers,” she ventured. Grandma just looked at her with wide eyes. Grandmother’s bonnet, too, looked stretched, and two lumps protruded on the sides. When Clancy reached the bedside, her grandmother suddenly smile a wide, toothy grin that Clancy had never seen on her nearly toothless old grandma; she exclaimed, “Grandma, what big teeth you have!”
As she neared her Grandmother’s house, Clancy paused for a moment to loosen her red cape. She was quite warm from the walk and needed to cool down. She put down her basket and started to undo the lace at the neck, when a thick, growling voice interrupted her. “Where are you off to this fine day?”
Grandma was setting the table when she heard a knock on the door. It wasn’t like Clancy to be early, but she figured her granddaughter had perhaps left early because it was so nice out. No sooner had she opened the door than she found herself surrounded by giant teeth.
“Oh!” said Clancy, “I’m off to see my grandmother.” She’d been taken off guard by the hairy creature that had silently emerged only a few feet from her. “I’d better get going though.” She grabbed the basket and started to walk on, but the creature said. “Oh really? How nice. I’m sure she’d love some of these flowers.”
“Well, yes, I had thought that, too, but I promised I’d…”
“Oh, it’ll just take a minute and no one would know. I bet your granny would love them.” At this, the creature wiped some drool from his lip and blinked hard.
“Maybe just a few then.”
When the cottage door burst open, Wolf was still trying to get the grandmothers tight nightgown over his bulging gut. He knew he was done for when he looked up to see the man and the axe coming straight towards him. He had one final thought as the blade split his belly, and little girl and her grandmother emerged from the gaping hole left by the axe:
I should have chewed my food...
Now it's your turn. Please post your nonlinear rewrites in the comments sections. Or if you'd rather not share publicly, email me at Taylor@litreactor.com.