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Writing

Guide to Nonlinear Narrative: 3 Tips for Writing Non-Chronological Story

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 3, 2020 • 4 min read

Not all stories start at the beginning and end at the end. In non-chronological narratives, time takes on a fluidity that allows the writer to play with different stories in one interconnected text.

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What Is a Non-Chronological Narrative?

A non-chronological narrative is a narrative technique in which the storyline is told out of chronological order. Instead of starting at the earliest point in time and presenting events in the order in which they happened, a non-chronological story might work its way backwards or jump around in time.

Non-chronological storytelling can take many forms: By using flashforwards, flashbacks, dream sequences, or foreshadowing, non-chronological plotlines can mimic the recall of human memory or weave in fantastical elements like time travel or clairvoyance.

3 Reasons to Write a Non-Chronological Story

Non-chronological narrative structures might be a challenge to pull off (the order in which everything is presented must still be logical, if not chronological), but when done well, it allows a more nuanced, masterful story to emerge. Here are some of the advantages of nonlinear storytelling:

  1. Suspense: By disorienting the reader, a non-chronological structure creates a puzzle that requires more engagement with the individual pieces of the story. Cause and effect cease to be predictable or immediately visible, allowing the reader to curate their own logic. When a novel opens with a murder, the series of events that follow carry greater weight and add to the anticipation of the final (known) outcome. When the reader knows more about a character’s fate than the character does, opportunities also arise for moments of irony, be they tragic or comic. Non-chronological storytelling is especially popular in thrillers, since playing with time allows authors to withhold and reveal information at the perfect time, creating shocking twists. Hooking your reader by placing them in the middle of the story is called in medias res, and it’s a technique that works for all kinds of writing, including persuasive and informative texts.
  2. Worldbuilding: A nonlinear structure can give readers different points of view and new perspectives on aspects of the setting—think subplots that take place on the other side of the world and will eventually become meaningful, or perhaps historical events that come to bear on the lives of your characters. Nonlinear narratives allow you to expand your worldbuilding and give your readers a glimpse into other time periods. Learn more about worldbuilding in our guide here.
  3. Character development: The more the reader learns of your main character’s backstory, the better they understand the choices they make throughout the narrative. Instead of simply telling the reader your character is an orphan, send them back to the moment the character became one. Those experiences stay with the reader as they continue through the story.
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3 Tips for Writing Nonlinear Narratives

One of the biggest challenges of non-chronological writing is that it can sometimes feel disjointed. You can use that feature to your advantage, creating suspense or mimicking the way humans experience time in real life, but it’s important that you, as the writer, don’t get lost in your own non-chronological story. Here are some tips for successfully telling a story out of order:

  1. Use markers to indicate time change. In screenwriting, time changes are often indicated by visual cues. For example, the psychological thriller Memento (2000) presents two different timelines: Chronological scenes are black and white, and a separate sequence in reverse time order is shown in color. At the end of the film, the two timelines converge to reveal a shocking twist. Writers use different techniques to let readers know where they are in time, such as chapter breaks, chapter headings or sub-headings, and sensory details that reflect the time period. In fantasy or science fiction writing, authors often introduce a device that indicates time travel such as a magical object.
  2. Stay organized. When you’re bouncing between different timelines, it’s easy to get lost. If you’re someone who typically flies by the seat of their pants when it comes to writing (aka a “pantser”), you might have to buckle down and become an outliner, or “plotter,” if you’re writing a non-chronological narrative. Writing out of order will be much easier if you’ve already pinned down your story structure, main plot points, and subplots. This is especially useful if it’s your first time writing in a non-chronological order. Bonus: A solid outline can help you beat writer’s block since you already have a writing frame for future scenes.
  3. Pay attention to point of view and tense. In nonlinear storytelling, it often makes sense to inhabit different perspectives by changing point of view and tense. Maybe the bulk of your story is written in the present tense from the first-person POV of your main character, while flashbacks are written in the past tense and in third-person. Or, you may want to include multiple points of view from different characters existing in different time periods. All of that is possible, but make sure you’re keeping track of point of view and tense changes to avoid confusing your reader. Avoid changing POV or tense in the middle of a scene, and consider making a chapter break every time you change point of view.

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