Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.49: Non-linear Narratives

We begin the final month of our year on structure with a discussion of non-linear structures. These include flashbacks, POVs that are out of chronological order,  and a host of other storytelling techniques.

Credits: this episode was recorded in Cosmere House Studios by Dan Dan the Audioman Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Watch fan edits of non-linear stories that put them in order. Also, put your outline on index cards, then shuffle them randomly.

Thing of the week:

The Butcher of Khardov, by Dan Wells

The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries (defaced edition), by Howard Tayler

Your Mama’s Adventures in Parenting, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Mulholland Homebrews Sinister Shop of Secret Pets, which will have been written by Brandon Sanderson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Nonlinear structure just means not in chronological order. Flashbacks are a common example of this! Sometimes scenes or viewpoints are taken out of order for an effect. Each piece should be enjoyable and contain its own reward, even if the reader doesn’t know where they are in the timeline. Give the reader a reason to keep reading. Sometimes the same scene is shown from different viewpoints. This contrasts the people, and lets you explore the characters. Nonlinear lets you present the pieces in an order that produces the maximum emotional impact on the audience. Nonlinear blends familiar stories with strange order. You can also shake up viewpoint and tense. You really could, can, should, would, might? When you are the hero of a video game, second person is natural. But don’t break your sense of the world, your suspension of disbelief. Don’t do it just for shock value! Some readers will not like this, will think it is just a dumb gimmick. Shake it up!

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 49.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary] 15 minutes long!
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Non-Linear Narratives.
[Howard] I cannot believe we got that right.
[Brandon] There was no editing in post for that. Actually legitimately.
[Mary] But a lot of rehearsal.
[Dan] You could see our feet the whole time.

[Brandon] We are at the last month of the year. We are wrapping up our year of structure with talking about the things that are different. Were going to talk about non-linear structure and viewpoints that we don’t normally do, but can still be very cool. All of this stuff that were going to try to pack into 15 minutes. Because it’s really exciting to writers to do weird artistic things. Let’s talk about nonlinear structures first. What do I mean by nonlinear structure?
[Mary] So the easiest one that everyone has seen is a flashback. So a nonlinear structure is just something that does not happen in straight chronological order, in its most basic form.
[Brandon] Right. The flashback is most common. But we also have some weird ones where people will do certain sce… Certain viewpoints are out of line with one another. This happened in Robert Jordan sometimes where you’re… Actually, these people are going somewhere in these people are going somewhere, and he rearranges the chapters so as you alternate, we’re jumping back and forth in time just a little bit. You see that done more dramatically in books sometimes where it’s you’ve got a future timeline and a past timeline. Then you get to the really weird stuff.
[Dan] Yeah. The classic examples from movies are Momento, which is every scene is in reverse order, and then Pulp Fiction, which popularized this in the 90s. Then we had this whole spate of nonlinear stories. What Pulp Fiction did was, it basically had a story… Or several different stories, but they put the scenes out of order. They’re not flashbacks, necessarily, they’re just… Well, you get to see this one first and then this one next because I’m in charge and I can do that.
[Brandon] Why would anyone do this?

[Dan] Well, that’s… I actually did that with The Butcher of Khardov, which is the… Our book of the week this week.
[Brandon] Yes. Let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Dan] Our book of the week is The Butcher of Khardov, which is a novella that I wrote for Privateer Press, and my sole prose Hugo nomination. It is the back story of one of the characters in the Iron Kingdoms setting. Who’s this big, basically psychopathic warrior-wizard guy. I did not want to Anakin Skywalker had him, basically. It’s so easy to do it wrong when you’re trying to tell the origin story of someone who is basically a villain. So I did it out of order, because what I was specifically trying to do was to show that his brain is broken. That he does not think correctly and that he is forever locked in the past, because of this one traumatic event where he lost someone important to him. So by putting the scenes out of order, it gave the reader a sense of the same disorientation. That they are also jumping back and forth, and they’re never sure, “Okay, in this scene, is she still alive, or is she dead yet?” So because he doesn’t know and now the reader doesn’t know, you can feel some of his pain along with him.
[Howard] The reason that story works is that each of the… Even though I don’t know where we are in the timeline, the piece that I am reading is enjoyable and contains its own reward. I don’t have to know in order for that to be enjoyable. That principle works throughout our fiction. You’re going to give me a chapter that forces me to ask a question and doesn’t give me an answer, that’s fine. You just gotta give me something to keep me reading.

[Brandon] Let’s talk about another version of this, which is the… You see this sometimes in television shows, but it’s also in books where you see the same scene played out exactly… Or differently from three different viewpoints. There is a famous X-Files episode where…
[Dan] The Rashoman thing.
[Brandon] There’s a bonus story for Schlock Mercenary which happens to do this. There are… There’s a great film out of Hong Kong called Hero which does this. It shows the same story multiple times from different viewpoints. Which is not really a flashback. It’s different people’s perspective on an event. When they’re shown wildly differently, it contrasts all these people.
[Mary] That’s one of the beautiful things about that, is that it really highlights the differences between the characters. It allows you to do some really deep character exploration around traumatic events.

[Brandon] Yeah, although similar to this is our book of the week, 70 Maxims which kind of has flashbacks in it. Right?
[Howard] Yes. It is… It’s nonlinear in that if you keep turning the pages and reading the maxims, from one through 70… And we’re talking here specifically about the defaced edition, that has the notes from the people who have owned this book prior to it falling into your hands. They did not write those notes in chronological order on the pages in which the notes appear. So, in order to put their stories together, often you will find yourself paging back and forth through the book. I don’t know yet if it works…
[Howard] I just know that I love it.
[Dan] I can say that it works for me. I really love seeing some of those stories develop. Because on maxim whatever number, there’s something that I remember from earlier. “Oh, this character talked about the same thing.” You don’t necessarily know at which point in their lives these notes were written…
[Howard] The thing that I…
[Dan] And they’re not presented chronologically in the book.
[Howard] The thing that I did not do with that book, and which I think is pretty important for good nonlinear storytelling. I did not shape the pieces that I put down to create a narrative effect. I didn’t mean for the book to be read chronologically and narratively. I meant it to be like a coffee table book that you pick up and read…
[Howard] And enjoy and put back down. If you look at a movie like Momento, well, yes, it’s being told backwards, but that doesn’t mean the narrative curve is backwards. The narrative curve is shaped correctly, because when you watch the events backwards, that’s the way the narrative curve works for you with the reveals.
[Mary] This is a really good point. One of the things that nonlinear narrative does for you is that it allows you to present the narrative pieces in the order that the audience needs for the maximum emotional impact.
[Brandon] Yes. Yeah.
[Mary] So, like, you hear me talking about the MACE quotient a lot. The thing that a lot of people don’t understand with this is that these elements… It’s not about when these things happen to the character, it’s about when it’s introduced to the reader. That’s one of the things that nonlinear narrative storytelling can do for you, is that it can allow you to introduce a piece to the reader before it has happened to the character. Which also then when this happens to the character, it allows some different resonances to happen.

[Brandon] Right. We talk often about stories being a blend of familiar and strange. Something that you’ve seen before, presented in a new way. A lot of nonlinear storytelling, and the things we’re going to talk about further in this podcast, can really give that sense. Where you see a fantasy story, but with the structure all messed up, and suddenly you’re really excited by, “I know this story, or at least I usually know the story, but now I don’t, even though the pieces are all familiar.”
[Dan] If you want to read a really cool book that does this brilliantly, it’s called Second Paradigm by Peter Wacks which is a time travel story about a man who has to solve his own murder. The chapters are written such that you can read them in any order.
[Mary] Wow.
[Dan] The narrative arc will still track. You can read them in random order. You can just pick a page, start and go wrap around again.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Dan] I think Peter’s actually working on an e-reader app, that will shuffle the chapters for you…
[Dan] But it’s really… I don’t know how he managed to build it that way. But it’s very impressive.
[Howard] I just realized another example of this in a TV media… BBC just did a new version of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency with Elijah Wood as one of the characters. Not Dirk Gently, but as one of the characters… I remember watching the first episode and thinking, “I do not know what is going on, but I am on board for whatever comes next.” By the sixth of the eight episodes, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Are you guys really going to pull this off? By episode eight, thinking, “Oh, that’s so brilliant.”

[Brandon] Now, another thing you can do in these same veins, is you can shake up your viewpoint and tense. To intro us talking a little bit about that, let’s stop for our book of the week. Which is Your Momma’s Adventures in Parenting?
[Mary] That’s right. So this is a short story that I wrote that is on Shimmer Magazine. It is completely nonlinear. There’s… Each… It’s actually five different 250 words short stories. Each of which has your momma as the main character. Then, those are intercut with… And again, it’s not a linear thing. It’s intercut with 500 wor… Not 500… 500 line… Uck! Five line. I know my numbers. Five line present tense. Everything else is past tense. So I’m playing with tense, I’m playing with…
[Brandon] Right. And is it second person?
[Mary] The… Your momma’s adventures… Your momma’s are in third person.
[Brandon] Ahuh.
[Mary] Then, the other ones are in second. Yeah.
[Howard] When I read this, there was a pull quote as an image in line with the rest of the story. Is that something that happens throughout, and did you pick that, or was that just the way Shimmer presented it?
[Mary] Shimmer presented… Shimmer did the pull quotes from those. A lot of them are the last lines from the individual things. What I was doing with that was the idea of playing with the idea that our relationship with our parent is shaped over time, but it’s shaped in ways that are nonlinear. That we remember aspects of things differently than our parents do. Like, watching my brother parenting his kids, there are times when he’s being really heroic, but to the kids, it’s just trying to get them to brush their teeth.

[Brandon] Right. Second person. Since this did second person. We haven’t talked a lot about it on the podcast. We’ve touched on it a little bit. What does second person do? Why is it a art school cliché, and how can it be done successfully?
[Mary] So I have… I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit recently. Because I’ve been doing some game writing.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] For video games. What I realized was that most videogames are second person narrative. You have to remember that your audience is the hero of the adventure. And that a lot of times, when things go wrong, in terms of the game itself going off the tracks, it’s when you let the player be a sidekick instead of the hero. So second person narrative, in prose form, one of the challenges of it is that you have to figure out a way for your reader to be the hero of the story that is happening without violating their own sense of the world. That’s why it’s so tricky and difficult to do well. Because it’s very… Anytime you break the reader’s suspension of disbelief, it’s a problem. But it’s really easy to break the reader’s suspension of disbelief when you are talking about them.
[Brandon] And the Hugo winner, The Fifth Season, is an example of doing it well. A very… An excellent book done in the second person by NK Jemison. It can be done. In fact, it can be done beautifully. It’s wonderful when it works. The reason it sometimes becomes a cliché is because it’s one of those things that in the wrong hands or if you’re just doing it for shock value, it doesn’t end up working. But you can change tense and viewpoint to great effect in books. I think of The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon which won the Nebula, which has sections in the present tense when most of the narrative is in past tense. This is done so that she can shift into the viewpoint of someone with autism and have it be jarring to you. Say, “Oh, this person is seeing the world differently,” and it works really well.

[Brandon] That also reminds me of our book of the week. Our book of the week will be Mulholland Homebrew’s Sinister Shop of Secret Pets, which will be a story about a young woman in a society where everyone wants to apprentice to some sort of wizard. She apprentices to what she thinks is a necromancer, but he’s actually a legromancer, who has power over legumes. They use the power over legumes to grow different foods that they used to take creatures that are pests other places and turn them into pets.
[Mary] I will be excited to have read this.
[Howard] Where will we be able to have gotten this?
[Brandon] I have no idea. It will be available once I actually outline and write it. Which will probably happen sometime in the future, maybe.
[Howard] Possibly in a parallel universe.
[Brandon] Yes. Possibly in a parallel universe.

[Howard] One of the things that I wanted to point out, as we talk about some of these shifts and some of these viewpoints, is that there are readers for whom this absolutely is not going to work. My Runewright stories are written in first person present tense. I remember somebody commented on it, said, “This is a fun story, but this first person present tense? It’s just a dumb gimmick, there’s no point in it.” The sort of reader who will respond to second person or first person present tense or playing with time as, “Okay, that’s just a dumb gimmick.” You can’t make that reader go away, you can’t make them not read their book. You just need to make sure that theirs is not the only opinion you’re getting, as you are soliciting feedback for your book.

[Brandon] All right. We are out of time for this episode. Dan, you are going to give us some homework. Let’s pause here. Take a note, Dan. When we were talking about books of the week, we may have just collided…
[Howard] We totally forgot…
[Brandon] Yeah, we forgot to get to this. We actually have Dan says look at fan edits of scenes in order from a nonlinear.
[Dan] Oh, okay.
[Brandon] Then, I will just say, that leads us to our homework. Howard will say reorder index cards or something and shake things up.
[Dan] Okay. I’d forgotten.

[Brandon] We are out of time. This leads us to our homework. Dan, you have our homework this time.
[Dan] Yeah. So earlier, I talked about Pulp Fiction, but you can do this with any number of different things. Find a movie like Pulp Fiction or Momento or something, that has a version that’s been put in order. With Momento, it’s actually on the DVD as an Easter egg. With Pulp Fiction, there’s versions on YouTube where all these scenes out of chronological order have been re-edited to be in chronological order. Watch both versions. Then ask yourself, “Why? How does it change? Why did the director choose to put them out of order, instead of chronologically? What does that add to your experience?”

[Brandon] That’s really interesting, although it reminds me that we haven’t given our homework yet this week. Howard, you were going to give us our homework?
[Howard] Yes. Take something… Taken outline of yours, something that you are writing, and move your outline onto index cards, if you’re not already an index card person. Put scenes or chapters or pinches, whatever, on a set of index cards. Then shuffle them out of order and read them in the new order, and pay attention to how your story unfolds now that it has been resequenced by the random hands of chance.
[Brandon] That is great. So now go write, because you’re out of excuses, and this has been Writing Excuses.