Life Form 3 · My Memories of a Future Life · Plots · Writer basics 101

Plot is linear, story doesn’t have to be

I put a tweet up this morning that’s been causing trouble. I was summarising a point from Ingrid Sundberg’s series on plots.

In my tweet I summarised a paragraph I thought made a great point: ‘Plot is always linear, but story doesn’t have to be.’ And so the tweet-storm began, showing that such a point can’t be adequately explored in a space the size of a bird’s chirrup.


First a few definitions. In the nature of a self-taught craft, we all mean slightly different things by our writing terminology. Indeed sometimes I’ve used ‘linear’ to mean a predictable plot with no twists and surprises (as in Nail Your Novel). Here, I’m using linear to mean, as Ingrid did, A, then B, then C… and so on – possibly (hopefully) with surprises, reversals etc. In other words, the timeline of the characters’ lives in chronological order. What they saw as the clock ticked through each day and night. That’s linear.

Spice it up

But storytellers don’t have to stick to that order.

We cut away to another story – a sub-plot, a parallel plot. Maybe slip in some back story. And if we have a scene that ends on tenterhooks, we shuffle a few cards in from a different pack to keep the reader tingling a little longer. That’s the storytelling part of the job – what you do with the material.

You could cut the deck and put it together in a different order, like Pulp Fiction. You could tell it backwards like Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, or Daniel Wallace’s Ray In Reverse.

Use the shuffling as an integral part of the story and you end up with the time-hops of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – although that novel has both because the main character’s life unfolds chronologically and everyone else’s timeline jumps around.

On Twitter, Marc vun Kannon leaped on my tweet to point out: ‘Plot is not always linear. It’s easier to synopsize if it is, though.’

Good point. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this at greater length is that I see manuscripts where the writer has attempted something daring with structure, but has got themselves confused. I know it not just from the text, but from the shiver of horror when I ask ‘just tell me, chronologically, this character’s life in the book’. It’s incredibly easy to confuse a reader, especially if you’re making it up as you go along.

Do it in order first

If you’re timebending or rewinding or flashbacking or Groundhog-daying or getting surreal or showing a series of vignettes that add up to a whole or chopping around like the film Memento, you the writer need to know what the simple order is. In some cases, it might be better to write it like that first, then mix it up later. If you do it that way, you can also experiment with the best possible order.

Be deliberate

Good storytelling is about doing only what’s necessary. Some novice writers seem to do it without any clear artistic reason. You shouldn’t do it just because you can. Check that your fiddling and shuffling does actually add something. Again, taking Memento as an example, on the DVD you can watch it in chronological order and you can see that version is not nearly as interesting.

In my novel Life Form 3 I decided my most interesting hook came a quarter of the way through. So I lopped off the first section – but instead of consigning it to back story I made it into a mystery, which the character had to unlock. This gave the story far more tension and momentum.

If your novel is exploring themes, you might find you can reinforce these by the way you cut between different sets of characters. Shakespeare is fond of this – in King Lear he has the scene where Lear splits his kingdom and Cordelia refuses to play ball, then shortly afterwards we see the sub-plot characters talking about legitimate and illegitimate offspring. This creates the sense of a universe where the usual laws of family are going to be bent and upset.

Okay, I’ve run out of examples for now. Give me yours in the comments!

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.



45 thoughts on “Plot is linear, story doesn’t have to be

  1. Roz,

    Thanks for the mention. I would like to point out that non-linear plots are not achieved solely by time-bending. My reaction to the claim was based on my experience with my own novel, St. Martin’s Moon. I spent years trying to write a synopsis to the story, and kept failing, primarily because the plot wasn’t linear, even though the timeline was. My MC is the focus of the story for the first 60%, and the last 20%. The middle 20% is where much of the resolution happens, and while he is responsible for that he doesn’t do it or cause it. His presence has set in motion lots of other people who do what they do to forward/resolve the plot entirely independent of him, or each other. I call it non-linear in the sense that the plot is at best a braided rope of different plots, none of which extends all the way through the story. There is no single chain of cause-and-effect statements that will get you from A to Z.

    1. Marc, I thought we needed space to give this topic a proper airing. Thanks for coming along and explaining. Synopses can be evil in the way they force you to strip away the conplex layers. How did you solve that problem in the end?

  2. Wow. There is so much to think about in there. I think readers tend to be far more patient with a non-linear story when the author has built a strong connection with the character(s).

  3. Great point, Roz!! And Memento is a GREAT example; nice mystery there. Also Sandra Bullock’s role in Premonition is a different kind of non-linear story–experiencing segments of the past, then the future, then the past, then the future. Pseudo-linear in that the days progress, but the sequences of past and future switch back and forth. This is a blurb from online:

    Depressed housewife learns her husband was killed in a car accident the day previously, awakens the next morning to find him alive and well at home, and then awakens the next day after to a world in which he is still dead.

    Kinda throws preconceived notions on their heads. That’s a movie rather than a novel tho (not sure if it ever was a novel). Anyway, thanks for the food for thought. Straight linear isn’t always the most interesting!

  4. Wow, I didn’t know my comment would make such a big impact! I find that the terminology IS confusing, and my plotting series is all about trying to dissect the terminology and break it down to it’s essential elements. (Which I started with narrative, then story, then plot, then plot types, then structure).In my research I found that the order one puts a story in is STRUCTURE. But plot is a linear string of events where one event causes another event and so on and so forth. It’s a VERY COMPLEX topic and the terms get thrown around a lot! Thanks for continuing this conversation!

  5. I confess. Some of the worst books I’ve tried to plod through were non-linear. But then again, so were some of the best ones I’ve ever read. In the hands of a gifted writer, it works. For my taste, that’s far and few between. Too many times the transitions are awkward and the thread is bare and it comes together too late for me. It’s too distracting. In my own writing, my books are mostly linear, with a little weaving of back story. But the linear timeline gives me grief–so I can’t imagine what it takes to control the timeline in a story that is non-linear.

  6. I’ve always wanted to play around with non-linear writing, but the main thing for me is one thing you touched on. The story really does need to call for it, but I’ve yet to have a story speak to me in that fashion. But it might be worth giving some time to thinking of a story that could really set off nicely with that approach.

    Definitely worthy of some thought.

    1. Or just experiment – see if you get a more powerful effect by working out of order. But only as necessary. I want to write a backwards narrative but every idea I’ve added to it so far has not been enhanced by it. So the format goes back on the wish list.

  7. Thanks for this post.

    There are definitely stories where shuffling the cards is imperative. My 1st novel started when the protagonist was 17 and ended when she was in her forties. The problem was, editors thought it was YA until later chapters, and then they were confused because it’s clearly not YA! It made sense to chose a new starting point where the voice is clearly adult, and then backtrack.

    The trick was finding the right starting point, and then going back in a way that appeared seamless. It was a helluva lotta work, but worth it. It changed the tone of the entire novel.

  8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another great example of non linear story. I’d be specific but if I went into too much detail I would ruin the sort of circular feeling of the end of the end of the tale. I thought the way that story was told was phenomenal and I was dying to find anyone else who had seen the film so I could discuss it with them (I was even trying to drag people to go back and watch it with me) not just for the unique backwards running scenes (btw ESOTSP predates Memento I believe) but for the message at the tales heart.

    Then there’s Pulp Fiction, but that’s just Quentin craziness 🙂

  9. Interested to read this a few days after watching the excellent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy where scenes from the ‘present’ (when Smiley is appointed to find the mole in MI6) and the recent past (the events leading up to Smiley’s premature retirement) are intermingled. It worked well and kept the viewer on his/her toes.
    The 2 time frames occurred one after the other so the viewer could not immediately distinguish (from the types of clothes worn, cars driven, use of younger or older actors in the same role etc.) one from the other. So the director used two very simple devices to aid the viewer in distinguishing between either time-frame. Straight after Smiley’s premature retirement we see him visit the optician and emerge with a new pair of specs. which look very different from the ones he wore while in MI6. So now viewers can tell, by which pair of glasses Smiley is wearing, where they are chronologically. And for those scenes where Smiley is not present? Well, these tend to be those scenes in which Ricki Tarr features prominently. In the earlier time frame he is clean shaven, in the later one he has significant stubble.

      1. I have bought the DVD of the 1979 TV series with Alec Guinness as Smiley. I have vague recollections of watching it then and seem to remember that the story was told in a more linear way in it, I shall watch it, compare and report back.

        1. Looking forward to it, Yvone. I heard an interview with the scriptwriter for the recent Jane Eyre film and she’s taken some liberties with the original story’s timeline. She’s started at the point where Jane is with the Rivers family, and then flashing back. Her reasoning was that she always felt the story deflated at that point so she rejigged to keep the pressure on. Interesting.

  10. The book I’m reading at the moment – The Lies of Locke Lamora (recommended, by the way) – uses an interesting transformation of story relative to plot. It begins with the character as a young boy, but then throws the reader rapidly into the main part of the plot much later in his life. However, it then periodically flashes back to fill in more details of the intervening time. This works really well in some places and in others is frustrating due to (I think deliberately) breaking up the action when I want to know what happens next.

  11. Hey Roz,

    I think there’s a distinction to be made between non-linear character experience (Memento) and non-linear story telling (Pulp Fiction). The former makes the breakdown of the timeline internal to the character, whereas the latter is about keeping the reader in the dark – and is basically the underpinning to any mystery. Maybe that’s semi-non-linear?

    I think it depends on the narrative you’re writing. I’m working on a quest narrative, so it has to be linear really. However, if it was a story about an adult coming to terms with things that happened in their childhood it would make more sense to have a non-linear, cutting back to the events that formed the adult’s opinions.

    What’s more interesting is when the story is non-linear in a genre you don’t expect. Or the character seems doomed but then a chunk of narrative out of sequence reveals a pay off that saves them.

    Cheers for now

    1. Hey, Jonathan! That is an excellent point about Memento – and because there’s a good reason to show the story out of order that makes it a stronger story.
      Could a quest story be done out of order? Probably not because it would take the focus away from the quest.

  12. Lots of good points here. I think the primary problem often is terminology. I’ve finally hit upon this distinction that helps me keep things straight: Plot is the linear (chronological) order in which events happen or happened; narrative structure is the order in which the author presents those events. The plot is the plot, but the narrative structure creates pacing, suspense, and sense of resolution in the written work.

  13. I see a lot of good examples of non-linear stories here, but it isn’t always a good thing. How many times have you read a book where a piece of the action has been dragged, probably by the publisher, to the beginning as a sort of ‘fake hook?’ How many times have you watched a movie that runs scenes out of order, without there being any real reason for it at all? Granted, this can take a little post-cinema analysis, which you don’t always feel like doing after watching a forgettable out-of-sequence thriller. As far as I can tell, this gimmick works best to give a non-conventional story structure the emotional sequence of a more familiar one. Have you really analyzed your work to discover that first, you need this kind of fix, and second, it actually works for you?

    I consider myself quite amateur in the fiction game, so I’ve pretty much set out-of-sequence plotting up on the high shelf with all the other advanced gimmicks I’m not ready for. Sure, they’re tempting, but at this stage of the game, they are more likely than not to keep me from crossing the finish line on any of my various projects. I’m still trying to keep my run-on sentences from tying me in knots.

    Job #1 for me right now is absolute coherence. Maybe I’m not the world’s most careful reader, but I’ve found that a lot of published books out there, even some by big names, have sections where it’s not always clear what you, the reader, are supposed to be experiencing. Sure, there are artistic considerations, and choices. I just don’t see the obvious ROI on intentionally confusing the reader. If, in the course of deepening your mystery in this artificial way, you confuse yourself, the writer, it’s just worse.

  14. A fascinating post!

    You’re point about the writer understanding the simple structure is important, and I think it can be broadened somewhat in scope. For best impact, If a writer chooses to utilize a non-linear structure, the structure choice(s) should be related to the story somehow, beyond just having characters motivations squared away.

    For example, Memento’s structure wouldn’t have made as much sense if the story hadn’t been about memory loss. The structure keyed into that element of the story and broke it open. Similarly, Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are told in ways that emphasize a major mechanism important to the story.

    Another movie, Slaughterhouse Five (from the Kurt Vonnegut book of the same name) uses a structure similar to Time Traveller’s Wife–primarily because the story is about a man who “comes unstuck from time” and lives his life out of order.

    Anyway, thanks for the detailed thoughts. Really got me thinking! Happy Monday!

  15. Roz: I’m sure you are right that organizing the plot in a linear fashion first makes it easier to figure out how it could be even more effective if it were reorganized in a non-linear way. I personally see flashbacks, prologue, and other non-linear sequencing as being advanced writing techniques that a novice writer should use cautiously.

    For my WIP, the plot unfolds linearly. But things got a little tricky when I decided to include two points of view. The main protagonist is in first person. His love interest, who is virtually a second main character, is in third person limited. Although the plot is linear, the story steps forward in parallel between the two POV characters, who are not always together. In a way, I’m telling two linear stories which intersect at times. I may have gotten creative beyond my skill, but I like how it works well enough not to change it.

  16. Definitely a passionate subject. I have a steady current timeline linear story but I like to mix in the backstory and other events through nightmares. Essentially intertwining two other timelines with the current progressive timeline. The story weaves through these in a steady progression forward but not necessarily always chronologically forward. Great topic Roz

  17. Whenever I think of non-linear storytelling, I think of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The characters are living their lives in perfectly sequential order, but the scenes are related wholly out of order. It’s chaotic and a right pain to track–you really have to rely on how many missions Yossarian has flown (and it’s always mentioned for other reasons) to determine just where in his timeline you, as the reader, are.

    It’s an excellent device for exploring the pure chaos of the lives of these men and women while being stationed off the coast of Italy during World War II, even if it does require the you to really engage your brain and pay attention. Very few authors could have pulled it off.

    I think the movie adaptation did a poor job of taking this same kind of disjointed storytelling and transferring it to another medium. Whereas I came out of the novel going “wow!” I came out of the movie going “huh?”–and that was with the benefit of having read the novel.

  18. Thank you for this! My novel is split between two main characters: one tells the main plot in a linear fashion, and the other skips around with episodes from his life that gradually delve deeper into his personality and background. There are two reasons for the skipping. First, if you meet someone they tend to tell you lighter, more superficial stuff about themselves, and then eventually when you know them well they tell you about their troubled past that really influenced them. Second, if it were chronological, the first chapter would be about a 6-yr-old boy being abused, and that would really affect the tone of the novel that early on.

    I’ve tried to make sure that the second character’s chapters connect thematically to what’s happening with the main plot, but still a lot of beta readers don’t like the structure of my novel at first because they don’t understand why I’ve done it until it all comes together at the end. Whether publishers and agents will like it is still up in the air, but it’s nice to know that there are other successful nonlinear stories and movies out there.

    1. Thanks, Ed. I agree with your reasons for using a non-linear structure, but it seems your beta readers are telling you they’re not yet understanding why they have to read about somebody’s life in that way. Is there a way you could make it easier for them while doing it your way too?

    2. Hi Ed. My comment above (#33) talks about my situation, which is similar to yours in some ways. My beta readers initially had a problem with the chapters that switched POV too (my approach is somewhat uncommon for the fantasy genre).

      I went back to those chapters and did a couple of things to ease the transition for them. For one thing, I did more to make it immediately obvious that the POV was changing through the dialog or circumstances. I also tried to give the reader a special treat by showing something that could not have been shown or easily discovered from the alternate POV. That “something else” is of course the whole point of the second POV, but the more tasty the treat, the more the reader forgives the shift.

      That’s the theory anyway. My readers *were* more forgiving of the POV shift later in the book where more exciting things happen during the second POV chapters. I guess that was the underlying lesson: make all of of your scenes exciting!

      It was ironic to me that the “problem chapters” were the ones in third-person limited, not the ones in first person. One could argue that third-person limited is a much more common POV for a fantasy novel. Ah, well. Readers!

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