Nonlinear Storytelling Techniques
Over the course of human history, art has always been reflective of the time in which it was created. Neoclassicism was born from the Age of Enlightenment. Abstract Expressionism exploded onto the scene during the Cold War as a release of social anxieties, planting the seeds of rebellion that bloomed into the counterculture of the 1960s. Writing is no different.
Art evolves over time as screenwriters and painters pioneer novel ways of expressing their universal truths.
Although screenwriters and filmmakers have been experimenting with nonlinear narrative arrangements since the industry was still a startup, it was Pulp Fiction that really brought the scriptwriting technique to the forefront in the 1990s — a time dominated by a nihilistic reproach on social structure and responsibility.
With a brash band of misfits leading his groundbreaking script, Tarantino proved that you can be creative with the structure of your story and still be successful. Breaking the mold was no longer considered a hindrance to the box office, but a superpower unto itself.
A newfound trust was forged between screenwriters, financiers and production companies that employed them, leading to a golden age of spec script sales and indie film development. Nonlinear storytelling is everywhere nowadays, from The Witcher to Watchmen to Westworld. So let’s look at how some of the greats approached the method:
Past And Present Timelines
The simplest and perhaps oldest technique for nonlinear storytelling is the tale of two timelines: the past at play with the present. A great example of this is Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.
The story takes place in two timelines that are seven years apart. For the script’s formatting, Gerwig uses red font color to signify the past. Jumping between past and present in the film isn’t as clear as it is on the page. There are no lower thirds telling you the date. A viewing requires more participation from the audience.
Instead, Gerwig uses visual cues and tonal choices to signify which time period the setting takes place in. Specific locations and visual styles signify certain time periods. New York and Paris take place in the present while Concord is set in both the past and the present. The past is written in a warmer, more lively tone as childhood memories often are, whereas the present is somewhat cold and daunting as the sisters navigate adulthood.
An expansion on the two timeline nonlinear tradition is the Triptych. A triptych is a piece of art broken into three sections and typically acts as a single unit. A great exploration of this is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Trilogy of Death – Amores perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. Particularly Amores perros and 21 Grams.
In discussing the structure of 21 Grams, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga wanted the script to reflect how someone tells a story in real life. We seldom tell a story straight through. We jump around in our discourse because that is how our minds operate.
The film tells the story of a tragic accident through the point of view of three characters. Arriaga structured the three timelines with a past, present, and future and jumbled them up. The trick with this is forming a narrative from disjointed and seemingly unrelated action.
Arriaga told Script Magazine, “We all know that one scene has a meaning by itself and a completely different one when it is linked to a scene before and a scene after. I wanted to go beyond the conventional, so I went for symbolic choices.”
To understand what Arriaga means by this, we can look at the basic foundations of Sergei Eisenstein’s essay on Montage Theory where he explores the fundamentals of editing.
Eisenstein broke them down into five main categories:
There are ways to apply this knowledge to your writing. A writer should be conscious of how scene length and content dictate a reader’s emotional responses. The spacing of your paragraphs is a great way to control the pacing within a scene.
Think of each paragraph as a cut in the editing room. If one is writing an action scene and wants to elicit a sense of urgency, then be quick and to the point with a single or double sentenced paragraph. That reads faster than a clunky five-line paragraph that better serves for establishing exposition. The form should reflect the function.
To go further, every detail and action in your description, despite the time in which it occurs chronologically, should move the story forward into your next scene. Then the next scene needs to both inform on the previous scene and propel into the following scene like a stack of dominoes weighted with meaning.
Take for example The Dark Knight. The power supply for two ferries shuts off, prompting the crew to investigate the engine rooms where they find a gift, they open the gift to find a detonator, then Joker lays out the rules of his game.
Each scene asks a question. The next scene answers the previous scene’s question while raising a new question. So on and so forth in a beautifully constructed lyrical rhythm.
Another great example of the triptych nonlinear structure is Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run), a film broken into three separate acts where the protagonist repeats a race against time to save her boyfriend. Each time she makes the run, the smallest of missteps creates drastically different consequences for every character she interacts with.
Each of the three parts has a basic linear narrative structure that takes place in real-time. The beginning reveals characters in their normal settings, an enigma is introduced to spur them from comfort, they must race to solve the enigma, and bring about a new equilibrium.
Lola Rennt sets the clock and constantly reminds the audience that time is counting down, which creates a sense of urgency and expectation from the jump. Instead of introducing the normalcy at the beginning, the writer and director Tom Tykwer jumps right into the action. Instead, Tykwer uses flashback scenes as buffers between each of Lola’s runs to help establish the main characters’ relationship and strengthen the audience’s bond with them
True Detective Season 3 acts as a sort of nonlinear triptych in that there are three different timelines that come together to form one coherent narrative. Throughout the series, two timelines from the past interweave through Detective Wayne Hays’ scattered mind as he tries to remember details that will help him finally solve a cold case.
As with any good mystery, his warped memory can only remember bits and pieces that eventually fit together like a jumbled puzzle to reveal a larger picture. Despite staring at the larger picture, he doesn’t always understand what he’s looking at because of his onset of dementia. He’s an unreliable narrator, which makes the ride that much more complex and frustrating for both the character and the viewer.
In Rashomon, a samurai is murdered and four witnesses testify their differing account of the crime. When the actors pressed director and co-writer Akira Kurosawa to tell them which conflicting story was the truth, he explained to them what would later become known as The Rashomon Effect in that, “the film is about the differences in perspective found in multiple accounts of a single event.”
The brutal 2002 French film Irréversible written and directed by Gaspar Noé is told in reverse chronological order, turning the cause and effect of normal storytelling on its head. We also see this storytelling technique used in other art forms such as Nas’ song Rewind, where he recounts a revenge plot that moves backward from a murder until we reach the phone call that set it all in motion.
Leave it to Christopher Nolan to find groundbreaking ways to upend everything we know about nonlinear storytelling. For Memento, Nolan explains how he constructed his two timelines:
1. The Color Sequence — Runs backward chronologically. The subjective point of view of the main character is told in first person.
2. The Black and White Sequence — Initially an objective point of view told in third person that moves forward chronologically.
In the script, all sequences are clearly labeled in the scene heading:
INT. DERELICT HOUSE – DAY
INT. MOTEL ROOM 21 – DAY – BLACK AND WHITE SEQUENCE
The fonts are different and the black and white sequences are italicized.
As the story progresses by intercutting the color with the black and white sequences, the timelines eventually converge. The color sequences become less subjective and the black and white sequences become less objective to create a reality that fades together towards the end of the film.
You can take a look at Dr. Steve Aprahamian’s complete diagram of Memento’s story structure below:
(500) Days of Summer is a fun exercise of creativity by the minds of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. They flip through the calendar days of a male protagonist’s biased perspective as he navigates a failing relationship.
The screenwriters progress the story like the rollercoaster ride of emotions one experiences throughout the ups and downs of love.
When discussing the elevator scene during his Script to Screen conversation at the University of California, Neustadter explains, “If you don’t tell the story in a linear fashion, you can put the time in which you told this joke and she thought it was hilarious, and then the time you guys were in the middle of things not going so well and you told the same joke and now you’re a horrible person. You put them back to back and see that time is really the villain and not the people.”
He went on to talk about being worried about director Marc Webb’s reaction to his nonlinear approach, “All he wanted to know was why? If you can justify every cut and every nonlinear choice then we can go with this.”
Nonlinear structures are a fun way for screenwriters to flex their brains and create their own story puzzles. By doing this, they leave enough up for interpretation to encourage multiple views in order to fully understand the complexities of the writer’s choices.
All of these structures find root in the basic foundations of chronological storytelling. By deconstructing the pieces of the story and rearranging them — a writer can create their own path forward one piece at a time.