Nonlinear narrative

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Nonlinear narrative, disjointed narrative or disrupted narrative is a narrative technique, sometimes used in literature, film, hypertext websites and other narratives, where events are portrayed, for example out of chronological order, or in other ways where the narrative does not follow the direct causality pattern of the events featured, such as parallel distinctive plot lines, dream immersions or narrating another story inside the main plot-line. It is often used to mimic the structure and recall of human memory, but has been applied for other reasons as well.


Beginning a narrative in medias res (Latin: "into the middle of things") began in ancient times and was established as a convention of epic poetry with Homer's Iliad in the 8th century BC. The technique of narrating most of the story in flashback also dates back to the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, around the 5th century BC. Several medieval Arabian Nights tales such as "Sinbad the Sailor", "The City of Brass" and "The Three Apples" also had nonlinear narratives employing the in medias res and flashback techniques.[1]

From the late 19th century and early 20th century, modernist novelists Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner experimented with narrative chronology and abandoning linear order.[2]

Examples of nonlinear novels are: Luís Vaz de Camões's The Lusiads, Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–67), Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (ca. 1833), Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), Sadeq Hedayat's The Blind Owl (1937), William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959), Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Milorad Pavić's Dictionary of the Khazars (1988), Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (1993), Carole Maso's Ava: a novel (1993) and Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (1979).[3] Several of Michael Moorcock's novels, particularly those in the Jerry Cornelius series, in particular The English Assassin: A Romance of Entropy (1972) and The Condition of Muzak (1977) are notable for extending the nonlinear narrative form in order to explore the complex nature of identity within a multiversal universe.

Scott McCloud argues in Understanding Comics that the narration of comics is nonlinear because it relies on the reader's choices and interactions.


Defining nonlinear structure in film is, at times, difficult. Films may use extensive flashbacks or flashforwards within a linear storyline, while nonlinear films often contain linear sequences.[4] Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) — influenced structurally by The Power and the Glory (1933) — and Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) use a non-chronological flashback narrative that is often labeled nonlinear.

Silent and early era[edit]

Experimentation with nonlinear structure in film dates back to the silent film era, including D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and Abel Gance's Napoléon (1927).[5] Nonlinear film emerged from the French avant-garde in ).[5] in 1924 with René Clair’s “Entracte”, Dadaïst film and then in 1929 with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou (English: An Andalusian Dog). The surrealist film jumps into fantasy and juxtaposes images, granting the filmmakers an ability to create statements about the Church, art, and society that are left open to interpretation.[6] Buñuel and Dalí's L'Âge d'Or (1930) (English: The Golden Age) also uses nonlinear concepts. The revolutionary Russian filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Alexander Dovzhenko also experimented with the possibilities of nonlinearity. Eisenstein's Strike (1925) and Dovzhenko's Earth (1930) hint at a nonlinear experience.[7] English director Humphrey Jennings used a nonlinear approach in his World War II documentary Listen to Britain (1942).[7]

Post-World War II[edit]

Jean-Luc Godard's work since 1959 was also important in the evolution of nonlinear film. Godard famously stated, "I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order".[8] Godard's Week End (French: Le weekend) (1968), as well as Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls (1966), defy linear structure in exchange for a chronology of events that is seemingly random.[9] Alain Resnais experimented with narrative and time in his films Hiroshima mon amour (1959), L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), and Muriel (1963). Federico Fellini defined his own nonlinear cinema with the films La Strada (1954), La Dolce Vita (1960), (1963), Fellini Satyricon (1969), and Roma (1972), as did Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky with his modernist films The Mirror (1975) and Nostalghia (1983). Nicolas Roeg's films, including Performance (1968), Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and Bad Timing (1980) are characterized by a nonlinear approach.[10] Other experimental nonlinear filmmakers include Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Greenaway, Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Raúl Ruiz, Carlos Saura, Alain Robbe-Grillet ....[11]

In the United States, Robert Altman carried the nonlinear motif in his films, including McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), and Gosford Park (2001).[12] Woody Allen embraced the experimental nature of nonlinear narrative in Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), and Stardust Memories (1980).

1990s and 2000s[edit]

In the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino influenced a tremendous growth in nonlinear films with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994).[6] Other important nonlinear films include Atom Egoyan's Exotica (1994), Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998), Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999), and Karen and Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001).[6] David Lynch experimented with nonlinear narrative and surrealism in Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Dr. (2001), and Inland Empire (2006).

In the years leading into and the beginning of the 21st century, some filmmakers have returned to the use of nonlinear narrative repeatedly, including Steven Soderbergh in Schizopolis (1996), Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999), Full Frontal (2002), Solaris (2002), and Che (2008); and Christopher Nolan in Following (1998), Memento (2000), Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Memento, with its fragmentation and reverse chronology, has been described as characteristic of moving towards postmodernism in contemporary cinema. The element of reverse chronology was explored further in Gaspar Noé's 2002 film Irréversible. Noé's 2009 film Enter the Void also used an uncommon narrative structure as a man recalls his life through flashbacks at the time of his death, induced by the use of psychedelic drugs.[13] Richard Linklater used nonlinear narrative in Slacker (1991), Waking Life (2001), and A Scanner Darkly (2006); Gus Van Sant in Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005), and Paranoid Park (2007). Alejandro González Iñárritu's film Babel is an example of fragmented narrative structure. Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai explored nonlinear storylines in the films Days of Being Wild (1991), Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046 (2004). Fernando Meirelles in City of God and The Constant Gardener. All of Alejandro González Iñárritu's films to date (aside from Birdman) feature nonlinear narratives. Charlie Kaufman is also known for his fondness of nonlinear story-telling as applied in Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Takashi Shimizu's Japanese horror series, Ju-on, brought to America as The Grudge, is also nonlinear in its storytelling.


Japanese anime series sometimes present their plot in nonlinear order. In The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, for example, the episodes were deliberately aired in non-chronological order. A more nonlinear example is Baccano!, where every scene is displayed in non-chronological order, with most scenes taking place at various times during the early 1930s and some scenes taking place before (extending back to the 18th century) and after (extending forward to the 21st century). Other examples include Yami to Bōshi to Hon no Tabibito, Touka Gettan, Rental Magica, Ergo Proxy, Fullmetal Alchemist, Axis Powers Hetalia, and (partly) Boogiepop Phantom.

The ABC television series Lost made extensive use of nonlinear story telling, with each episode typically featuring a primary storyline on the island as well as a secondary storyline from another point in a character's life, either past or future.

FX's Emmy Award winning legal drama Damages starring Glenn Close, begins each season with an intensely melodramatic event taking place and then traveling back six months earlier. Throughout the season, each episode shows events both in the past, present, and future that lead up to and follow said event.

The British sitcom Coupling would often utilize non-linear narratives in which groups of men and women would independently discuss an event, after which (or during) the event would be portrayed.

Video games[edit]

Main article: Nonlinear gameplay

In video games, the term "nonlinear" refers to a game that has more than one possible story line and/or ending.[citation needed] This allows the audience to choose from multiple different paths, that may be compatible with their style of play. This increases replay value, as players must often beat the game several times to get the entire story. Role-playing video games, such as Fallout, often contain multiple paths which the player may choose from the beginning of the game. Multiple endings also appear in some adventure games (such as Shadow of Memories), survival horrors (such as the Resident Evil and Silent Hill games), stealth games (such as Metal Gear Solid) and platform games (such as Sega's spin-off game, Shadow the Hedgehog).

Some video games mimic film non-linearity by presenting a single plot in a chronologically distorted way instead of letting the player determine the story flow themselves. The first-person shooter Tribes: Vengeance is an example of this; another is Sega's Sonic Adventure.

Often game developers use the idea of character amnesia in games. It helps give the game a beginning because the audience only has the understanding that there is a history before the events of the game take place, and it allows the developers more leniency with the paths the player can take. The latter option ultimately results in the development of a nonlinear story. Furthermore, by creating a nonlinear storyline the complexity of game play is greatly expanded. Nonlinear game play allows for greater replay value, allowing the player to put together different pieces of a potentially puzzling storyline. A fitting example of character amnesia is the 2005 video game Façade. In Façade the player is put into a situation that lasts approximately 10 to 15 minutes in real time, yet the events recalled seem to have a basis in years of dramatic history.[14]

HTML narratives[edit]

In contemporary society webpages or to be more correct, hypertexts, have become affluent forms of narratives. Hypertexts have great potential to create non-linear forms of narratives. They allow for individuals to actually interact with the story through links, images, audio and video. An established hypertext narrative is Public Secret.[15] Public Secret illustrates the reality of being incarcerated in California's Criminal Justice System. It brings to light the way inmates are treated. This functions as a non-linear narrative because it allows for its audience to witness through text and audio the reality of being a female inmate. However, there is no exact beginning or end as there are in comic books or video games. This website consists of multiple subtopics that do not force the audience to make their next selection based on what their previous experiences are.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pinault, David (1992). Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights. Brill Publishers. pp. 86–94. ISBN 90-04-09530-6. 
  2. ^ Heise, Ursula K. (1997). Chronoschisms: Time, Narrative, and Postmodernism. Cambridge University Press. p. 77 ISBN 0-521-55544-2
  3. ^ Maso, Carole (1993). Ava: a novel. Fiction. Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press. ISBN 1-56478-029-5. OCLC 26763542. 
  4. ^ Blum, Richard A. (2001). Television and Screen Writing: From Concept to Contract. Focal Press. p. 125. ISBN 0-240-80384-1.
  5. ^ Debruge, Peter (December 7, 2007). "More scripts take nonlinear route". Variety. Retrieved on February 3, 2008.
  6. ^ a b c Dancyger, Ken & Rush, Jeff. (2006). Alternative Scriptwriting: Successfully Breaking the Rules. Focal Press. pp 154-163. ISBN 0-240-80849-5.
  7. ^ a b Dancyger, Ken (2002). The Technique of Film and Video Editing: History, Theory, and Practice. Focal Press. pp. 393-394. ISBN 0-240-80225-X
  8. ^ "Godard only knows...". The Observer. November 26, 2000. Retrieved on February 2, 2008.
  9. ^ Dethridge, Lisa (2003). Writing Your Screenplay. Allen & Unwin. pp. 114-117. ISBN 1-74114-083-8
  10. ^ "Nicolas Roeg on Don't Look Now". Channel 4. Retrieved on February 2, 2008.
  11. ^ Kinder, Marsha "Hot Spots, Avatars, and Narrative Fields Forever". Film Quarterly. Vol. 55, No. 54. Retrieved on February 9, 2008.
  12. ^ Boggs, Carl (2003). A World in Chaos: Social Crisis and the Rise of Postmodern Cinema. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 195. ISBN 0-7425-3289-5
  13. ^ Nelmes, Jill (2003). An Introduction to Film Studies.Routledge. p. 87. ISBN 0-415-26268-2
  14. ^ Chen, Sherol. "Nonlinear Storytelling in Games: Deconstructing the Varieties of Nonlinear Experiences." Expressive Intelligence Studio Blog | EIS at UC Santa Cruz. Web. 17 Nov. 2009. <>.
  15. ^ Daniel, Sharon. "Public Secrets." Vectors Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular. Web. 18 Nov. 2009. <>.

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