Traditional storytelling usually involves a linear storyline where everything happens in chronological order, but there are some authors who choose to tell their stories in a non-linear fashion (think Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, or Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses).
One of the main complaints against this writing style is that it’s confusing and hard to follow, so why do some writers choose to use non-linear storylines at all?
A non-linear storyline can be used to recall memories or conversations from a character’s past, such as a flashback, or as a way to segue into a flashback or backstory. They can also be used as a frame story (a story within a story).
Starting a story with a scene that feels like you’ve picked up reading in the middle or end of the story instead of the beginning, immediately makes the reader ask questions and draws them in, thereby building suspense. Starting a story this way can be used as a means of hooking your reader’s attention and drawing them into a story for which they will want to continue reading in order to get answers.
Non-linear storytelling can also be an interesting way to convey backstory without having to overdo exposition and can often be used as a means to get the reader directly into the conflict of the story.
Another reason for non-linear storytelling is that it can allow for multiple characters to offer their different perspectives on the same situation. It can also allow for parallel storytelling, where you follow multiple characters from different places or perspectives within the same timeline, but not necessary the same situations or conflicts.
Initial confusion can be frustrating, but as most readers discover, if they just keep reading, the storyline will eventually fall into place, the burning questions will be answered, and all scenes will eventually make sense. In essence, non-linear storylines can be used to ‘force‘ readers to think and to ask questions. Trust that the author will guide you to the answers, and you will find the experience far more enjoyable. Relax, and let the author be your guide.
As someone who has dabbled in the occasional non-linear storyline (such as with my most recent book); I often receive feedback where people either loved the non-linear storytelling or hate it. And I can understand where it may not be every reader’s cup of tea, and that’s entirely up to the reader’s tastes. Feel free to comment below and tell me what you think of non-linear storytelling. Do you love it? Do you hate it? Indifferent? Name some of your favorite books which have non-linear storylines!
3/27/16 Project Updates: Last night, I completed chapter #16 of Torn Apart. I am over halfway finished with Book 1 and am very pleased with how the story is turning out so far. Writing chapter #17 will be the first mature-rated chapter in the book, but all such scenes will be important for plot or character development.