Nonlinear storytelling has become enormously influential in books, films and television over the past twenty, or twenty-five years.
Flashbacks and flash-forwards, not always labelled as such, have made great works like Pulp Fiction and Lost possible, which would have never met with similar popularity in the traditional, i.e. linear, narrative.
What can one learn as a writer, what consequences should one derive from this for his own stories, and what problems can one encounter?
The use of nonlinear narrative requires two elementary things. First, you need to know your story inside out.
You must have a complete plan, to even think about nonlinear narration.
If you are not entirely clear about the beginning, the end, the way in between, or even just the backstory, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and time jumps, it usually leads to disaster.
Because if you don’t have a clear overview of your story, how should the reader succeed, who is tumbling from flashbacks to flashforwards and everywhere in between.
The second, but the no less important element is you need a very very good reason why you don’t want to tell your story linear.
And that’s precisely what many books and scripts are missing.
Especially budding writers like to use flashbacks and flash-forwards just because they found it cool in other works, and it sounds like a twist that easily captivates a reader, but that alone is not enough reason!
In fact, there are only three good reasons for non-linear storytelling.
You can generate more tension, you can create more jokes, or you can surprise the reader in a unique way that would not be linearly narrated.
In particular, flashbacks should, however, usually not be used to establish, for example, a trait or the actions of a character.
In any case, it makes sense to show these traits in the present, for each leap in time inevitably brings the main story to a standstill.
That Pulp Fiction, a movie from 1994, still enjoys such a good reputation twenty-four years later and is cited as the best example of nonlinear storytelling, should be a little warning to you.
It’s not that other films wouldn’t have tried that, but it’s just that there’s hardly a movie after Pulp Fiction that has done it well!
Too often time leaps confuse the reader or viewer, and they act like a gimmick, not as an elementary part of the plot.
On the other hand, sparse flashbacks can be useful if it is essential for the development of the story, that a character tells something about your past, and then actually show the moment instead of just describing it.
In this flashback, of course, the previously mentioned Unreliable Narrator can be included, because not every character necessarily has to tell the truth when reporting from the past.
In flash-forwards, on the other hand, one should usually forego the unreliable narrator or other deliberate, bad deceptions.
But attentive readers and viewers at flash forwards ask themselves what may have happened in the meantime for it to come to this conclusion.
If they don’t have the slightest chance of knowing the truth, they can feel betrayed by the author, and we want to avoid that.
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