Writing 101: The Non-Linear Timeline

Unless you're Doc Brown or Marty McFly, you're forced to slog through time the normal way. Like the rest of us, you see time march by on a minute-by-minute basis. The events of the morning take place before the things that occur in the evening. But when you write books, you're allowed to break all natural laws and visit any point in time at any moment you like. You may even get really bold with your book, and write a non-linear timeline. 

Time Travel

Many stories occur along an accellerated timeline. Something happens in the spring that sets it all in motion. The summer that follows is action-packed. By the time the autumn leaves are falling, the hero or heroine has learned a few lessons. When winter blusters in, the protagonist has captured the love interest, banished the villain and resolved all the issues. It's a neat 80 thousand words, give or take, and a simple enough storyline for audiences to follow. 

There's another option. Instead of writing scenes in a linear fashion (in which the winter naturally follows the fall), some authors opt for a non-linear timeline. This means that the story starts in summer, instead of the spring. Readers are exposed to the action first. Then they visit the spring of the past, and learn how these events all got set into motion. You'll find some better examples of non-linear stories in works such as The Iliad, Wuthering Heights and Slaughterhouse-Five. Those are all written stories; get a master class crash course on the non-linear timeline with Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction is the best example).

Showing readers events in a mixed-up fashion makes for an intriguing, engaging story -- in some cases. It's a bit like unraveling a mystery, and people love a good mystery. But the problem with non-linear stories is obvious: it gets confusing. Readers may get so caught up in trying to sort out all the different events, they get lost. It takes away from the story, and that makes it less enjoyable. As a writer, you have to lead readers through the story you're telling. If you lead them around and over and under and forward and backward and all sorts of different directions, eventually they're going to get tired of walking...metaphorically, of course. 

The point is, take your readers on a little walk if you will...but make sure it's an enjoyable one. If you can make the non-linear timeline work, use it. But if it's just not working, don't try to force it. Let the story unfold the way it needs to unfold, and you won't go wrong.

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  1. This is an interesting post. I have heard that when writing a novel, the writer should drop the reader into the thick of the action, and this would be one way of doing so, is that's what someone wanted to do.

    Thanks for giving us something to think about.

  2. Thanks for your input! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.