Non-Linear Storytelling

Most stories start at the beginning and stop when they reach the end. However, a few stories use non-linear storytelling. That’s where the events you see don’t happen in chronological order. Telling stories with events out of order can be an especially interesting technique because it helps put earlier events in a different perspective.

In “Pulp Fiction,” John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson play two hit men who miraculously survive being shot at from close range. This causes Samuel L. Jackson’s character to give up the hit man life while John Travolta continues it. This eventually brings John Travolta’s character to his death when he emerges out of the bathroom to face Bruce Willis, holding his own machine gun.

Later we see the scene where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson were in a diner that was being robbed so they both pulled out their guns and let the robbers go. Even earlier, Bruce Willis is in a bar where he sees both John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson arrive in strange T-shirts that they had to wear because their own clothes got blood-soaked after John Travolta accidentally shot a guy in the face.

Non-linear storytelling simply gives an earlier scene additional significance. Another movie that uses non-linear storytelling is “Memento,” which is about a man obsessed with tracking and killing a man out of revenge. The problem is this man doesn’t have short-term memory so he has to write notes to himself so he’ll know what to do the next day.

In one scene, we see the hero in a bar talking to a pretty bartender. In this scene, the pretty bartender appears to be helping him. Then later in the movie, we see this exact same scene again, except we see the earlier part of the scene where the pretty bartender spits in the hero’s drink before pretending to be helping him. Because of this non-linear technique, what seemed simple and obvious at first glance (the pretty bartender is helping the hero) suddenly turns into a new scene altogether when we realize she’s actually working against him.┬áThat sudden revelation can only occur through non-linear storytelling.

Perhaps the most interesting movie that uses non-linear storytelling is “Slaughterhouse-Five,” a 1972 movie based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel about a soldier fighting in World War Two. The hero of “Slaughterhouse-Five” has become unstuck in time, which means he travels back and forth between different times of his own life from his birth to being a kid to being trapped during the Battle of the Bulge to his life after the war and his subsequent abduction by aliens where he’s put in a zoo with a porn star.

“Slaugtherhouse-Five” tells a story by bouncing from one period of the hero’s life to another, back and forth so the effect is to tell a coherent story with the actual events completely out of order. By constantly jumping from one time period to another, “Slaughterhouse-Five” holds the audience’s interest because you can see the connection between later events in the hero’s life to earlier events and vice versa.

Non-linear storytelling is difficult but worth investigating if your story starts to slow down. By adding non-linear storytelling into your own story, you can create a jarring effect that might keep an audience interested because they want to figure out the connections between two seemingly different scenes that appear out of chronological order.

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