What Is a Nonlinear Plot? What You Need To Know

Learn about narrative techniques that can help you tell your story compellingly and effectively. Answer the question, what is a nonlinear plot here?

Writing a good short story, novel, or script involves far more than coming up with an exciting and original premise. Although a sound concept is undoubtedly important, you also need a great plot. A plot is basically how you choose to tell your story. You can also refer to the plot of your story as the narrative or story structure.

There are tried-and-tested narrative structures you can choose from, including linear and nonlinear narrative structures. While a linear plot shows events unfolding in chronological order, a nonlinear narrative presents events in an unorderly and non-chronological fashion. Read on to find out how to construct a nonlinear plot and why you want to use this type of narrative structure.

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What Is a Nonlinear Plot?

Perhaps the most effective way to describe a nonlinear plot is to describe what it is not, namely a linear plot. If one were to draw a picture of a linear plot, it would be a straight line that runs from the beginning to the middle and then the end of a story.

This type of plot typically starts with a description of the setting and the characters, after which there follows a series of events that lead to a climax. This part of the story is packed with excitement and tension. The hero’s problems are either resolved or accepted during the resolution, which is the end of the story.

As the term implies, a nonlinear plot is a narrative technique in which the story isn’t presented as a straight line with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Although the story still has a beginning, middle, and end, events from these three sections are presented in a non-chronological, or nonlinear, way.

While a linear plot presents the sequence of a story’s events as A > B > C, a nonlinear plot jumbles the order of these events in various ways. A nonlinear plot may, for instance, start in the middle, then jump back to the beginning of the story to show the audience how the protagonist got to this point. Such a plot can be represented in the following way: B > A > B > C or B > A > B > A > B > C.

However, some people argue that the first representation, namely B > A > B > C, is a linear plot since, apart from the beginning, the events follow in a straight line. For clarity, let’s look at some more examples of what a nonlinear narrative structure may look like.

What a Nonlinear Plot May Look Like

What a nonlinear plot may look like?
Flashbacks, or analepsis, show narrative events that took place in an earlier time than that of the current narrative

If you’re thinking about employing a nonlinear plot for your story, you have multiple nonlinear narrative patterns to choose from. Here are a few examples:

  • Retrograde: This is a nonlinear narrative technique in which events are narrated in reverse chronological order.
  • Zigzag: In this nonlinear narrative technique, the narrative alternates between different periods, for instance, the present and the past. For instance, in the movie, Memento, chronological scenes are interspersed with reverse scenes.
  • Flashbacks: Flashbacks, or analepsis, show narrative events that took place in an earlier time than that of the current narrative. This technique is often used to present crucial parts of the backstory.
  • Flashforwards: With this narrative technique, events are portrayed that will occur in the future. Using flashforwards can provide a logical explanation for a character’s actions in the present.
  • Syllepsis: In this type of nonlinear plot, events are grouped based on criteria other than chronological order. Events may, for instance, have a theme in common, or they may be spatially linked.
  • Achrony: Events are randomly ordered with this nonlinear technique. The relationship between the chronological order of events and the order in which they are narrated is difficult to grasp in this type of plot.

You might also want to learn about what is a plot twist and check out some examples of the best plot twists of all time.

Why Use A Nonlinear Plot?

Since a nonlinear plot doesn’t order events chronologically, with the pattern of cause and effect neatly laid out, it more closely mimics how human memory works. Human memory isn’t like a tape recorder that plays back events in the order they happened. Rather, it is entirely subjective and illogical.

Humans may sometimes spontaneously remember an event of no significance while simultaneously being unable or unwilling to recall events that may have impacted their lives significantly. This means that human memory is fallible and unreliable. Nonlinear plots can foreground how human memory colors and recreates the past.

Here are a few other reasons why authors may choose to go with nonlinear plots:

  • To create tension: Using a nonlinear plot is a great way to increase the sense of mystery in a story, which, in turn, builds suspense. Since a nonlinear plot retells a story differently from the chronological order of events, the reader is provided with an emotionally richer and more complex experience.
  • For character development: If a character in a story lacks depth, you can use a nonlinear plot to develop the character more effectively. By moving the plot back and forth in time, you can demonstrate a character’s motivations. The audience will also have a clearer view of how the character changes.
  • Thematic linkage: Sometimes, a story’s subthemes aren’t so much linked through cause and effect as through an overarching theme. If this is the case, a nonlinear narrative can help you clearly show the thematic linkage between the different storylines.

Examples of Famous Nonlinear Narratives

Faulkner can show the poignant connections between the past and the present

When you’re aiming to write a great story, it’s always helpful to look at some of the most successful and popular nonlinear narratives that have been created. Here are a few examples of unforgettable nonlinear narratives:

  • The Sound and the Fury: William Faulkner’s work can never be described as a light read. His stories are quite difficult to read. This is partly due to his complex yet super-effective narrative techniques. In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner consciously blurs the distinction between the past and the present, and the narrative constantly jumps forward and back in time. In this way, Faulkner can show the poignant connections between the past and the present.
  • Pulp Fiction: Pulp Fiction, probably the most famous of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, is an excellent example of a nonlinear narrative. Tarantino can introduce his characters multiple times and from different perspectives through a plot that consists of three separate storylines presented in a non-chronological fashion. The viewer has some difficulty figuring out how the storylines relate and in which order events occur, which increases the sense of mystery and suspense in the story.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: This movie is another great example of a nonlinear narrative. The movie starts where Joel, one of the main characters, ditches work and takes a train, where he meets the other main character, Clementine. Although they don’t know each other, they feel uneasy about having a connection. The rest of the narrative freely moves between the past and the present, unveiling the truth of how they’re connected. By having the narrative jump between the past and the present, Charlie Kaufman can show what motivates his characters’ actions.

If you liked this article and want to put these ideas into practice, check out our round-up of storytelling exercises.

  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.