In honour of VPL’s ongoing Reading Challenge and this year’s Summer Reading Club, I bring you Type Talk, a series of blog posts about non-traditional or uncommon storytelling formats, genres or structures, which both challenge our idea of what storytelling is, and will perhaps inspire us to try a new kind of media we might not have before.
Today we’ll feature non-linear narratives, where events are told out of order, depict multiple timelines, or are heavily interspersed with flashbacks or flashforwards, to a point where it is the main vehicle for story delivery, such as in the Indian epic, The Mahābhārata.
(Note: VPL doesn’t have the complete version in English, but you can read a portion of this incredible poem, translated, in The Bhagavadgītā in the Mahābhārata.)
A non-linear narrative may also be story containing stories within itself, and so there are multiple timelines being depicted, such as in the Arabian Nights, ‘Forrest Gump‘, and ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘. Another term for this is ‘frame narratives’.
Occasionally, a non-linear narratives is signaled by beginning in medias res, or ‘in the middle of things’. Homer’s The Iliad is an example of this, as is the film ‘Gone Girl’.
In essence, if the timing of events isn’t [A event] happened and then [B event] and then [C event], it’s a non-linear narrative. Depending on how it’s conveyed, this can either be easy or difficult to keep track of what is happening when.
Sometimes, the reader is purposefully not meant to realize right away that the events aren’t happening in a chronological manner, as in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana.
For more on the art of non-linear narratives and how to write one, if you wish to, check out this great article. If you’re curious as to how the brain engages with such narratives, read the article ‘How the Brain Reacts to Scrambled Stories‘ by The Atlantic.
Some classic nonlinear narratives include, but are not limited to:
For more non-linear narratives, check out the list below!
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
In a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever– and cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. Addie LaRue’s life will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art.
After nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore. He remembers her name– and everything changes. How far will she go to leave her mark on the world?
Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug-dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. In fact, by age twenty, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most prestigious universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?
Still searching for answers, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. They tamper with forbidden magic. They raise the dead. And, sometimes, they prey on the living.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now? Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband has left her, and her professional life is going nowhere. Regardless of why Evelyn has selected her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.
Summoned to Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ’80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. Monique begins to feel a very real connection to the legendary star, but as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.
When legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots Enchanted Jones at an audition, her dreams of being a famous singer take flight. Until Enchanted wakes up with blood on her hands and zero memory of the previous night. Who killed Korey Fields? Before there was a dead body, Enchanted’s dreams had turned into a nightmare. Because behind Korey’s charm and star power was a controlling dark side.
Now he’s dead, the police are at the door, and all signs point to Enchanted.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
A fierce competition is underway, a contest between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in “a game,” in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.
Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands. True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
Film & TV
Eloise, an aspiring fashion designer, is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s where she encounters a dazzling wannabe singer, Sandie. But the glamour is not all it appears to be and the dreams of the past start to crack and splinter into something far darker.
A love letter to journalists set in an outpost of an American newspaper in a fictional 20th-century French city that brings to life a collection of stories published in “The French Dispatch.”
Mickey Pearson is an American expatriate who became rich by building a highly profitable marijuana empire in London. When word gets out that he’s looking to cash out of the business, it soon triggers an array of plots and schemes—including bribery and blackmail—from shady characters who want to steal his domain.
When Montego Air Flight 828 landed safely after a turbulent but routine flight, the crew and passengers were relieved. But in the span of those few hours, the world had aged five years—and after mourning their loss, their friends, families and colleagues had given up hope and moved on. Now, faced with the impossible, they’re all given a second chance.
But as their new realities become clear, a deeper mystery unfolds, and some of the returned passengers soon realize they may be meant for something greater than they ever thought possible.
On one day in 1989, 43 infants are inexplicably born to random, unconnected women who showed no signs of pregnancy the day before. Seven are adopted by billionaire industrialist Sir Reginald Hargreeves, who creates the Umbrella Academy and prepares his “children” to save the world. In their teenage years, though, the family fractures and the team disbands.
Fast forward to the present time, when the six surviving members of the clan reunite upon the news of Hargreeves’ passing. They work together to solve a mystery surrounding their father’s death, but divergent personalities and abilities again pull the estranged family apart, and a global apocalypse is another imminent threat.
I hope you enjoyed this foray into different types of tales! Tune in next time for another edition of Type Talk. If you have a particular type of media you’d like to explore, comment below; I’m hoping to cover LitRPG and fanfiction in future posts!
4 thoughts on “Type Talk: Non-Linear Narratives”
I May Destroy You is one of the best television shows I have ever seen, uses the non-linear narrative format extremely well. After a traumatic event happens to Arabella at a nightclub, she attempts to remember exactly what happened to her that evening, and several episodes are dedicated to her investigation and flashbacks. Her relationships with friends and acquaintances are also re-examined in the wake of this event, and you see through flashbacks the fallacy of memories, how two different people can experience and remember the same event differently, etc. It’s also wickedly funny when it’s not bringing you to tears. It’s an HBO/BBC1 show and not yet available for the library to purchase on DVD/BluRay even though it came out in 2020, but I hope it will be soon.
Oooh thank you for the rec, this sounds amazing! And you highlighted all the wonderful advantages of explicitly non-linear narratives: to better show biases and shifting perspectives! Hopefully VPL will acquire it so it can be more accessibly enjoyed!
I love a non-linear narrative! Especially when two storylines converge and you finally understand what’s been going on. I love that you included The Umbrella Academy too, I just watched the new season WHEW non-linear is right! Truly one of those shows where I have no idea what’s going on but I’m having a great time.
I’m glad! Yeah, that moment when everything makes sense is almost euphoric!
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