THE JOYS AND WOES OF NON-LINEAR NARRATIVES

Every writer was a reader first. Indeed, a love of reading is usually the reason people start writing. Due to this, a universally accepted piece of writing advice is to identify what you enjoy reading in order to understand what you’d like to write. Rather than mimicking our favourite authors, this advice is intended to show us how our creativity responds best to certain aspects story and helps us find our own unique voice. Personally, I could write a long, adoring list of things I appreciate when I finish a good book. Lush, lyrical prose. Unreliable narrators. Mysteries I can’t solve until the end (despite clever foreshadowing). Antiheros. High stake romances. Morally ambiguous characters. Tense dinner parties. (Seriously, give me any kind of tension of over a steak and a glass of merlot and I’m yours for 500 pages.)


But this year, another aspect of storytelling peaked my interest. So much so, that it became the format of my current WIP. That little beauty was the non-linear narrative. In this blog post, I’m going to discuss what a non—linear narrative is (as I understand it) and share a little about my own journey.


Firstly, let’s establish the definition of a non-linear narrative. I recently took some creative writing masterclasses and the source material summarises this particularly well. It defines a non-linear narrative as;


“A narrative technique in which the storyline is told out of chronological order. That can take many forms: by using flashforwards, flashbacks, dream sequences, or foreshadowing, non-linear plotlines can mimic the recall of human memory, or weave in fantastical elements like time travel or clairvoyance. Non-linear narratives attempt to capture the choppy, fluid, indelible sensation of living, with all its nostalgic and hopeful tendencies.”


This form of storytelling dates back to antiquity but is also a prevalent in contemporary fiction across all genres. Some popular examples include:


  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

  • Spells for Forgetting by Adrienne Young.

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  • 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

  • The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger


So why is this form of story-telling so popular? And how do we tackle this more challenging structure as writers?


There are many benefits to using a non-linear narrative to structure your story. Shaking up the chronology can add mystery to your plot as layers of information from different timelines weave together. Presenting two or more timelines can have a positive effect on world-building, flow and context. However, my favourite benefit would have to be character development. There’s nothing I love more than seeing the aftermath of a drama at the beginning of a book, before the writer takes us slowly back through how the characters got there. Throw in revealing information from the past timeline just as it becomes relevant in the present timeline and you’ve got the *chef’s kiss* of artful storycraft.



Despite the potential for a richer plot, non-linear narratives do come with their challenges and headaches. They are, by their very nature, much more complicated to write. If you’re attempting this more complex writing style, it is vital to have a system which works for you that allows you to juggle the different layers of the story. I’ve spoken to some writers who swear by post-it-note timelines on cork boards (think an office wall which looks like you’re solving a murder case). Others prefer not to even think about one timeline until they’re finished with the first. Others like to make tables/diagrams/summaries, charting where the characters are all times to avoid chronology errors. Since I often write on the public transport, a murder mystery wall or additional documents don’t work best for me. Instead, I use a compartmentalising system. I’ve found, whilst attempting to draft my current WIP, that this is works best for me.


My current project has two first person narrators. One of them narrates the past timeline. Let’s call her character A. The other narrates the present timeline. Let’s call her character B. Interspersed between these two narratives are newspaper articles, Instagram posts, blog entries and interview transcripts. Trying to juggle all these timelines and mediums in my head was difficult. So, rather than write the chapters in book-order, I compartmentalised them as follows and drafted in this order.


  1. Character A - first person narrative (past timeline)

  2. Character B - first person narrative (present timeline)

  3. Mixed media entries.


When I’m finished, I can find the best way to weave my three chapter ‘types’ together for maximum affect. Until then, you’ll find me drafting. (And praying IT works out!)


I’d like to finish this post by wishing everyone taking part in NaNoWriMo this year a great drafting marathon! And if, like me, you’re using it to create a novel with a non-linear narrative…find your system, embrace the struggle and GOOD LUCK!


Meet Rachel Zillikens

Rachel is a a Welsh-German writer of historical and contemporary fiction. She teaches English as an additional language and resides in the south of Germany with her husband, children and a cat named Gretel.


You can connect with Rachel on Instagram @rachel_zillikens_writes.

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