What’s a nonlinear narrative?

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Nonlinear storytelling presents events in a story in a different order for artistic effect. This can be achieved by revealing plot episodes in a particular order or allowing readers to choose their own path. Flashbacks are a common technique used to present events from different points in time. Frame stories are circular in nature, with the reader starting at one point and returning at the end. Electronic media has expanded this style of storytelling with hypertext fiction.

All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. The author of a narrative, however, need not write these elements in exactly that order. In nonlinear storytelling, the author presents the events of a story to his or her readers in chronological order for particular artistic effect.
Writers can create a non-linear narrative by choosing a particular order in which plot episodes are revealed or by allowing readers to choose their own paths through the story. The latter type of story often has readers start on the first page, but at the end of each section they will be given a choice of several possible actions. Each choice will have a corresponding page number that the reader must navigate to in order to continue the narrative along their chosen path. In this way, a single book can contain as many stories as possible. Web pages and electronic reading media have expanded this style of storytelling with hypertext fiction, in which links make it easier to navigate through the story. The electronic format also allows for more possible content than could fit into a traditionally sized book.

A nonlinear narrative that has only one plot can use a number of techniques to present events from different points in time. A common one is flashbacks, where characters remember events from the past. Flashbacks usually feature additional information that helps explain the character’s current motivations and story direction. These can take many forms, such as conversations, a character recalling an event from the past, or dreams about her. When authors withhold and then reveal information through flashbacks, it can change how readers perceive the different characters and events within the story.

Flashbacks typically make it clear to the reader that they have left the previous time frame of the story and are revealing a character’s past. Authors of experimental forms of nonlinear storytelling may employ more disjointed styles, in which the reader jumps to another part of the story’s timeline without explicit warning. For example, a section might end, and the reader might suddenly find themselves reading about characters and events in the distant past or distant future. While this may be disconcerting at first, as the story progresses, the reader usually begins to more easily identify which part of the story they are reading after each transition.

Another common format for a non-linear narrative is the frame story. These are circular in nature, with the reader starting at one point and then returning at the end of the tale. The beginning, which is called a frame, is often the chronological end of a story, from which the author takes the reader back in time. Most of this type of narrative commonly centers on how the character got to where he was at the beginning. This type of story typically concludes with a return to the shot, in which the author usually uses the reader’s full understanding of the character’s past to build emotional intensity with the final words of the narrative.

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