You might have heard of the terms linear storyline and non linear storyline or this might be something that sounds totally new to you.
Either way, it can be a great tool for writers to learn more about linear versus non linear storytelling and how to take advantage of both.
In short, a non linear story is a story presented in a way that doesn’t follow a chronological order.
What Is a Linear Storyline and Structure?
A linear storyline is a story where scenes unfold in the order they truly do in time. Meaning there’s a solid three act structure with a beginning, middle and end and the audience discovers the story in that order.
The structure of a linear storyline is usually that we discover the protagonist in their normal world and suddenly, something happens (inciting incident) pushing the protagonist to take action and go on a journey to fix what happened/the problem.
The protagonist reaches a midpoint that can be either positive or negative which eventually leads to an “All is Lost” kind of moment right before the third act where the protagonist confronts the evil and wins, bringing us to an end.
The story unfolds as real life does, where time is respected and we do not go back and forth with the storyline.
If you want to read more about story structure (3-act structure particularly) feel free to take a look at this article.
What Is a Non Linear Storyline and Structure?
On the other hand, a non linear storyline is a movie that doesn’t respect time as linear.
For a movie to be defined as non linear, the movie needs to jump around with scenes that take place at different times in the story. That means you can go from a scene that happened in this exact moment to a scene in the past and then one far in the future.
More often than not, information gathered in the scenes that happened in the past or even in the future, helps the audience put together clues that are valuable for the protagonist to move forward in the “present” part of the movie.
Sounds complicated? Let’s look at some examples of non linear movies to understand what that actually looks like.
Examples of Non Linear Movies
MEMENTO (2001) by Christopher Nolan
Memento in my opinion might be the most famous non linear movie ever made.
It tells the story of Leonard Shelby but instead of telling his story in a chronological order, Christopher Nolan (writer, director) chose to tell Shelby’s story in a reverse chronology.
Throughout the movie, Shelby has one unique goal: to find who murdered his wife. The main complication (and irony)? He cannot remember what happened a couple of hours ago.
Indeed, Shelby has a condition that prevents him from making new memories. A condition he’s got from this extremely traumatic incident of losing his wife.
So, Shelby needs to find out who murdered his wife and us, the audience, are piecing things together with him as the movie moves along and takes us from scenes in the past to current scenes in the story.
In the way the movie was made by Nolan, the audience is denied the information that the protagonist is denied as well. The audience is just as clueless as Shelby and doesn’t know what happened prior and what to believe anymore, making piecing together clues particularly difficult and extremely engaging.
More about how Nolan came up with Memento and its non linear story structure in this video.
PULP FICTION (1994) by Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino is another master of the non linear story structure.
Pulp Fiction is a gangster movie that deals with three stories of criminals in Los Angeles. You have three main characters: Vega who’s a killer contracted by the mob, Winnfield who’s Vega’s former partner and Coolidge who’s a recognized boxer.
What I love about Pulp Fiction and Tarantino’s choice to use non linear storylines is that he introduces the three characters multiple times through a different point of view (POV) in order to show them in different lights depending on through which eyes they are introduced.
Think about it this way: we all think differently about different people. The teacher that you dislike is someone else’s mentor and if this same teacher was introduced from your point of view and the mentee’s point of view, she would look like a very different character.
Nobody is ever only one thing only, and you should always remember that when writing characters, no matter if it’s in a linear or non linear story form.
Why Write a Non Linear Movie?
You will most definitely stand out on the market with a non linear screenplay but it’s not easy to craft a truly great non linear screenplay.
First of all, what genres do well in non linear? Non linear movies are great for thrillers, more so than for romantic comedies (although I challenge you to try that – that would truly be something that stands out).
The reason why non linear storylines work so well for thrillers is because they are an excellent way to build suspense in a movie. It engages the audience completely and creates some sort of an enigma for them to piece together.
We know that feature screenplays limit us to about 100 pages and that can sometimes feel limiting for character development. In TV shows, they get entire seasons to develop a character’s overall arc.
Non linear movies are great for character development since you can reveal so much of who the character used to be versus who they currently are and how they’ve developed over the non linear storyline.
Another reason to write a non linear movie is if you want to show different point of views (POV’s) in your movie. Say you have a main character with a point of view on a situation/event that happened, but you also have another character that is fully a part of this event and how it turned out.
You might want to consider having the storyline in the present from your protagonist’s point of view, and show scenes from the past through that other character’s point of view.
If you have that kind of different point of view storyline like Tarantino has in Pulp Fiction, then a non linear script can really give it justice if well crafted.
How To Write a Non Linear Movie?
When you write a non linear movie it’s common to first create a beat sheet of the linear version of the movie.
Even some of the most established names in the industry for non linear movie types such as Christopher Nolan first come up with a beat sheet that’s linear.
The great thing about working with a beat sheet is that you can put each of the scenes in the movie on a card and lay the entire movie scene by scene in a linear way.
Once you see the linear movie in front of you, you can start moving those scenes around and create a storyline that’s non linear where we cut in time and reveal crucial pieces for the audience to put together.
It’s not enough however to write a linear movie, swap scenes and call it non linear. There needs to be reasoning behind the choices you make and intrigue in the way the information is revealed through your non linear events.
Non Linear movies sound extremely unorganized but trustfully, writers who do write those kinds of stories need to be extremely organized in their process. You need to know exactly what story you’re trying to tell and how to bring all these non linear scenes and events together for an epic movie.
On the page, you want to make sure that your flashbacks, time jumps and any other cuts are clear for the reader otherwise you will most likely lose them midway through the script. While non linear screenplays jump in time, that doesn’t mean the reader should be confused and lost in what is going on.
In a linear screenplay, we usually write INT. or EXT. and don’t necessarily put cuts between scenes.
In a non linear screenplay, you will need to let the reader know that you’re cutting to a flashback or cutting in time. In the screenplay, you will define your cuts and write the slugline such as for example:
INT. HOUSE – DAY – FLASHBACK
and end that scene with a transition that reads “CUT BACK TO:”
INT. HOUSE – DAY – PRESENT
Now that’s for the screenplay, what about the actual movie that people will see on screen? How will the audience know what’s in the past and what’s in the present?
In the movie Memento, Christopher Nolan made the interesting choice to indicate what scenes are in the present and which are in the past by making all the scenes from the past in black and white.
That’s a great way to make sure that the audience can keep track of the storyline and what is current and what is in the past.
That’s usually a director’s decision to make but if you have an original idea for a visual cue of scenes in the present versus the past, do add them to the script, it will give your script an extra layer of uniqueness.
When crafting a non linear storyline, it’s important you know why you do what you do. You need to know why you’re presenting the story the way you do and to make sure that the scenes we go to are non linear link with the rest of the story.
It cannot be a random flashback or a random jump in time. It needs to feel organic to the story and bring an important piece to the puzzle.
Ultimately, a non linear movie can and should be an engaging experience for the audience. A mystery in which they get to participate.
When writing a non linear screenplay, be organized, play around with your scenes, and always have a reason for your time jumps. Remember, non Linear storylines are an excellent way for writers to stand out in the current market since 95% of the screenplays are linear.
If you’re not into outlining screenplays, now might be the time to start since a non linear storyline without an outline can quickly become a nightmare.
Happy non linear writing… or should we say outlining!