Nonlinear narrative  

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Nonlinear narrative or disrupted narrative is a narrative technique, sometimes used in literature, film, hypertext websites and other narratives, wherein events are portrayed out of chronological order and are usually dictated by user choices and set parameters within the media. It is often used to mimic the structure and recall of human memory but has been applied for other reasons as well. The term has a slightly different meaning in the context of video games, where it refers to the possibility of narrating different stories depending on the player's actions in the game.



Beginning a narrative in medias res (Latin: "into the middle of things") began in ancient times as an oral tradition and was established as a convention of epic poetry with Homer's Iliad in the 8th century BC. The technique of narrating most of the story in flashback also dates back to the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, around the 5th century BC. Several medieval Arabian Nights tales such as "Sinbad the Sailor", "The City of Brass" and "The Three Apples" also had nonlinear narratives employing the in medias res and flashback techniques.

From the late 1800s and early 1900s, modernist novelists Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner experimented with narrative chronology and abandoning linear order.

Examples of nonlinear novels are: Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (ca. 1833), Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959), Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Milorad Pavić's Dictionary of the Khazars (1988), Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (1993) and Carole Maso's Ava: a novel (1993).

Scott McCloud argues in Understanding Comics that the narration of comics is nonlinear because it relies on the reader's choices and interactions.

All of Chuck Palahniuk's work feature nonlinear narratives.


Timeline of nonlinear films

Defining nonlinear structure in film is, at times, difficult. Films may use extensive flashbacks or flashforwards within a linear storyline, while nonlinear films often contain linear sequences. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), influenced structurally by The Power and the Glory (1933), and Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) use a non-chronological flashback narrative that is often labeled nonlinear.

Silent and early era

Experimentation with nonlinear structure in film dates back to the silent film era, including D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and Abel Gance's Napoléon (1927). Nonlinear film emerged from the French avant-garde in 1929 with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou (English: An Andalusian Dog). The surrealist film jumps into fantasy and juxtaposes images, granting the filmmakers an ability to create statements about the Church, art, and society that are left open to interpretation Buñuel and Dali's L'Âge d'or (1930) (English: The Golden Age) also uses nonlinear concepts. The revolutionary Russian filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Alexander Dovzhenko also experimented with the possibilities of nonlinearity. Eisenstein's Strike (1925) and Dovzhenko's Earth (1930) hint at a nonlinear experience. English director Humphrey Jennings used a nonlinear approach in his World War II documentary Listen to Britain (1942).


Jean-Luc Godard's work since 1959 was also important in the evolution of nonlinear film. Godard famously stated, "I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order". Godard's Week End (French: Le weekend) (1968), as well as Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls (1966), defy linear structure in exchange for a chronology of events that is seemingly random. Alain Resnais experimented with narrative and time in his films Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and Muriel (1963). Federico Fellini defined his own nonlinear cinema with the films La strada (1954), La dolce vita (1960), (1963), Satyricon (1969), and Roma (1972). Nicolas Roeg's films, including Performance (1968), Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and Bad Timing (1980) are characterized by a nonlinear approach. Other experimental nonlinear filmmakers include Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Greenaway, Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, and Raúl Ruiz.

In the United States, Robert Altman carried the nonlinear motif in his films, including McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), and Gosford Park (2001). Woody Allen embraced the experimental nature of nonlinear narrative in Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), and Stardust Memories (1980).

1990s and 2000s

In the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino influenced a tremendous growth in nonlinear films with Pulp Fiction (1994). Other important nonlinear films include Atom Egoyan's Exotica (1994), Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998), Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999), and Karen and Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001). David Lynch experimented with nonlinear narrative and surrealism in Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Dr. (2001), and Inland Empire (2006).

Into the 2000s, some filmmakers have returned to the use of nonlinear narrative repeatedly. Steven Soderbergh in Schizopolis (1996), Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999), Full Frontal (2002), Solaris (2002), and Che (2008). Christopher Nolan in Following (1998), Memento (2001), and The Prestige (2006). Memento, with its fragmentation and reverse chronology, has been described as characteristic of moving towards postmodernism in contemporary cinema. Richard Linklater used nonlinear narrative in Slacker (1991), Waking Life (2001), and A Scanner Darkly (2006); Gus Van Sant in Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005), and Paranoid Park (2007). Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai explored nonlinear storylines in the films Days of Being Wild (1991), Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046 (2004). Fernando Meirelles in City of God and The Constant Gardener. All of Alejandro González Iñárritu's films to date feature nonlinear narratives. Takashi Shimizu's Japanese horror series, Ju-on, brought to America as The Grudge, is also nonlinear in its storytelling.


Japanese anime series sometimes present their plot in nonlinear order, for example, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Yami to Bōshi to Hon no Tabibito, Touka Gettan, and (partly) Boogiepop Phantom, Ergo Proxy and Fullmetal Alchemist.

The ABC television series Lost makes extensive use of nonlinear story telling, with each episode typically featuring a primary storyline on the island as well as a secondary storyline from another point in a character's life, either past or future.

FX's Emmy Award winning legal drama Damages starring Glenn Close, begins each season with an intensely melodramatic event taking place and then traveling back six months earlier. Throughout the season, each episode shows events both in the past, present, and future that lead up to and follow said event.

The English sitcom Coupling would often utilize non-linear narratives in which groups of men and women would independently discuss an event, after which (or during) the event would be portrayed.

Video games

nonlinear gameplay

In video games, the term nonlinear refers to a game that has more than one possible story line and/or ending. This allows the audience to choose from multiple different paths, that may be compatible with their style of play. This increases replay value, as players must often beat the game several times to get the entire story. Computer role-playing games, e.g. Fallout, often contain multiple paths which the player may choose from the beginning of the game. An example of this is Sega's spin-off game, "Shadow the Hedgehog".

Some video games mimic film non-linearity by presenting a single plot in chronologically distorted way instead of letting the player determine the story flow themselves. The first-person shooter Tribes: Vengeance is an example of this; another is Sega's "Sonic Adventure".

Often times game developers use the idea of character amnesia in games. Character amnesia helps give a game a beginning because the audience only has the understanding that there is a preceding history before the events of the game take place. The characters amnesia allows the developers more leniency with what possibilities or paths the audience can potentially take. This option of choosing paths ultimately results in the development of a non-linear story. Furthermore by creating a nonlinear story line the complexity of game play is greatly expanded. As stated earlier, non-linear game play allows for greater replay value which grants the player to put together the different pieces of a potentially puzzling storyline. This idea of having a complex and deep storyline while the user has little or no prior knowledge of past events is clearly evident in games like Facade. In Facade the player is put into a situation that lasts approximately 10 to 15 minutes in real time yet the events recalled seem to have a basis in years of dramatic history.

HTML Narratives

In contemporary society webpages or to be more correct, hypertexts, have become affluent forms of narratives. Hypertexts have great potential to create non-linear forms of narratives. They allow for individuals to actually interact with the story through links, images, audio and video. An established hypertext narrative is Public Secret. Public Secret illustrates the reality of being incarcerated in California's Criminal Justice System. It brings to light the way inmates are treated. This functions as a non-linear narrative because it allows for its audience to witness through text and audio the reality of being a female inmate. However, there is no exact beginning or end as there are in comic books or video games. This website consists of multiple subtopics that do not force the audience to make their next selection based on what their previous experiences.

See also


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Nonlinear narrative" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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