Different Non-Linear Narrative Structures


In order to begin understanding the different forms of narrative structures, we should primarily lay emphasis on what the term “narrative” means in the world of literature, theater, movies, graphic novels, etc. The Modern Man after learning the nuances of communication explored and delved into the dimensions of fine arts and with time learnt to write stories, novels, dramas and the likes to engage with the common mass, to propagate their ideologies and most importantly to interact with various other cultures of the world.


The art of storytelling has been one of the most profound and definitely much intriguing practices since as early as the 5th century. It is largely through storytelling that people learnt about great wars, famous legends and their deeds, iconic humanitarian movements, etc. Numerous plays by famous playwrights started to master the art and technique of storytelling which eventually attracted huge crowds to the theaters. For the first time ever, humans saw a story come alive in front of them. The characters about whom they had heard or read till date were walking, talking, smiling and crying for the very first time in their lives. By the end of the 19th century, the people of the world slowly began to learn about a new kind of medium that had the true potentiality to tell stories in the most peculiar yet fascinating way ever imagined. The world of cinema gave them the opportunity to witness set of events that were only possible in their dreams till date. For example in George Melies’s “A Trip To The Moon” (1902) people for the very first time saw a rocket flying off to the moon and landing on a surface that resembled the face of a human being. Not only did the image on screen depict something funny and surreal, it was for the very first time people realized that imagination can take flight as well, specifically through cinema.



No matter if it’s a simple story, a play or a movie, there should be a proper narrative structure for better comprehension of the changing set of events in a definite period of time. A narrative structure if simply put creates the basic framework of how a set of events occur in the story. Normally, it is seen that most films, plays or graphic novels follow a linear chain of narrative. To understand this better we should ask ourselves how we generally comprehend a story in our head. Generally speaking there is a causal chain that we follow to connect the dots in the story. By causal chain it is implied that events from a particular period occur only to be followed by another set of events. An action will necessarily be followed by an action, which will again be followed by another action and so on. Thus, to make things simpler, we can say that every “effect” visible on screen will definitely have a “cause” and vice versa. Let’s try to understand things in an easier fashion if it seems all too complicated. Let’s say a character in a film does an action ‘A1’. This action will necessarily cause an effect ‘B1’. The camera may decide to go back to the same character where he will do another action ‘A2’ which will have another effect ‘B2’ and so on. Hence the causal chain will move like:



Normally films, graphic novels and stories follow the linear pattern of narrative structure. In a linear narrative structure, the viewer finds it facile to comprehend the way the narrative is moving. This is mostly because the viewer is naturally fed with all the information required to process whatever is happening on screen. When a set of events taking place in a certain period of time do not interleave with other events from a different period of time, a linear narrative structure emerges. This is specifically done for a simpler method of storytelling, which can do without complexities. However in a non-linear narrative structure, the viewer has to use his head in order to connect the dots. Non linear narrative structures are usually adopted to build suspense, to create tension or generally to create a sense of mystery within the spectator. The most crucial aspect of a non-linear narrative structure is that the narrative does not adhere to the norms of a generalized method of storytelling. In other words, in a non-linear narrative structure, there is no hard and fast rule to strictly follow a chronology. Saying so, this means that events from a particular period of time may merge with a set of events from a totally different period of time. We can say that when a person is watching a film which follows a typical non-linear narrative structure, they are exposed to multiple set events which happened at different instances of time. There is a stark difference between the temporal order of the story and the pseudo-temporal order of the narrative which marks one of the most vital aspects of a non-linear narrative structure. In the following stanzas we will discuss the different kinds of non-linear narrative structures that maybe found in the realm of cinema.


From our varied experience we can say that while watching a film we are guided through multiple methods that make our film viewing experience memorable and interesting. Cinema, throughout the ages, has evolved as an art that incorporates similar methods from the realms of literature, theater and sometimes plastic arts like painting, sculpture and drawing. In this stanza, let’s talk about some of those specific tools that help us comprehend the images on screen and how they are related to their immediate spatial and temporal surrounding. These methods are adopted by filmmakers all around the world to establish a relationship between the spectator, the cinema and the characters on screen. Some of those methods are as follows:


1. Analepsis or Flashback: This is one of those methods that almost every human being, who watches films, is aware of. Analepsis is a method that is used to narrate events that have taken place much before than the time during which it is being narrated. In other words, flashbacks are often used to recount certain events that took place in the past in order to establish a crucial back story. For example, in Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” (1941) we are introduced to a sickly Charles Foster Kane who is awaiting death in his bed. The film, after having established his demise, goes into flashback to tell us about certain moments from his life which help us understand the meaning of “Rosebud”, something which he utters right before he dies.



  2. Zigzag: Another fine example of a method used in a non-linear narrative is zigzag. This is specifically used when the director wants to alternate between a set of events that happened at different periods of time. To be more precise, we see the use of zigzag when the auteur wants to show events from the past and the present simultaneously. This results in an apparently complex film viewing experience albeit thoroughly interesting. For example in Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2000), the director treats the film in a peculiar way. Scenes from the past are cleverly paired with scenes from the present. The scenes in colour are shown in a reverse chronological order while the scenes shot in black-and-white move chronologically. However the coloured and non-coloured scenes meet at the end to produce a complete and cohesive narrative.



3. Prolepsis: Prolepsis is exactly what we can call the opposite of Analepsis. A film uses this method to speak about certain set of events that will happen sometime in the future. In other words, this method can also be called a typical flash forward. For example in Dennis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” (2016) the film uses flash forward to depict certain events that are yet to happen in the future.



4. Syllepsis: Syllepsis is one such technique that can be used to group multiple stories or characters in a single plot based on certain criteria. We also call this technique thematic grouping where stories are coupled together based on their spatial, temporal or thematic kinship. A fine example where such a technique has been used is “Magnolia” (1999) a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, where we observe multiple stories all temporally grouped.



5. Retrograde: One of the strangest ways a non-linear narrative structure can be crafted is by using retrograde. This is a technique where events are narrated chronologically, but in a reverse order. David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” (2001) is a perfect example. When the protagonist becomes amnesiac after meeting with a terrible car accident, she goes out in search of clues and answers.



6. Achrony: Achrony is a method that is typically used in complex dramas. It happens when the natural order of a narrative is disrupted. Thus there is no relationship between the order in which the events that occur and the order in which they are narrated. This makes it hard for the viewer to establish a natural order in his head. A good example is Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (2010).



7. Chronicle: Certain films are inherent of a particular chronological order. Even if there is a temporal agreement between the events, a unique order may not be necessarily followed. To elaborate further, this means that the events may occur simultaneously or sometimes follow a random order but all relative to each other. Any good example would be films based on folklores or natural disaster movies.



In the realm of Japanese anime, we also come across non-linear narratives where different events occur at different instances of time, but they all adhere to the main plot and thus give it a coherent structure. Non-linear narrative structure makes a film quite interesting and is greatly effective if a film wants to hold the viewer’s attention.










Debopam Deb Roy, a post graduate with a degree in Film Studies from Jadavpur University, French language (DELF A2) from Alliance Française du Bengale working as a Content Writer at Human Lab Corporation with an interest in writing and watching films.

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