Monday, November 7, 2011

Non-Linear Storytelling: An Underrated Art or a Confusing Mess?

In the state of Illinois, the year is 1972, a man is sitting in his sleazy apartment room sulking over his friend, Ernie, who has just died. One can easily tell, just by looking at the guy, that he is a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a man who leads a life of misery. Suddenly the man gets a call from his girlfriend, Rachel, and he agrees to meet her at a park to discuss his problems. He puts on his coat and exits through the door leading to the hallway....

....and appears in his Vietnam outpost. The year is 1970, the man is wearing a soldier's uniform and has an optimistic look on his face. He is greeted by Ernie and the two friends embrace one another. Ernie welcomes his friend to Vietnam by giving a tour of the army outpost. While looking around the medical tent, the man bumps into a nurse named Rachel. Though the two have never met before, the two seem to share a connection with one another. After meeting Rachel the man goes to...

Wait a minute! Wasn't this optimistic man just sulking like a sad sack? Wasn't this story just set in 1972 in a sleazy apartment instead of 1970 in an army outpost? Wasn't Ernie dead? How could the man and Rachel be strangers when they are supposed to be in a relationship?

The answer to all of these questions is the fact that you are reading a non-linear story, a story with a structure that defies the chronological structure that inhabits so many other works of fiction. A non-linear story allows the plot to jump to anywhere at any time. One minute you could be reading about a woman's funeral. Another minute you could find yourself reading about that same woman, who had just been killed-off earlier in the story, as she moves into a new house. Perhaps you are watching a film about an aging mob boss on trial, and then the film suddenly jumps back thirty years earlier when that same man was just a low-life hoodlum.

The idea of a storyline with an unpredictable plot structure may seem confusing, perhaps even chaotic. Many people enjoy stories that depict events in the order of which they occur so that they may keep up with the characters and their actions. Many people can easily find it frustrating to read or watch a story unfold in a way that is so unpredictable.

However these people fail to see the artistic potential a non-linear story provides. People who enjoy fiction also enjoy speculating and asking questions.  A non-linear storyline is created for just that purpose. It starts off in a way that doesn't make sense to the natural order of storytelling, causing people to wonder about events that have transpired but were not shown. Only until the story's conclusion do we understand. All of the events have been told to us and we are able to place them in a chronological order ourselves. In the end, not only are we feeling relieved that all of our questions have been answered, we also feel satisfied with the enjoyment of having experienced a story that affected our minds and hearts in such a way.

Here are some well-known works of non-linear storytelling.

Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino's magnum opus tells three loosely connected short stories set in L.A.'s criminal underworld. After the film's opening the plot breaks the chronological pattern by jumping back before the restaurant heist takes place. From then it continues its non-linear pattern by telling only half of the first story, jumping into the beginning of the second story, and then continuing into the third story. While a chronological film would have ended with Butch and his girlfriend, Fabiene, riding off on their newly acquired chopper, Pulp Fiction does no such thing. Instead it jumps back to where the first story left off. We are suddenly taken back to witness the mis-adventure of hitmen Jules Winfield and Vincent Vega (who had been killed off earlier in the third story). By the end of the first story, we learn the purpose of the film's opening scene, why Jules and Vincent appeared at the beginning of story 2 wearing dorky clothes, and why Jules no longer accompanies Vincent for the duration of the film.

Less than a thirds way into the movie, the film has us asking questions. Who were the people in the opening scene? What happened after Jules and Vincent killed Bret? Why wasn't Jules there to back Vincent up at Butch's apartment? Why in God's name were they wearing dorky clothes when delivering the brief case!?

These questions plagued us as we sat back and enjoyed the events of the second and third stories. However they all came together as the film wrapped up by depicting the conclusion of the first story. By telling its story in a non-linear fashion, the film is able to give a more satisfying conclusion than it would have given if it followed a chronological structure. Because I think we all can agree that Jules' and Vincent's exit from the diner stand-off was much more entertaining than Butch's escape from L.A.


This anime series depicting 18th-century immortals interacting with a variety of delinquents and Prohibition mobsters can have you tearing your hair out while screaming, "What the f!@# is going on!"

Baccano's use of non-linear storytelling is just plain chaotic. Three separate storylines are depicted over the course of three years. The story's events are depicted without any clear order. Even the show's first episode shows the ending scene to one of the storylines before the story has even started. The show switchs between years unpredictably during episodes, so a character that may be in a certain place in one scene may be in an entirely different setting in another scene. For example: One scene shows Jaccuzzi's gang dragging their wounded leader off of a train as it rolls into a station; in the next episode, the gang is shown boarding that same train as it departs from its original station. Though entertaining, this can be very confusing.

However if you keep your wits about you, you will be able to look past this and be able to enjoy this well written and wonderfully animated television show. Everything from Firo beating up a gang of thugs to Ladd ranting about mass murdering, from Clair dragging people across trains tracks to Isaac and Miria performing some stupid heist while wearing even stupider disguises will have you cringing with disturbance and laughing your head off at the same time.

Once Upon A Time in America

Another story about Prohibition gangsters is depicted in Sergio Leone's masterpiece. The film opens with Mafia goons on a manhunt for protagonist Noodles (no that's not his real name) who is hiding in an opium den as he is plagued by a memory involving a ringing telephone. The film has just barely started and it already has us asking questions. Why are these men after Noodles? Why does Noodles keep hearing a telephone ringing? Who were the dead guys that Noodles saw? What was supposed to be in the briefcase in the locker? The questions plague us over the course of the film, and the only way to find answers to to let the film roll on.

The story jumps forward to the late sixties. An aged Noodles returns to his old neighborhood having received an invitation to a politician's party. As he waits for the party's date he explores his old neighborhood and remembers his dark past. The flashbacks first take us back to Noodles' childhood is the Jewish ghetto growing up as an immature street punk. Later flashbacks depict Noodles and his friends working as bootleggers in the final years of Prohibition.

As the flashbacks detail Noodles' life and experiences, all of the questions that have racked our brain are answered and all of the earlier scenes begin to make sense. We know how Noodles rose to power as a criminal. We know how Noodles became associated with his beloved friends, and how he lost them. The only thing we don't know is what exactly happened during the garbage truck scene (which I wouldn't dare spoil for those who have not scene the film.). It should be noted that this is the only question presented to us by an event that IS told in a chronological order. The film's use of non-linear storytelling makes it a beautiful work of art that should be missed by any movie fan.

So whether you love non-linear stories or hate them, think about what I have written here. Think about what kind of questions they may present you and how these questions may be answered. And when your done pondering, go out and explore the wonders of non-linearity.

1 comment:

Swiftkills said...

Very well written and well thought-through. The idea's and structure portrayed in your writing do bring a lot of light to this type of storytelling.
In my opinion, this article is worthy of being published.