Tips on Non-linear Narration

Don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction. Don’t use passive voice. Don’t address the reader directly. Don’t give your character a name your readers can’t pronounce. We’ve all heard the writing rules. But if you’re like me, you’ve watched your favorite authors break those rules with glee!

But rules are there for a reason. I am by no means encouraging rebellion for rebellion’s sake.

So how do you know when to break a rule? That my friend is a troubling philosophical question that the whole of humanity has been wrestling with from the beginning of time. I am not going to answer that question.

But I am going to talk about the taboo of non-linear narration and why I broke it for my first book: Out of Darkness.

Let’s talk a bit about storytelling. Storytelling is a narrow slice of life. I remember working on my first real short story at age eleven. How do I get from one day to the next? What do I leave in, what do I take out? I realized quickly that discussing the minute details of my character’s life was boring. Storytelling is as much about what you leave out as what you put in.

Books are an even narrower slice. I love watching movies and it is fascinating to see how creative filmmakers can be with their storytelling all because they have the power of visuals. There are different tips and tricks for holding a reader’s attention than for holding an audience member’s attention. With books the reader has to do more work: picture the setting, imagine the characters, and keep track of important plot details all at once. Plus, because books are usually read in more than one sitting, when they pick that book up on day three they have to remember who, what, when, where, and why all over again or they’ll be lost, frustrated, and put down the book. So there are a lot of tried and true rules about how to write a book readers will engage with.

So why did I decided to walk the edge with my book? For starters, life is not nearly so neat and tidy as a novel. When you meet someone for the first time you form your first impressions. Then as you get to know them you modify those impressions and add some depth. But then usually there comes this time when you find out about their history, maybe little by little, and you begin to form a more accurate picture of who they are, what shaped them, and what motivates them. And that is why I wrote the book the way I did: it was the most true way to tell Logan Bailey’s story. Her life was ripped apart and she feels fractured inside. Deep inside she is one person, on the outside she has become something completely different, and neither of those people are the person she’s expected to be.

The great challenge is not to lose the reader along the way. They need to know where they are, what point this is in Logan’s story, and what’s going on. One of my biggest challenges was nailing down the scene order. Once I was rearranging scenes it felt like I had opened pandora’s box. The impact of a scene could change drastically depending on where I moved it in the story. At one point I had three different versions of the novel with three different chronologies and my mind started to melt!

But the end result was so completely gratifying! I still get emotional when I scan through it looking for quotes or reference points. I told the story the way I know it needed to be told. And so far my readers have not only “got it” but have resounded with the deep emotional themes.

If you are at all considering stepping outside the usual chronology for your story here are a few things to consider:

What tone or pace do you want to set?

-The disjointed feel matched the emotional/mental state of my main character and created mystery and suspense perfectly in line with my plot/climax.

-Out of Darkness is a futuristic, action/adventure science fiction novel so the scene changes, flashbacks, and unusual style aren’t too unfamiliar for my target audience.

-This would not fit for most genres, I am glad most books don’t do it, and honestly I may never do it again. I very much enjoy the long, patient journey that most books take me on.

It takes a lot of work

-This wasn’t a simple A-B-C-D plot. And honestly, I wrote and rewrote it, and let it sit and came back and edited and rewrote it.

-It’s a complicated story and it took time, effort, and patience. If I’d been under a contract time limit or something, it would have turned out very poorly.

Books aren’t supposed to be like movies.

-I admit that I tend to write cinematically. And because of the way this story is told, it is easy to picture it as a film.

-But books have a magic all their own. Why not take advantage of that and explore it to the full? For example, I love the film versions of the Lord of the Rings. But I love the books even more. And you know what? I love the differences between the two. I understand why Peter Jackson changed things and skipped things and streamlined things. He made three very compelling, heart moving movies. But Tolkien was in no rush when he wrote those books and there is a reason that so many people read them every single year.

In general, don’t get boxed in by any set of storytelling rules. Learn to tell stories well, and then learn to tell them in the most powerful way that you can.

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