History and Ideas: Is Nonlinear Narrative Still Narrative?
While this site focuses primarily on praising narrative form, there are several narrative techniques employed in literature, film, and other storytelling mediums. Also known as disjointed narrative or disrupted narrative, nonlinear narrative portrays events out of chronological order. They are presented in ways where the narrative does not follow direct causality patterns—distinctive plot lines, dream immersions, or subplots. In popular culture, nonlinear narrative is often used to mimic the structure and recall of human memory, but it is applied increasingly to literature as a strategy to experiment with form.
Nonlinear narrative is as old as its linear sister. The practice of beginning a narrative en medias res was an established convention of epic poetry—think Homer’s Iliad. The technique of narrating a story in flashbacks takes back to the 5th century BC Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and medieval tales such as ”Sinbad the Sailor” and ”The City of Brass” also employ nonlinear narratives. The technique was further popularized by modernist novelist Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner. Nonlinear novels are among the cannon’s most beloved works of literature: James Joyce’s Ulysses, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.
So, is nonlinear narrative still narrative? Of course! While the events of a story may be reorganized, the events are still connected in some way. Causal relationships continue to exist, but the onus of organization is placed on the reader. Nonlinear narrative solicits greater participation from the consumer, as it is their responsibility to connect the necessary events to construct a linear narrative.
Most media tells a story, and changing the ways in which those stories are presented can result in greater interaction, increased memorability, and innovation. Narrative does not have to move in a straight line; some of the best stories are told in segments. The lure lies in piecing the events together.