Write It Sideways

Use a Nonlinear Format to Grab Your Reader by the Eyeballs

Today’s post is written by author Clayton Lindemuth.

Reviewers and editors have commended the nonlinear format of Cold Quiet Country—a novel set in a single day, but with shards of backstory scattered across almost every page. Two dueling first-person narrators vie to control the story, each slipping into escalating past-tense flashbacks. A fifth viewpoint—of the missing girl who is the focal point of the war between narrators—is told in third person, forcing the reader to suspect the worst regarding her fate.

The only view on flashbacks that I recall having read is by Stephen King, and his advice was to avoid them. Instead I found that flashbacks are an integral component of a nonlinear story, and provide authors an entirely different toolbox of tension inducing wrenches.

With a linear format, authors choose a beginning and end, and relate events within that span sequentially, as cause and effect dictate in real life. The author delivers story content that occurs outside the chosen time span as flashback, and reveals shorter material through memory or anecdote.

Removing the reader from the present story involves risks. The transition to another time can be jarring and confusing. If the delivery is heavy-handed or the relevance dubious, the reader will wonder why the author distracted her when the plot was just becoming intriguing.

A bad flashback reminds a reader she is reading.

But the risks are surmountable and the rewards great—so great that it makes sense to experiment with a nonlinear story format, essentially dishing scenes in the order that provides the greatest story benefit. The term flashback becomes a misnomer because as flashbacks accumulate, new subplots, character arcs, and the like, follow. Instead of a linear story with an occasional throwback to an earlier period, the nonlinear story is a series of scenes arranged to tell a complete story, but organized for maximum storytelling benefit. Sequence is dictated by effect, and referring to a scene by temporal location is meaningless.

The nonlinear format affords the author several advantages over the linear format.

Advantage One

The first advantage has to do with clarity and pace—points that coalesce in my mind as story density.

Cold Quiet Country includes action that occurs over a fifty-year period. Had the novel started in 1922 with a linear format, showing scenes of gradually growing importance, with nothing truly compelling happening until the last handful of months, the text would have been ten thousand words longer but would have the exact same amount of story, albeit arranged so that no reader could find it interesting.

However, because the timeline is nonlinear, none of the scattered past events require exposition that, while giving the reader context, would bore her to tears. Instead, the nonlinear format allows the novel to start on the day the action becomes explosive. From fifty years of history, only the interesting, tense moments that raise the stakes or add flesh to characters make it to the page. The context surrounding the flashback takes the place of linear narrative, and the story gains efficiency. Story density—the ratio of interesting to boring material—increases.

Advantage Two

A second advantage of the nonlinear story is that authors can demonstrate a character’s depth and create a compelling story question at the same time.

Imagine a young woman protagonist fleeing the scene of a murder—dead body, blood, gore. A bloody knife is in her purse. She’s wearing black. There’s vomit on her sleeve. She lurches against a wet brick wall and her eyes roll back. She’s high on whatever drug is in vogue.

In the next scene we see a snapshot of that morning as she argues with her father, pleading with him to attend her baptism at church.

Resuming the present story, we find her in the back of a patrol car, throwing up and praying.

The contrast in present tense character and flashback character adds depth while presenting an intriguing story question. Sure, we want to know something about the dead body. (Did you remember there’s a dead body?) But who the hell is this girl? The next scene might take us to her junior prom, her funeral, or an afternoon fishing at the lake—whatever the author needs to keep story questions urgent in the mind of the reader. The nonlinear author is bound only by the necessity of creating the right effect.

Advantage Three

A third advantage of the nonlinear format is that the writer can increase tension by presenting information out of cause-and-effect sequence.

There are two main ways of using cause and effect in a linear story. One is to paint the causes so they point to a harrowing conclusion that will be unbearable for protagonist and reader alike. (Child swings bat. Connects. As the ball arcs to the window, we cringe in anticipation.) In a longer story, each successive cause and effect raises the stakes. Ultimately, a climax occurs where the protagonist makes a discovery that unravels the tension and provides a satisfactory conclusion.

The second main way to use cause and effect in a linear story is to begin with the effect, and have the protagonist go back and discover the causes. That’s great for a mystery, with a detective making successive discoveries. But if the story isn’t about a detective, a linear format will force an author who starts with an effect to try to make the story move forward by looking backward.

The nonlinear story unpacks cause and effect, making them irrelevant. The author can weave in and out of scenes without providing the contextual cause and effect material that the linear story demands. When either becomes necessary, the author provides it. However, the nonlinear format affords greater control of pace and tension. The reader surges forward in the present story and context that would otherwise be provided by slow-moving exposition is instead related visually in snapshots stolen from other timelines.

In a nonlinear telling, instead of starting with the child swinging the bat, we start with dad reaching for a gun as he stares at glass on the floor. The next scene would be a great time to introduce readers to the villain who has dad on edge—before showing dad staring out the broken window at his sobbing son.

The child, bat and ball are only relevant if dad shoots the kid. The causation of the glass on the floor is not necessarily relevant to the action that follows. If it becomes relevant, dad can make a discovery as the action proceeds. Meanwhile, dad is free to create whatever disaster will keep the pages turning.

It is a difference of kind. In the linear story, authors build tension by assembling causes that point toward a disastrous effect. In the nonlinear, we dump the protagonist into disaster, and the causes are only relevant as they have something to do with his journey through chaos. Instead of working by a subtle kind of misdirection that keeps the reader guessing, relying on techniques and tricks to keep the tension high, nonlinear authors create honest cliffhangers at every scene change, as multiple timelines gradually emerge from the pages.

The advantages of the nonlinear format aren’t tricks. They’re embedded so deeply in the story structure that they create an otherworldly depth and reader involvement. It’s like writing a novel with every chapter being the first.

Next time, start twenty-four hours before the end, and see what happens when the effect you create upon your reader is the only thing dictating the sequence and content of your scenes.

Clayton Lindemuth is the author of Cold Quiet Country, a debut novel that received a rare starred review from Publishers Weekly, and exemplifies the nonlinear storytelling techniques described in this article. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, in the U.S. with his wife Julie and puppy dog Faith.