Linear storytelling: Graduating Class

Disclaimer: Terminology in writing is – well, its indicative of how unorganised and confusing the field can be – but its difficult to find agreement, and being writers you tend to find yourself arguing semantics and rather missing the point. I acknowledge up front that I am stretching the definition of linear storytelling here. If I knew a better way of defining it I would use it, but like show and tell, at the moment we’re stuck with this one.


For most, linear storytelling defines a basic structure and is generally meant in a temporal sense: A problem arises on Tuesday, shit gets serious on Wednesday, a ray of hope on Thursday and a happy ever after just in time for the weekend. It’s probably the most common structure in fiction, across all mediums, and even if you have a few flashbacks, dreamy memory sequences, dotted through, by and large it will still be regarded as linear. Austen is linear, Dan Brown, Jk Rowling.

Others would ignore the temporal aspect and say its the causality, specifically that it follows a clear cut line of action, that matters. Simply it’s a story that goes from a to b to c… One development leading directly to the next, so that even in a time travel story such as Back to the Future, the line between action and consequence is so clearly marked that it is still linear. Time is essentially functioning as a location. However, a story such as Kate Mosse’s, Labyrinth, where two storylines from two different time periods are explored simultaneously, is generally not considered an example of linear storytelling under this definition.

I’m going to stretch the definition a little further. I’m going to say time travel, multi-pov, flashbacks, flash-forwards, frame narratives, all the so-called alternatives can suffer from linear storytelling. The key is in the ‘storytelling’ part; it’s the execution that is going to make the vital difference.

And yeah, I said suffer.

There’s never been a time as a reader that I haven’t been a writer as well, but back when my terminology was nil and I had only gut instincts I was often left with a sense of dissatisfaction. A promise the blurb made that the writer had been unable to deliver on. Usually I put it down to the characters, I had/have a lot of problems with characters, but that was only the visible part I could easily grasp. Recently I reread a childhood favourite – one I remember liking the characters in – and found a whole other problem, one repeated in a adult fantasy book that is garnering lots of rave reviews.

Linear storytelling.

It is in essence the literary equivalent of doing a join the dots puzzle. I could see the whole picture before I began, I knew every step we were going to take and when complete it was exactly as expected and nothing like I’d hoped. Still barely a sketch.

The issue here is that most of us will construct linearly. Life is constructed linearly and, as said above, a shift in time, or pov, will not necessarily solve the issue. I recently read a Sue Grafton novel which divided the pov and was so bored with the alternative narrator I started skipping it, and it was a better book for it. Grafton follows the classic PI model of digging where the clues lead, surely as linear as they come, and yet never delivers a linear story.

And I would be a liar if I said screw the consequences! Consequences matter, causality matters especially when it comes to suspension of disbelief and getting your reader fully invested. If your PI gets shot, she needs to make a pit-stop at the hospital not take on six henchmen after tying a hankie over the wound. If anything I would plead that most storytellers pay more attention to consequences not less.

What about throwing random curveballs in a la Gothika? Also not the answer. Simply saying Gothika probably told you that. In fact pretty much everything you automatically think of as breaking the line of action can be problematic, while those things that might seem to exacerbate the issue might actually be where your answer lies.

I likened the effect as being like a join the dots puzzle where you can see every step that’s coming. And now I’m going to suggest that the answer, the cure for what I consider the great ill of the mediocre, might lie in foreshadowing. Not the answer, like I would ever suggest anything is that simple, but a technique that if mastered could definitely help.

Many interpret foreshadowing as the classic.. ‘If only she had known what was about to happen..’

On Wednesday Morning it had rained very heavily, the lane was wet and muddy, but the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent’s house for what was to be the last time.  –   The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

The interesting thing about Adam’s foreshadowing is that he immediately goes into the explanation that a bypass is planned right where this house sits. Of course once you read on you realise the real threat is a little bit bigger and a lot more interesting. Thus even this most rudimentary form of foreshadowing creates a loop within the line, information in the future is effecting how we read what came before, making us draw backwards, pull forwards and rewrite our understanding.

Breaking the linear curse relies on understanding that it is essentially an effect, as are most of the more complex ideas in writing, and its all about understanding how your words are working on the reader. The lines that matter are the ones drawn in the mind, the connections they make, what they expect, see and hope for. Expectation, whether anticipation or dread, is vital to good storytelling.

The above form of foreshadowing is pretty blunt and best suits an omniscient narrator. There are far more subtle ways to seed the present with expectations of the future. Something as simple as changing this line – The moon was shining – to  – The moon was shining that night – will create a greater sense of something noteworthy about to happen.  However, I don’t want to put the focus on the prose. There are potentially countless ways to seed through your narrative, the things that make the difference – really make the difference – lie more in the content than the style.

Take for example a theft from a high security building.

As the thieves carry out their heist, a small red light starts to blink in the corner.

An alarm?

But what if an alarm is not heard?

What if we don’t see guards sitting in a room with another flashing red light?

What if we don’t see them storming down the corridor, guns drawn?

What if our thieves don’t suddenly have to complete their task in seconds?

What if they don’t realise anything has changed?

What if that light just quietly blinks? And no one knows why, not even our readers.

The above (that I am suggesting you avoid) are all standard actions you’re likely to see in a heist movie. Our heroes would still get away, after a battle against an army of heavily armed guards. Causally it follows, one action leading to another. It follows standard rules of fiction – nothing can be easy, throw as many obstacles as you can think of at your heroes. It breaks the line of action with a pov shift (to the guards). What it fails to do is create a non-linear form, a realistic outcome, or any anticipation in your reader. The pov shift steals any mystery clearly showing exactly what is happening, the consequences force our heroes to do in seconds what they had previously thought – just for fun? – they’d do in hours and the obstacle, the problem, is solved by the end of the scene.

A classic feature of linear storytelling is raising an issue and solving it before moving on to the next. Once we’ve moved the pen through dot 3 we can forget about it and move on to dot 4. This actually stems from a lack of consequence, because it doesn’t allow for the truism that even a small pebble in a big pond will cause ripples long after and far away from where it landed.  One of the most effective ways to break the linear curse is to create a sort of sub plot out of your obstacle, an underlying festering threat that never quite goes away, or at least not immediately. To carry the ripples with us as we move through the dots.

The reader wants to know what the light was. It bugs them, it draws them back. They’re reading with an eye to figuring it out, to draw allusions, connections within the innocuous.

An example of this, sometimes used well, sometimes not, is Superman and his secret identity. While it became painfully clichéd, in every episode/film/recreation, we’re still wondering how Clark will explain his absence this time, how he’ll be both helpless captor and heroic rescuer, creating an extra layer of obstacle to what might otherwise be painfully easy for the invincible Superman.

The Hunger Games I always felt missed out on a great opportunity when Kat volunteered to save her sister. It was a simple solution and allowed us to quickly move on to the next obstacle. If however she’d not been able to volunteer – why give the tributes any choice, make them think they have some measure of control after all?  – and had to pretend to be her sister, it creates a extra dimension to her already unfortunate situation. Does Peeta know? Will he out her? The dynamic between them becomes even more complicated, she has to trust him, manipulate him or get rid of him. Or all three. And that’s before the games even begin.

Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it… the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters …

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.  -Alfred Hitchcock

Furthering this point I would suggest you don’t mistake mystery for surprise.  The key is expectation. Surprise after all is ‘what you didn’t expect’. When deciding what to reveal or withold, the important point is whether you are creating an emotional investment in what is unfolding. Hitchcock would have it that ‘whenever possible you need to keep the audience informed’  I would slightly modify to say that ‘whenever possible’ means that you need to understand when it is beneficial. Too much and your story is already told. Too little and there is no story.

Another form of foreshadowing is what I term back-shadowing. JK Rowling famously made this her own with the Harry Potter books. It’s where seemingly straight-forward things happen that are then cast in an entirely new light by later developments. Hagrid winning a dragon’s egg in The Philospopher’s Stone creates the immediate problem of what to do with a dragon and how not to get fired over it. Later on we realise it was part of a larger scheme to draw information from him. In this instance its a form of misdirection, one issue is dealt with while the real problem goes unnoticed and is allowed to become a much bigger issue for our heroes to face.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this would be the one ring to rule them all. Found in one book, a trinket, a saving grace, and nothing more, it becomes the fate of the world in another. Despite the recent filmic attempts to suggest otherwise, there was not initially any suggestion the ring was more than a magic trick. Tolkien himself later suggested revisions that allowed a hint of the true power the ring had, at least in terms of how attached Gollum had become to it.

In the second edition edits, to reflect the new concept of the ring and its corrupting abilities, Tolkien made Gollum more aggressive towards Bilbo and distraught at losing the ring. The encounter ends with Gollum’s curse, “Thief! Thief, Thief, Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” This presages Gollum’s portrayal in The Lord of the Rings. – Wikipedia

It is still considering everything – burning worlds, bound to the will of pure evil etc – a relatively inauspicious introduction, yet those reading out of order will find a chill running down their spine, a sense of ‘when does it happen?’ in their minds at the start of each chapter. Even those who read in order, if they know anything of what will come, will read with a certain guiding curiosity.

This got away from me a little. It is one of my greatest bug bears in writing, a hidden trap that even seemingly competent and assured writers are too often unable to avoid. Both books that inspired this are well received, one award winning, yet I struggled to maintain interest in either. They both had different flaws at their hearts, different styles, different techniques, yet the effect was the same, linear and dull. A flattening of a story that should have throbbed with intrigue and life.

I’ve only begun to touch upon how it might be remedied. So I guess if you are interested, stay tuned for part two.



3 thoughts on “Linear storytelling: Graduating Class

  1. I distinguish between ‘story’, a series of causally linked events in chronological order, and ‘narrative’,the arrangement of those events to achieve maximum dramatic effect.

    Provided the underlying story is apparent or can be inferred *at some point* during the reading then the narrative can be as chronologically convoluted as you like.

    To give example, in the second and third volumes of Acts of the Servant I have one line of narrative which unfolds backwards. It begins with the chronological end and works back to its inciting incident. That inciting incident is itself the climax of two other narratives told in broadly chronological order.

    It’s posited on the notion that to understand why we do what we do at any one time we must understand everything that has gone before.

    1. separating out story and narrative in the mind is an interesting approach. I’m not sure what I do, or if I’m falling into the dreaded linear trap – sometimes I do fear it. I guess that’s why I am writing this – to figure it out!! Because lord, do I dislike it 🙂

      1. The ‘text’ I hold up as a brilliant example of non-linear narrative versus ‘linear’ story is the film Citizen Kane. I seriously recommend you see it, or watch it again if you have seen it.

        Everything you need to know about the power of a non-linear narrative to reveal a hidden depth or meaning in a linear story is in that film.

        I say that I plan very little, and I think it’s true that I don’t plan what I’m going to write next. What I do have a clear idea about is the thing that the piece of writing is supposed to do within the story.


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