After my Christmas vacation I came back to my current script and had an epiphany. Being away from your story for a while installs a distance from which you can benefit – problems become apparent, solutions pop-up. This time the spark was a rather unexpected one. I asked myself: what if I played with the chronology of my story? What if I went non-linear? All of a sudden, it seemed like the best, the unmistakably right thing to do. I had that thrilling feeling of having found a way to fix problems and deliver smarter, tighter storytelling.
But soon afterwards I began doubting. Moving blocks around is no way to build a tower. Maybe I’m being lured into an easy cosmetic solution that will redistribute, maybe hide, the weaknesses of my film, but not solve them.
Even before these doubts started bothering me, I made the decision of proceeding to the end of this second draft instead of immediately starting to scramble things around. I believe this is a very wise decision (congratulations to me). I can only benefit from sorting out things linearly before eventually putting them out of order. The build-up, the cause and effect that good storytelling requires are best assessed chronologically.
I now must test my idea. How would my story benefit from being told non-linearly?
While trying to answer this question I came across this text by writer/script consultant Ray Morton. He looks at non-linearity with great scepticism, seeing it as a contemporary trend that doesn’t do the medium any service. “Movies are inherently linear”, he says, and there’s no arguing about the fact that one frame comes after the next without us being able to help it, and that causal progressions don’t travel in time.
For this author, time disruption is only justifiable when it springs organically from the story. He evokes, of course, Memento: the main character has lost his memories and needs to retrieve them in order to find the murderer of his wife. This is a story about memory, about how essential yet tricky it is; so all those dips into the past make sense, there would be no story otherwise. But other than in movies about memory, or time, when is it “organic” to use non-linear storytelling? Ray Morton mentions The Usual Suspects, defining it as an intellectual puzzle that can be very pleasurable for the viewer but judging it “distant” because it isn’t straightforward. For this author, when we chose to go non-linear, it is always with a cost.
I believe this is a rather narrow view of non-linear storytelling. Sure enough, the hype of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction has tempted many inexperienced storytellers to create complicated structures instead of drama. But good storytelling isn’t just about events unfolding in time through cause and effect. It is about characters, theme, meaning, connections made through comparison and metaphor, not just causality.
This text by script consultant Linda Cowgill provides a broader, more insightful view of non-linear storytelling. Consider this paragraph: “Because action does not direct the plot in a nonlinear film, theme takes on even greater importance. Theme defines what a film experience is about. The more diverse and out of sequence the incidents, the more we need theme to hold the segments together. At the end, each scene and sequence contributes to the ultimate discovery of what the film is about”. This feels absolutely right. Non-linearity needs a strong theme and is a (not exclusive) tool for maximizing its scope. Citizen Kane illustrates this. Through the manifold exploration of its main character, newspaper magnate Kane, the film asks the questions: To what extent can we get to know a man? To what extent can we judge his deeds? Different segments of Kane’s life, chaotically out of order and offered by different narrators, come together to state how complex, contradictory and mysterious a man, every man, is. In Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible – told in reverse – we are reminded of how little we are in control of our lives and the world around us. Horrible things can happen to us, and we can do horrible things to other people, and the beautiful promises of life can vanish in the blink of an eye. Beauty is so fragile, and the beasts within us long to kill and destroy. This precariousness of all things human is conveyed all the more pungently through the reverse storytelling – the film closes with an image of happiness, security and great expectations, which has already been so thoroughly trashed during the first half of the film that you can only wish none of that had happened, and realize the futility of your good wishes.
So: non-linear storytelling is all about theme (just like films with multiple storylines).
For the sake of dramatic unity, besides the strong thematic aspect of the script, Linda Cowgill advocates something she calls a “framing action”. “In Citizen Kane, the reporter is assigned the task of finding out what ‘Rosebud’ means. This is the reason he goes to hear the stories about Kane. Thompson [the reporter] provides the link between the separate episodes as he pursues his goal”, she analyses. So the framing action is a segment that hosts all other segments, providing the dramatic reason for their examination. And she adds: “The framing action is stronger if there are obstacles and complications for the protagonists completing the ‘present’ task. In Citizen Kane, Thompson has no idea what ‘Rosebud’ means. […]The more dramatic the framing action, the higher the tension and more deeply involved the audience.” While for instance Irreversible has no framing action (but is in return perfectly consistent in its use of reverse storytelling), the use of this technique really feels like sensible advice. Linda Cowgill reminds us: “This unconventional structure doesn’t mean audiences understand film in a new way. Viewers understand by making cause-and-effect connections between the scenes. Each beat of information must relate to what comes before and after, even if a scene transcends the chronological order of time”. Maybe there are other options for ensuring the dramatic unity of a story, but that question should not be overlooked.
Now, back to my question: should I go non-linear?
Well – why not?
Even before I read about the “framing action”, I had envisioned anchoring the story in a segment featuring a meeting to which all the characters converge in order to explain and make sense of a certain number of events; the outcome of the meeting will be crucial for the character’s destinies. Thus – I already have a frame.
I am striving to give theme the central place in my film. My story is about the paradoxes of freedom: how restrictions to freedom (like my characters’ handicaps) can actually maximize it; how the quest for freedom can itself become a prison.
So far so good.
There are also practical reasons to go non-linear. I can use the meeting situation to have characters briefly explain or evoke things, thus building a bridge between periods in time or providing exposition that would otherwise require long set-ups. Maybe I’m being lazy; maybe I’m being smart and speeding/tightening the narrative. Also, I can use non-linearity to deliver early in the film a segment that sets a goal, intrigues and engages. After that I can go back and show how the characters met and came to establish that goal together (right now I spend lots of pages building up the improbable association of my three protagonists). I think this improves the viewer’s experience: there is a hook, a clear quest(ion) that the audience knows will be addressed, as opposed to a series of events that convey the characters’ motivations and show how their lives were thrown off balance – which are necessary, but lack direction.
Right now, I’m excited with the prospect of changing my narrative approach. I believe the gains may be considerable. I will keep you posted 🙂