One thing that a lot of people might notice about the way I tell stories is that sometimes they are not linear. In books like THE GRAVITY OF NOTHING, A SURPLUS OF LIGHT, JACOB MICHAELS IS TIRED (the whole series, really), and the forthcoming BETWEEN ENZO & THE UNIVERSE, I jump around in the timeline of events that comprise the story. It’s just a thing I do from time to time, though I am certainly not the first or last to do it.
Some stories require that you start at the beginning, tell the middle, then give the conclusion. They make the most sense this way. They require that they unfurl from the beginning to the end with no sidesteps or detours. That’s how they make the most sense and deliver the biggest impact. It’s the standard for writing a story. Or, at least, what is most common. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I write linear stores more often than not, as do most writers, I feel.
However, some stories are dependent on knowing information about the characters that might have been learned years before the actual story takes place. For example, in THE GRAVITY OF NOTHING, the story of two boys being involved in a sexual assault at summer camp intersects with the story about one of the boys dealing with the aftermath over the years that follow. The story spans the course of about 6 years. Trying to tell a story like that in a linear fashion would probably create a book that is so long no one would want to read it. Not every day or detail in those years between the assault and the road to possible recovery have to do with the story itself. Some people, regardless of the enormity of a particular event in their life, still have many boring, normal days. So…what does one do?
You hit the highlights. You touch on the things that have the most impact on a story and give it the most emotional gravity. See what I did there?
People will tell you to start at the beginning and tell a story. But a story is full of beginnings and endings. Life is full of beginnings and endings. The only true beginning to a lived life is birth, and unless your story is about the birth of a character, you can’t really use that as a focal point. In writing a story, the writer gets to decide where the beginning truly is for the character. Again, as an example, I decided in THE GRAVITY OF NOTHING to use the beginning of Tom’s recovery. I also chose to never show the true ending to the story, but that is unimportant.
I told the story of Tom’s recovery, and I went non-linear in explaining why he needed to recover. There were flashbacks and memories and false memories (Tom’s an Unreliable Narrator), leading the reader through the beginning of recovery, and what led to Tom’s need to recover in the first place, simultaneously over the course of those 6 years covered in the story. I wanted the reader to feel as confused and broken as Tom, to understand how a person gets into such a headspace in the first place. However, I didn’t want the reader to feel that it was as simple as: this happened, then this happened, then this, then that, so on and so forth. Because Tom couldn’t think in those terms, why should the reader have that luxury?
Writing in a non-linear fashion isn’t easy, but it is not incredibly difficult. If you are a Plotter, you can still easily outline a non-linear story. Outline it in a linear fashion, then jumble up the events. Tell them in the order that makes the most sense to give the reader the biggest jolt. But, whatever you do, don’t be afraid to tell a story in the sequence that makes the most sense for the characters and the plot.
Sometimes, non-linear storytelling gives your characters the respect they deserve, and your readers the experience they’ll enjoy most.
To my American readers and friends – Happy (early) Thanksgiving. I hope that you will be the spending the day with people you love and love you back…and of course, that you will eat until you nearly explode! To my non-American friends, I still hope your upcoming Thursday is full of love and delicious food!
Tremendous Love & Thanks,