Part of the How They Do It Series
JH: I got a question recently on outlining non-linear stories (which I don't do), so I brought in some help on this one. Please welcome Darlene Reilley to the lecture hall to share how she outlines and writes a story that doesn't follow a chronological order.
Darlene is a former Barista and customer service human who longed for life outside the cubicle. She has degrees in creative writing, anthropology, and private investigation. She loves stories from the future and things that go bump in the night; if it makes you check under the bed before you go to sleep, you've come across a good book. When she's not writing science fiction, romance, or horror, she's living at the foothills of Mt. Rainier with four spoiled dogs: Mulder, Harley, Shasta and Karma.
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Q: As I go through learning how to write and study films/books, I see there are essentially two main 'structures'; Linear and Non-Linear. I am very interested in Non-linear storytelling so how can I, using a couple of different plot structures if possible (ie Save the Cat, Michael Hague etc), structure a non-linear narrative? Would it basically be structuring everything in linear fashion and then break things up? What are your thoughts on approaching this?
Take it away Darlene...
A: Good question! Non-linear storytelling is hard. I’ve written two books this way and let me tell you, it’s easier to write in a linear fashion. And yet…there are excellent reasons you should write in a nonlinear fashion. The biggest reason, and the one that swayed me, was wanting to reach a broader theme that applied to several characters’ situations in the timeline instead of just one.
I write science fiction, and in my novel Forbidden Timeline, I wanted to show how events progressed from start to finish through the timeline-hopping character’s perspective. Nonlinear storytelling was necessary because it directly impacted the way I wanted the reader to experience the story.
This is how I did it.
I started with an idea in mind: an advanced race that has a high regard for timeline continuity. They are the people who keep timelines straight. But then I gave a character a problem: in order to stop the extinction of her race and save the man she loves; the main character has to go against her training.
Some writers write the whole story in the nonlinear perspective with just an idea of where it starts and where they are heading. I can’t do that – I need to know the whole thing and then edit it down. I prefer working in sections, so I started the timeline sequentially and established the basis of the story.
The first time I wrote it, it looked like this:
1. Timeship Attacked
2. Sabotage & Resolution
3. Fixing the Ship
4. Check of timeline—we’re in the wrong one
5. Map out journey and probabilities of survival
6. Depart the ship and crash it into the sun
7. Find the best location of survival
8. Establish a home base
9. Safehouse and evacuation strategies
10. Hear about local event to blend in
11. Attend the Rodeo
12. Auction for charity
13. The locals are alerted to presence
14. Characters grow closer
15. Scientist/Black Ops find out about crash
16. Alert at home base – false alarm
17. Marriage ceremony
19. Second alert at home base – invasion
21. Attack on plane
22. Crashing in ocean
23. Virus attack
25. Safe house 2
26. Contact by another timeship (against protocol)
27. Recovery of remains
28. A new status
29. Traveling home (back to before the ship was impacted)
30. Consequences of duplicates in a timeline
31. Decision time
32. Honorable discharge and transferring
33. A new plan
34. War & running
35. A re-marriage (to the same man in that timeline)
36. Reaching HQ
37. A secret mission
38. Kidnapped by her husband’s future counterpart
39. Death of a husband
40. Change of guard: assembling the crew to stop the attacks
42. An earlier time: traveling to just before the ship left the homeworld
43. Shifts in the timeline were noted by enemy
44. Attack by enemy at that time
45. The whole lineage wiped out but one
46. Narrow escape
47. A new plan: the husband lives with twins/mother dies
48. Going back in time (to grandfather’s generation) to escape the threat
49. Before she became a Time Guard Member, a new teacher at end of semester
50. New orders and a previous arrangement
51. A new wedding
52. Learning of the twins—who are hers
53. A note passed through time
55. A new generation
That’s a lot. But it’s the way I originally planned the book and it was okay—the timeline shifts made sense because of the way the story evolved. This is the version I published in 2012.
But a year later I got a bug and wanted to see if I could rewrite it even better. I also wanted to see if I could mimic human memory. So I set out to shift the events that focused on highlighting the impact of the choices the characters made on their lives: the theme I went for was an everlasting bond of love regardless of time and location.
I took each of these sections and posted them on index cards and pinned them to a wall. With the theme in mind, I shuffled them until I came up with a new plan to focus on the greater message.
- Stranded on a planet, husband dead, pregnant with twins 
- Contact by another Timeship (against protocol, a brother wants to save his brother) 
- Travels to the ship and is greeted with her new title 
- Recovery of remains 
- Traveling into timeline
- Recounts the attack of the time ship and fixing the ship [1, 3]
- Consequences of duplicates in a timeline 
- Attack on ship in transit [new-enemy threat]
- Recounts Sabotage & Resolution 
- Teams up with counterpart to save this ship from being destroyed 
- Decision time about duplicates in timeline, honorable discharge [31-33]
- Recounts the growing closer, rodeo, and marriage ceremony [11, 12, 14]
- As their ship is attacked again, she recounts why they landed there and the many attacks on the ship [5, 13, 15, 19]
- The ship is safe because they mimicked the crash into the sun and the hidden location of survival in a timeline/enemy ship crashes into sun [5-6]
- The ship is sabotaged and they have to set down in a strange time stream for repairs; she shows them how to blend in and how they resolved it the first time [10, 2, 4]
- She recounts how they established a home base and had a safehouse [8, 9]
- Re-marriage (to the same man in that timeline) [17, 36]
- They establish the first base in the time stream – where the effects on individual time streams can’t affect the people in the stream.
- Enemy ship follows them into the stream and attacks. She recounts how she escaped and headed to the island [20-28]
- Return to time before the stream was attacked 
- A new plan is established 
- But when they reach the timeline, the enemy is already there, war and running ensue 
- A secret mission 
- Death of husband 
- Kidnapped by alternate timeline’s future husband’s counterpart and brought into that timestream 
- The people fight to get her back
- Husband of that timeline dies  pushing her off the edge
- Assembles a new guard and holes up in the timestream to find a permanent solution 
- But when they travel back to implement it, the enemy attacked and wiped out the entire line 
- Narrow escape 
- A new plan 
- Kidnaps the other timeline counterpart’s husband when is younger
- Travels to his grandfather’s generation to escape the threat and allow the children to grow while they figure out how to solve the problem 
- The effects of their stay in grandfather’s generation changes the timeline and the enemy threat never occurs
- Note through time 
- A new wedding and twins [52, 53]
- Graduation 
- A new generation 
The shuffling of the timeline and the events shows the continuous barrage of attacks on the timeline, on the couple, and how regardless of the opposition, when they worked together, they could overcome massive odds.
If I republish this novel, I will do it in the current state because it has a greater impact and a larger message: love conquers all.
Okay, that’s a lot to take in. I bet you have questions. I know I did at this point. Writers choose linear storytelling because it works and is easier than nonlinear storytelling. When writers choose to write in a non-linear fashion, we do it to showcase art or the effect of the larger theme. On the surface, it looks intimidating. It’s a complex structure like a high-tech braid.
A few things to note: all stories have beginnings, middles, and ends regardless of the timeline. There must be a structure to the story so it makes sense. Also, even in a time-travel story, the order of events is crucial. You also need to pay attention to the internal consistency of the character’s knowledge—a character in the future would know more about what’s going on than the one just starting out.
I hope this made sense and answered your questions. Keep exploring – I’ve written a short story and two books this way…it’s a journey!
For further study, check out these resources:
Books: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Cloud Atlas, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Iliad, The Outlander series, The Princess Bride, or The Time Traveler’s Wife. Movies: The Butterfly Effect, Crash, The Grudge, or Pulp Fiction. TV Series: Arrow, Dr. Who, Lost, Star Trek, Supernatural, The Walking Dead Games: Assassin’s Creed Series, Uncharted series
Thoughts from Janice:
Thanks Darlene! I'll like to add a few things as well. The writer asked about using existing story structures options (Save the Cat, Michael Hauge) to write non-linear narratives, and after seeing how Darlene handled it, I have some suggestions. I think you could still use them, but you'd probably have to think of them more conceptually. The beats and turning points would apply to points at any time in the story, so you might want to look at them as how they fit the emotional or thematic arcs rather than the plot arc.
(Here's more on outlining conceptually)
For example, the inciting event starts the plot moving (the catalyst in Save the Cat, the opportunity in Hauge's structure), and happens within the first 1-30 pages. You'd still need something to trigger the plot same as any other novel, but your moment might be something that happened at another time but still affects the protagonist's "present day" and triggers the same moment. You might even have different story arcs unfolding during different times and use turning points from any of them to keep the story moving.
It seems to me, that figuring out the chronological timeline first and then breaking it up would be easiest, as you'd know exactly how everything unfolds. If you're not sure when something happens, it would be much harder to know where in the story it fits. Darlene's idea of using index cards is a good one, as would Scrivener's corkboard function (if you use Scrivener).
Of the structures you mentioned, I'd suggest Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure for this type of novel. This has more flexibility for a non-linear option. Or, you could try my very basic Three Point Structure. This is a much more conceptual "these ideas go roughly here" structure that could work well for you.
About Forbidden Timeline
Lieutenant Kalia Berosana of the Aurellian Timeship Venture wants to know what happened to her and her crew. After waking on the bridge, Kailia finds it in chaos, her Captain and the crew dead, and her prototype artificial intelligence unit Samma running the ship. Once life support is restored, Kailia finds she is not alone only to be attacked. Commander Cam Hayes orders the ailing ship into a far-flung corner of the galaxy in a offshoot timeline on a planet called Earth. Stranded on a planet of aliens, Cam finds Kailia irresistible, but they are found out. A race across the planet ensues, but one of them won?t make it off the planet alive. Rescued by a timeship going against orders, Kailia promises to set the timeline right and recover her one true love. The Anelianist threat stands in her way? Can Kailia stop the extinction of her race and still save the man she loves?
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