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  1. #1
    Ed Scanlan

    Linear vs Nonlinear

    There seems to be some pressure these days for authors to write nonlinear stories in order to try and validate their abilities as writers. Has the linear become passé? Nonlinear can be effective in certain stories, but some people force the issue to the point of obfuscation.

  2. #2
    Diane Snyder-Haug

    Re: Linear vs Nonlinear

    Hi Ed,

    Just a question. Where have you heard this? From whom does this pressure come? I've not heard of any such thing and seems I've read a few recently released novels that are very linear....

  3. #3
    Gary Kessler

    Re: Linear vs Nonlinear

    The only pressure I see is for writing to be fresh, interesting, and surprising.

  4. #4
    Kitty Foyle

    Re: Linear vs Nonlinear

    Can you give an example of a nonlinear story, Ed? A title?

    According to WooWoo-ism, everything is happening in the Now --in the nonlinear, as opposed to the linear. Most of us think in terms of past, present and future.

    "The understanding of non-linear time has its difficulties for those on earth who are familiar with linear time. We wish to compare the two and show how you can experience non-linear time as well as linear time. We will try to describe the experience of non-linear time and to let you know that it is quite enjoyable!"



  5. #5
    Anthony Ravenscroft

    Re: Linear vs Nonlinear

    Ed, either cite sources, or we'll just assume you're stuffed with feathers.

  6. #6
    Ed Scanlan

    Re: Linear vs Nonlinear

    Citations? Really? Do you really need citations to demonstrate what is intuitively obvious? I’m sure some of your responses are well-intentioned, but let’s not be obtuse about this. This is a forum for thoughts and opinions, folks, not an academic journal. It doesn’t take a monk’s dedication and a lifetime of analysis to see the obvious influence of the nonlinear in literature and film.

    But I’ll indulge you. Do you really think novels such as Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting have had no impact on aspiring writers?

    Or is it my question asking whether the linear has become passé that troubles you? Joseph Novekovich, in his book Writing Fiction Step by Step, has this to say on the matter: “'Linear plot' is often used as a put down, the way, for example, 'politically correct' is used. The word linear implies lack of excitement, experimentation, novelty.” I’m not saying I agree with him, but it does beg the question, doesn’t it? Here’s an excerpt I pulled off of a blog on the internet:

    “I'm not sure how I feel about nonlinear storytelling. Are you? Critics, academics, and the media often celebrate nonlinearity. There are three reasons usually given for the greatness of nonlinearity.
    • One is the usual avant-garde argument: Traditional storytelling is felt to be oppressive, and in need of subverting -- linearity is evil, therefore nonlinearity is good.
    • The second argument is related. It's claimed that our minds don't work in linear ways. They're said to work associatively, not plodding relentlessly forward but instead zigzagging their way around a firmament in which time and cause-and-effect play little part. We're said to need an approach to narrative that reflects the way we actually experience thought and imagination.
    • The third case that gets made for nonlinearity is that today's young people have left conventional storytelling behind. Plugged into multiple devices and drenched in innumerable media streams, kids today are beyond been-there-done-that. They're said to have seen it all a thousand times, and it's claimed that they need entertainment that reflects the multi-tracking natures of their brains and nervous system.
    But a few important matters get overlooked in these discussions, it seems to me.
    • One is the glory of straightforward narrative. Has there ever been a period in history when a well-told, first-class story didn't fascinate? The modernist-academic belief sometimes seems to be that telling a story is a trivially easy thing to do. Having written a little nonlinear fiction and a little linear fiction, I dispute that belief. In my experience, dreaming up and telling a straightforward story is to fiction what figure drawing is to the visual arts: always basic, yet always a challenge.
    Creating recognizable and believable characters � Defining what the situation they're caught up in is � Being clear about what's at stake � Making firm choices about what your characters do as they pursue their goals � Trying to involve your audience in these affairs � These are tasks that take a lot of imagination, a lot of skill, and a lot of hard work.
    • Another question that gets overlooked is a very practical one: the utility of traditional narrative. Traditional storytelling gives you the means to order your material -- not strict rules, but principles of organization that are akin to tonality in music. If you want to put your ideas up on their feet, casting them in terms of a traditional story will usually prove to be a much more direct activity than casting them in modernist-poetic terms. And if you like the relating-to-an-audience side of art and entertainment, traditional storytelling is a boon; it equips you with a whole language of sympathy, point of view, climaxes, suspense, surprises, revelations, pacing, setups and payoffs. Take the time to learn the language, and you'll be (more or less) able to say what you have to say, in a way that an audience might very well enjoy. That's nice.
    • Yet another thing that's seldom discussed is the pitfalls of nonlinearity. For every "Pulp Fiction" and "Run Lola Run" -- films that found witty and surprising ways to order and deliver their fictional material -- there seem to be dozens of nonlinear films and novels that lie there like soufflés determined not to rise. Nonlinear works seldom strike me as revolutionary and exciting, while they often strike me as disorganized and childish.”

    Another on-line article titled “How to Get a Book Published”, advises readers to “[c]onsider nonlinear writing. In fiction, for example, you might want to start with a few key scenes and then fill in the gaps”.

    And yet another article:

    “Why are nonlinear narratives so much more prevalent in novels than films? Why does a great nonlinear film feel so revolutionary, when in fact they're as old as the medium itself? Why do novels often feel flat when they unfold linearly, while films often fall flat when they embrace a nonlinear structure?”

    It would be inane to list the aspiring writers I’ve corresponded with who feel compelled to write in the nonlinear. They truly believe it provides the best chance of being published and taken seriously as a writer. I'm not sure I agree with them. That's why I submitted this post. As for a quantitative analysis of linear and nonlinear published novels, I can only guess that the linear predominates. But I wonder if the same ratio holds where awards and purchased movie rights are concerned.

    Mr. Ravenscroft, I find your stuffy, let’s-try-and-gang-up-on-the-newbie-poster comment both ironic and pathetic. If you’ve got nothing original to add to the conversation, move on to another thread.

  7. #7
    junel ;-)

    Re: Linear vs Nonlinear

    I have a question for you Mr Ed Scalan, as you seem to be pretty clued up on this, you may well be able to help a great deal.

    It may be difficult to explain this, so please bare with me.

    I'm writing a gritty crime/murder novel. It opens with the murdered body of a young girl.

    Just recently I have decided to tell the present and main story; the police investigation into her death, while telling the young girls story while she was living at the same time (well, not at the same time, as that's impossible, but interspersed within the present time story, you get what i mean).

    So for example, my first chapter reveals her dead body, then the second chapter goes back X number of months/years to when she was living. And then the third chapter continues with the present time police investigation, and so on. Although it's not strictly back and forth each chapter, as the bulk remains the present time story and the past story is on average, every four chapters or so.

    My question is essentially this:

    Would this be considered as nonlinear story telling?

    Or, just a series of glorified flashbacks? and so frowned upon?

    I should really start another thread, and throw it out to anyone, but as your talking about, i thought i might ask you.

    On the subject of your post, I can't really comment as i don't know much about this. But I do always enjoy a nonlinear film. I feel I'm being challenged more as a viewer.

  8. #8
    Gary Kessler

    Re: Linear vs Nonlinear

    I didn't really see a clear answer to either Diane or Anthony in all of that verbiage, Ed. Who again is this pressure you speak of coming from? Who's saying writers should write one way and not the other (and what power of pressure do they have?)? That was the foundation for your original statement.

  9. #9
    Jeanne Gassman

    Re: Linear vs Nonlinear


    As someone who is trained in the modernist academic culture (MFA in Writing), I've never felt any pressure to write a nonlinear story. I believe that the choice of linear vs. nonlinear should be dictated by the needs of the piece. Some books, such as The English Patient, succeed as nonlinear works because the "facts/truths" are known by more than one character, and those "truths" are in conflict. As readers, we are fed bits and pieces of each character's story in order to see the whole. Since each character only knows a part of the whole, he cannot tell the entire story, nor can the story necessarily be told in sequential order.

    However, there are plenty of modern novels that do follow a linear model and are equally celebrated for their craft and eloquence. Sorry, but I don't understand why you think there is pressure upon authors to write in a nonlinear mode. Have you felt this pressure? Just wondering...


  10. #10
    Anthony Ravenscroft


    Yeah, Ed, I'm still not getting it. I can't see where you have any idea what you're asking, & you seem to be stating an opinion -- which is fine -- but ascribing it to Imaginary Others.

    Go watch Kurosawa's Rashomon. Note when it was released.

    Go read Michener's The Source. When was it published. How much was Michener a wild-eyed radical?

    Go study the Old Testament. Note that much of it is nonlinear, starting right from Genesis -- which is two creation myths, btw.

    Where do Borges & Stephenson fit into your proposed mythos?

    As you'll find if you actually RESEARCH the topic, nonlinearity carries risks for the writer. Well, "risk," anyway: damaging the reader's involvement. If the reader wants to READ & you proceed to beat him with the GAME bladder, s/he might just go elsewhere.

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