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Unconventional Screenwriting: Exploring Nonlinear Narratives

Upon entering the writing space, many writers are tasked with learning the screenwriting basics. Format, structure, grammar, and style are drilled into every writer's head, making it challenging for what matters: creativity. Hence, it’s vital for screenwriters to explore unconventional screenwriting, such as nonlinear narratives.

There are many reasons why you should consider a nonlinear narrative, and in this article, we’re here to discuss why. We’ll highlight what a nonlinear narrative is, why you should consider one, and how you can write one. By the end, you’ll have more knowledge pertaining to unconventional screenwriting and much more.

Still from 'Memento (2000)'. Photo credit: IndieWire

What is a Nonlinear Narrative?

A non-linear narrative employs a distinct storytelling technique, disrupting the chronological order of events and deviating from the conventional linear progression from beginning to end.

Instead of following a straight line, the narrative may navigate back and forth in time or even commence from the middle, gradually revealing earlier or later events through flashbacks or future speculations. Some of my favorites include 'Pulp Fiction', 'Memento', 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', and 'Lost Highway'.

This artistic approach serves multiple purposes, including building suspense, delving into character depth, and presenting events from diverse perspectives. By exploring the advantages, examples, and purpose of this storytelling method, one can gain a deeper understanding of its creative impact.

In contrast to a linear narrative that presents events in the sequence they occur, a non-linear narrative adopts a more intricate pattern, leading the story along various directions. As a consequence, the events are not recounted in strictly chronological order.

A popular technique to achieve this is through flashbacks, where the audience is transported to earlier or later periods in the story, adding layers of depth and context. Additionally, other devices like framed narratives and parallel plots are employed to further enhance the complexity and richness of the narrative structure.

Why Consider One

The nonlinear narrative technique is perfect for accentuating character growth by contrasting multiple characters, typically serving a broader theme.

One of the strengths of a nonlinear narrative lies in its ability to generate story questions; crucial plot points that pique the audience’s curiosity and maintain their engagement with the story. By jumping around in time, these narratives can reveal the effects of certain causes that the audience hasn't yet witnessed, leaving them intrigued and eager for answers.

Moreover, when dealing with a story that involves several characters or multiple protagonists, a nonlinear narrative is beneficial. As these characters engage in different scenes at specific moments in time, the narrative naturally needs to backtrack when transitioning between their perspectives.

Interestingly, nonlinear narratives mirror the nature of human memories–often fragmented, out of order, and jumping between different times and places. Communicating such memories can be challenging, but this complexity also presents an opportunity.

By skillfully using flashbacks and dream sequences, writers can provide audiences with glimpses into a character's past, allowing them to comprehend the motivations and actions driving the character in the present. In this way, nonlinear narratives offer a powerful tool for portraying the intricate and nuanced nature of memory and character development.

How to Write a Nonlinear Narrative

Writing a nonlinear narrative shouldn’t be done for the sake of doing it. Before delving into a nonlinear narrative, it's crucial to consider its purpose and the role it will play in your storytelling. Ask yourself what specific benefits it will bring–will it enhance characterization, develop a theme, or create engaging story questions?

Evaluating these aspects will help determine whether a nonlinear approach is the right fit for your story. If you find no compelling reason to employ a nonlinear narrative, it might be best to stick with a more traditional linear structure.


The nonlinear structure introduces a flashforward to the movie's conclusion, leaving the audience uncertain about the chronology of both this scene and the initial one. This intriguing setup sparks several questions that revolve around the opening characters:

● Who are these two characters?

● What events led to this challenging situation?

● How are these characters connected to each other?

● Will there be a revealing monologue?

When executed skillfully, commencing the story from its endpoint effectively captures the audience's attention from the start. The readers will be eager to find answers to these compelling questions, making them deeply invested in the narrative's unfolding.

Character Arcs and Structure

A nonlinear narrative is beneficial when your story involves multiple characters or more than one protagonist. Given that your characters will naturally be involved in different scenes simultaneously, especially in a tale that weaves multiple character arcs, it’s necessary to backtrack in time when transitioning from one perspective character to another.

The key advantage of navigating through different points in your story's timeline is the ability to build dramatic tension. By showing the harrowing consequences of an event that hasn't even taken place yet, you can create a sense of anticipation and suspense that captivates the audience.


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