Non-Linearity is big news in the spec pile — I’d venture for every ten specs I read, at least three will be non-linear. When I say “non-linear”, I mean the “beginning, middle, end” will not necessarily be in *that* order. Famous non-linear movies include Pulp Fiction, Memento, Twelve Monkeys, The Bourne Supremacy, Slumdog Millionaire and Premonition. Non-linearity sometimes finds its way into TV specs – particularly of the supernatural genre – usually in the form of flashback.

I love non-linearity. Done well, it can really add a new dimension to a story. But unfortunately the majority of specs in the pile do not do non-linearity well. Instead, the structure of the story becomes very confused, even hopelessly disjointed. The reasons for this are four-fold:

1) Scribes are attempting to run before they can walk. Traditional three act or sequence structure (or its variations) may seem deceptively straightforward, but if they were, then there would NOT be literally thousands of specs out there that make no sense. Add non-linearity as well and a scribe just totally blows a reader’s mind.

2) There is no throughline. A reader needs to know WHAT is “present” and WHAT is “past” and WHY we’re travelling between them, else the different time threads have no impact and everything that goes on just seems very muddled. A very good example of a recent throughline is Slumdog Millionaire: Jamal is asked a question in the game and then he remembers the answer and HOW he knows it – the game acts as an “anchor”. In Memento, the main plot goes BACKWARDS, but the sub plot — “Sammy Jankis” — goes FORWARDS. In Premonition, every time Linda wakes up, she has something new to go through regarding her ordeal of the week from Hell — a bit like Groundhog Day, only NOT funny. In short, there needs to be something – anything – to ANCHOR people in the story, a REASON why it’s not in the “right” order.

3) Flashbacks need their own structure. If you watch The Crow or The Bourne Supremacy, you will notice the flashbacks all ADD UP together to form their OWN story. Flashbacks don’t always have to do this, but it really helps otherwise we just don’t know why we’re seeing these fragments of the past. Other times, flashbacks need to “answer” something that is seen in the PRESENT, ie. the “oldy but goody” flashback of someone REMEMBERING something that happened because they see something similar in the present, a staple of crime drama, though this is not to be mistaken for the “version”. CSI made the “version” popular — ie. detectives rewrite what they THINK happened and we actually see a character do something crime-related, even if they didn’t.

4) The story in question does not need to be non-linear. Whilst a scribe should always do whatever they want, I’m of the opinion there is a LOT of non-linear specs in the pile that do not essentially NEED to be non-linear and could work FAR BETTER in a traditional method of structure. If we consider all those uber-famous non-linear movies, they all have a specific reason STORY-WISE for using non-linearity; in comparison then, when I ask a scribe if their spec NEEDS to be, they frequently can’t answer why other than saying it “would look cool”. Yet we all *know* story is king/queen, not looking cool.


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2 Responses to Screenplay Tips # 10: Non-Linearity

  1. Pete Darby says:

    Co-incidentally (reality relies on co-incidence far too much), only saw Memento for the first time on Friday…

    Even though the timeline is fractured, the structure (First act set up, mid act complication, final act resolution / revalation) is straight, conventional story telling.

    When do we find out the truth of the situation? At the end of the film… right at the beginning of the sequence of narrative events.

    Pulp Fiction's less conventional… except we start with the opening of the diner scene, followed by "Sam Jackson is a stone killer", go through three other stories, and end with Sam Jackson concluding the diner scene and having a revelation about himself and violence.

    So, maybe, if you're going to futz with timeline of the story, the reader / viewer is still looking for "set up / development / resolution" in their necessarily linear experience of reading the script or watching the film.

  2. Lucy V says:

    Good point there Pete — I actually argued in my uni dissertation that in reality, there is no such thing as *true* non-linearity on the basis audiences have to watch the film in "beginning-middle-end" order, ergo it still has those three characteristics.

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