Linear vs. Nonlinear Narratives: Definition & Structure

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  • 0:03 Time and Structure
  • 0:38 Linear Narratives
  • 2:02 Nonlinear Narratives
  • 3:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Millie van der Westhuizen

Millie is currently working in tertiary education, whilst completing her master's degree in English Studies.

In this lesson, you'll learn the difference between linear and nonlinear narratives. We'll explore how this relates to plot structure and examine some narrative techniques used by authors in constructing narratives.

Time and Structure

Imagine waking up one day and finding that you have gone ten years into the past. Such an event would simply not make sense to you and this is because our experience of time follows a very set structure. Simply put, we have a definite sense of what constitutes the past, present and future. Events that unfold in our lives follow a certain order, and we can often see how something that happens today might have an influence on events to follow. It is important to consider this understanding of time when considering whether a narrative is linear or nonlinear.

Linear Narratives

In literature, narrative refers to the telling of a story through the presentation of events. When authors use linear narratives, the order in which events are portrayed corresponds to the order in which they occur. Stories told using this narrative structure will have a clear beginning, middle and end. They might begin with a description of the setting, have events leading up to a climax (the point where there is the most tension or drama in the story) and end with a resolution in which all the problems that arose during the narrative are either resolved or accepted.

When focusing on the sequence in which events are portrayed in a narrative, this sequence can also be referred to as the plot. This concept refers to the main events in a story, although many narratives also contain subplots, which are additional supporting story lines. It is also possible to encounter parallel plots, which is when a narrative features more than one plot, with both of these carrying equal importance and sometimes merging at the end.

Plot, as a concept, draws our attention to the idea of cause and effect. When events are told in the order in which they occur, the audience's sense of an event's consequences tends to be straightforward. Often, authors will only tell us about the most important events related to a story's plot or subplots, thereby strengthening our sense of how they relate to one another.

Nonlinear Narratives

In contrast to linear narratives, nonlinear narratives are those in which the author has chosen to jump around in time, and the order in which events are portrayed does not correspond to the order in which things happened. These might also be referred to as disrupted or disjointed narratives. We are still being told a story, but without the same sense of being told about things as they happened.

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