Posted On November 5, 2010 by Print This Post

It’s All a Matter of Time: Exploring Linear vs. Non-Linear Story Structure

I’m excited to welcome back our dear friend Amy Atwell. For many writers, Amy’s been a continued source of inspiration and determination. Today’s post is one of several ways Amy has given time and resources to the writing community, and we love her for it.

Without further ado, I give you Amy!

Thank you to the Romance University crew for inviting me back—especially on a Friday.  Today’s post is tailored for the Chaos Theory of Writing curriculum and focuses on a central feature in every story: TIME. I can think of nothing more chaotic for writers than figuring out how they wish to handle time in their stories. Well, unless it’s managing the time while writing their stories!

Most people view time in the simple linear pattern of before, during and after (aka past, present and future). These are abstract concepts that we master as children and rarely question. We learn to measure time in seconds, minutes and hours and conduct our daily lives within these confines. At the same time, we’ve all experienced time dragging or flying.

Not to get too deep into the scientific study of time, but physicists now theorize that time is not linear, only our perception of it is.  Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking  are two of the most prominent voices that have made all of science rethink our understanding of time. Theory of RelativityA Brief History of Time.  And if you need to take a break and risk making your brain explode, try this article by Hawking on building a time machine—yes, it’s conceivable!

But for our purposes today, let’s look at how human understanding of time affects how readers and writers approach storytelling.  Stories can easily be divided into two distinct styles: linear and non-linear. 

Linear stories start at Point A and follow a logical progression of time-bound events that lead the characters to Point B.  Many books follow this construction.  Children’s classics such as Charlotte’s Web, 19th century classics such as Around the World in Eighty Days, contemporary romantic comedies such as Bridget Jones’s Diary. Notice that all of these stories encompass a specific time-period.  Charlotte’s Web and Bridget Jones’s Diary both cover about a one-year period while Around the World covers just over 80 days. 

Non-Linear stories piece together a story where scenes may be presented outside this single logical sequence.  Stories involving flashbacks or multiple story line progressions that jump back and forth fit this construction.  Hunt for Red October and other Tom Clancy books where the narrative hops among a broad cast of characters in different settings is one example.  And the movies Groundhog Day and Memento show how non-linear a story can be.

The narrative style of story has evolved along with humans and technology.  Verbal storytelling often uses a linear structure as this is easier for most listeners to follow and remember. Plays and, later, movies, television and video games have allowed for more non-linear stories. The audience can more easily track a non-linear story with visual cues. Even websites are constructed on a non-linear concept, where the viewer can pick and choose which page to visit in whatever sequence s/he chooses. As we become more familiar with non-linear construction, the more readily we embrace it in all forms of story—even books.

For more tips on these two structures, click HERE.   

All right, I hear you…But Amy, what does any of this have to do with writing romance?

First off, we’ve all heard the “rules.”  Things like don’t use prologues, or avoid flashbacks and dream sequences, write using immediate scenes, and always explain cause before showing the effect.  I won’t bother to argue whether these rules are right or wrong, but I will say that rules are often meant to be broken.

So let’s agree on this: There is no one right way to craft a book. If time truly isn’t linear, then you get to decide how you want to reveal points of time to your readers. Every story is organic, and therefore how you tell it will depend on

* the story’s plot,

* the story’s cast,

* the subgenre,

* the writer and

* the audience.

How do you make the most of time within your story? 

* Identify whether you have a strong personal preference to linear or non-linear stories. What you like to read often leads naturally to what you write.

* Identify your main plot and any subplots. Stories with multiple plots often lend themselves to non-linear construction while still creating a logical timeline of overall events in the story.

* Identify your subgenre.  Sci-fi, fantasy and paranormal stories lend themselves readily to non-linear structure. But it can also be effective in other subgenres. Just because it hasn’t been done often doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

* Create a timeline of events in your book. Even if you eventually tell the story out of sequence, knowing this timeline will help you keep a clear perspective of what your characters know when.

* From the timeline (above), where does your story start? Is there back story that should be integrated using flashbacks?

* Seek ways to compress your timeline. If your story covers a long or an undefined time period, see whether you can shorten or define it more clearly.  The “ticking clock” can help increase the tension and drama of some stories.

* Make a cast list of your characters. How many of them will have a POV in the story? Multiple POVs may allow you more freedom to explore a non-linear construction. Memento is a strong example of how a single first-person POV creates dramatic effect through non-linear construction, but even I’ll admit it feels unnatural to try and tell a HEA romance backwards. <g>

* Look at the cause and effect of the big turning points in your story. Is it important for the reader to know the cause before seeing the effect? Which style of telling will raise the stakes?

One last tip: you can also play with “time” and non-linear construction while writing your story. If all points of your story exist out there in the ether, you can write scenes out of sequence and link them into whatever construction works best as the story unfolds. 

Bottom line, you’ll rarely be told you’re “wrong” by using linear sequence, but you might get a richer story from a non-linear construction. More and more readers, especially the younger generations, are encountering non-linear stories in other mediums. Open yourself to the possibilities to broaden your skills and overcome some of the chaos of writing.

Now, here’s the question of the day: was the last romance story you read written in a linear or non-linear construction?  Did you even notice the use of time within the story while you were reading? Feel free to name titles and authors.  Thanks! 

* * *

Thanks, Amy!

Please join us on Monday for Sally Bayless’s next installment of Diary of a New Writer, a series detailing her journey toward publication.

Amy’s Bio:

After fifteen years in professional theater, Amy Atwell turned from the stage to the page to write fiction.  Her romantic suspense novel Lying Eyes debuts from Carina Press Nov. 15th. FWIW, she wrote most of the story scenes out of sequence in under five months, and the story uses 10 POVs in a multi-track timeline that is, more or less, linear. When not writing, Amy runs the WritingGIAM community to help goal-oriented writers achieve their dreams. She regularly blogs at What’s the Story? and Magical Musings.

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41 Responses to “It’s All a Matter of Time: Exploring Linear vs. Non-Linear Story Structure”

  1. Amy, the one book that stands out as being completely non-linear, and really playing with the concept of time is The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Great book, that really turned the linear story structure on its head.

    Posted by Michelle Diener | November 5, 2010, 12:56 am
  2. Hi Amy,

    Thanks for joining us today and for providing such a thought-provoking blog. The last book I read was linear construction. The book I’m editing right now, however, has one major flashback to where the H/H became “aware” of each other as man and woman, rather than childhood friends.

    I have to agree with Michelle–The Time Traveller’s Wife completed obliterated linear story structure!

    Thanks, Tracey

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | November 5, 2010, 5:29 am
    • Tracey,

      So you’ve recently encountered “both” constructions. Did you feel one worked better than the other? I’ve got an historical that’s written linear, but a number of people have told me to toss the first 50-100 pages and work that material in as back story via flashbacks. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to do it.

      Posted by Amy Atwell | November 5, 2010, 9:13 am
  3. Good morning, Amy! You know we love your visits! The last book I read was linear construction. I do enjoy non-linear construction when it’s done well though.

    Thanks for a great post.

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | November 5, 2010, 7:23 am
    • Congrats on your recent sale, Adrienne! I know you write with some suspense, and I’m trying to figure out if suspense *should* be written in linear fashion. Of course, as soon as I identify that as a guideline, someone will point me toward a non-linear suspense that’s fabulous.

      Posted by Amy Atwell | November 5, 2010, 9:15 am
  4. Morning Amy!

    I’m currently reading Nora Roberts final book in the bridal quartet. Each book starts with a chapter long flashback. There’s others throughout the books themselves, smaller ones. But I think it reads brilliantly. =)

    Thanks for the great post and thought provoking question (so early in the morning – ow)



    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 5, 2010, 8:20 am
    • Morning, Carrie! Finish your coffee yet? Congrats on placing second in the New Voices contest recently. I’m curious–was your story linear or non-linear? I love Nora Roberts. She manages POV and time very well in her book. Switches read smoothly (at least to me) because I’m so engaged in her characters.

      Posted by Amy Atwell | November 5, 2010, 9:19 am
      • Thanks Amy!

        My story was linear, but being presented in a non-linear way. First and second chapters and then the pivotal moment. But it will definitely be linear when I finish it!

        And I agree about Nora’s characters…she makes them so three-dimensional it’s as if I could invite them in for supper. =)


        Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 5, 2010, 2:17 pm
  5. Hi Amy, great post. I’m currently struggling with back story and ways to let it out of the bag, without bringing the current story to a grinding hault.

    I’m reading Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas. Completely non-linear. It’s about a divorced couple, thrown back together a few years after separation. They’re still terribly involved, still very bitter. The author is falsh-backing away and unravelling why things ended up this way, while the HH are getting involved all over again., I’m not done yet but thus far it’s holding my interest.


    Posted by Sonali | November 5, 2010, 9:12 am
    • Sonali –

      I read this book within the last year, and it’s one of my “keepers” because Sherry did such a fabulous job with character emotion. The characters’ history kept me invested regardless of the linear/non-linear structure.

      Happy Friday!

      Posted by Kelsey Browning | November 5, 2010, 10:11 am
  6. Good to see you, Sonali. Yes, I think every writer wrestles with how to introduce back story without stalling the current plot–good luck on figuring out what will work for you and your story! I bet Thomas’ book is a great read.

    Posted by Amy Atwell | November 5, 2010, 9:24 am
  7. Hi Amy,
    Great post. Current reading is linear, but I really enjoyed THE THIRTEENTH TALE, which was superbly non-linear.
    This subject is a real flash point for me because I have a romantic suspense ms that is non-linear. I’ve found that readers/judges/agents/editors either love it or hate it. This is how it’s structured. The book starts at Point B where the reader is left with the *impression* that the heroine is killed. (Of courese, real romance readers know that can’t be true, right?) The next chapter moves back to Point A where the story actually starts. The following chapter returns to Point B. There are two plot/time lines woven together, Point A to B and Point B to C, and each is clearly identified timewise at the beginning of each chapter. Right after the climax of C, the other plot line reaches B and reveals what *really* happened. Totally confused? That’s the word a recent contest judge used five times in her critique with a score of 52/100. Another judge gave me a perfect score and raved about the suspense created by the two timelines. Go figure!
    Anyway, bottom line, I’d warn writers that a very non-linear plot may be very polarizing with readers.

    Posted by Diane Garner | November 5, 2010, 10:05 am
    • Diane,

      This supports my theory that a lot of romantic suspense is written in linear form–but, as you’ve proven, it’s not necessary. Frankly, Memento is a perfect example of a suspense (arguably, not very romantic) that’s written backward. Yes, polarizing. Viewers either love or hate the movie. Best wishes on your non-linear story. Sounds like you’ve got a great unique approach!

      Posted by Amy Atwell | November 5, 2010, 10:32 am
  8. Thanks, Amy, for educating me on an aspect I’ve only been vaguely aware of! Paranormal in general isn’t my bag, so The Time Traveller’s Wife blew me out of the water. I’ve spent a lot of idle time speculating on the sheets and sheets of paper she must have used to keep track of where everyone was when! And then when deciding which order to present it . . . that book simply fascinated me, but I don’t think like that, so I’ve never considered emulating it.

    For myself, I’m linear — but have the temptation to dump great dollops of back story, which I hope I’m growing out of. I can look back at my unpublished Mss (a reasonable pile) and point out what I learned from the rejections on each one. Sigh. Does it ever end?

    Posted by Beppie Harrison | November 5, 2010, 10:11 am
    • Hey, Beppie, good to see you. Learning never ends, and I for one am grateful for that. Every manuscript is a learning experience. Glad you found this post useful. Recognizing your own style and comfort level as both writer and reader is key to this. I think it’s hard to be someone we just aren’t.

      Posted by Amy Atwell | November 5, 2010, 10:34 am
  9. Good morning, Amy!

    The majority of books I read are linear, but when I read something non-linear, I always wonder if the author wrote the scenes in a linear fashion and then spliced them all together for best dramatic value later. I probably assume that because it’s the only way I could write a non-linear story :). That being said, I do write scenes out of sequence because I’ve seen something in my mind and just need to get it out on paper.

    Tracey and Adrienne think it’s a riot that I very often see a love scene between two characters before I see anything else. Let’s not put that under a Freudian microscope.

    Thanks for being at RU!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | November 5, 2010, 10:15 am
  10. Great post, Amy!

    I love non-linear story construction–it does feel richer and deeper–I just didn’t know what it was called. LOL

    I’ve been studying how other authors do this without doing whole scenes of flashbacks that yank the reader from the forward movement of the story. And when an author does use a flashback, I’m studying why some work for me as a reader and why others don’t. A lot of it has to do with whether I’m vested in these characters yet. Do I care on page 1 that the hero was beaten as a child? Maybe not. But when he says or does something later that gets me wondering why, then I’m dying to know what in the world happened to him.

    I loved THE THIRTEENTH TALE. Backstory was weaved in at perfect points and since it helped explain the weird mystery stuff going on currently, I gobbled it up it as a reader. I’ve never read anything by Sherry Thomas, so I’ll definitely have to pick up that book.

    Oooh, and the ticking clock. That’s my favorite, both as a reader and as a writer.

    Great things to think about, Amy. Thanks!


    Posted by Laurie London | November 5, 2010, 11:03 am
    • Good to see you, Laurie–can’t wait for you upcoming HQN release! Yes, the ticking clock is so important in books. It ratchets up the tension. And I agree that it can put me off a book if I’m presented too many details too early. I need to get to know the character here and now before I can care about how this person became who he/she is.

      Posted by Amy Atwell | November 5, 2010, 1:41 pm
  11. I’d say I read a mix of linear and non-linear stories. The romances tend to be more linear, I think, occasionally including a brief flashback or two. The women’s fiction and suspense is almost always non-linear.

    Posted by PatriciaW | November 5, 2010, 12:15 pm
    • Patricia–you’re so right to mention that a lot of women’s fiction is constructed in non-linear ways. I wonder if that’s because those stories often have multiple plots featuring the main character: main character with parents or children, main character rebuilding life, main character reconnecting with friends, main character dealing with life changes. Or maybe it’s just that real life isn’t as linear as we all like to think it is.

      Posted by Amy Atwell | November 5, 2010, 1:44 pm
  12. Reading: Almost all linear.
    I happened to enjoy Momento… Another like that is Paycheck, where his memory is erased and he has to rebuild what happened from the clues he left himself.

    I’m working on three suspense stories at once. All happening almost simultaneously with the same scene in each book from a different POV. Kinda cool. Keeping my fingers crossed that the editors like the idea.


    Posted by Angi Morgan | November 5, 2010, 1:19 pm
    • Hey, Angi–congrats on that RT nomination!! Yes, I suppose a lot of amnesia stories deal with non-linear flashes of memory as the character starts to rebuild the missing timeline. And your new trilogy concept sounds fascinating! When I did theater, there was a play called Noises Off that had a sister play called Noises On. One play showed what was going on with the actors OFF stage, while the other play showed the actors ON stage. You had to see both plays to get the full comedy effect of the situation. Brilliant.

      Posted by Amy Atwell | November 5, 2010, 1:46 pm
  13. Hi Amy,

    Wow! Thanks for making me think about this. I loved your comment about the cause and effect of the big turning points and how the way you tell it can raise the stakes. Definitely something to ponder!

    I’m reading a suspense and so far it’s very linear.

    Sally Bayless

    Posted by Sally Bayless | November 5, 2010, 3:06 pm
    • Good to see you, Sally! Yes, the whole cause and effect, and how you time things can be vital. It also breaks down to simple things. Something I learned in theater–pointing a line or pointing an action. Typically, actors don’t say something and do something important at the same time (unless you want to bury a clue). To make the audience focus on what the actor says, the actor first does an action, then punctuates it with the line of dialogue. OR, the actor can focus attention on the action by first saying a line, then making the action.

      Figuring out which images/dialogue to unveil to the reader in which order can make the difference between your scene playing for laughs or tears.

      Posted by Amy Atwell | November 5, 2010, 4:39 pm
  14. Hey there, Amy, I remember when it was popular to start a story with a protagonist who was old, maybe even dying, then jump to the past and end the book in the present. Nora did that.

    I also remember having folks say I couldn’t do that today, not even in a prologue.

    Posted by Mary Marvella | November 5, 2010, 6:30 pm
    • Mary,

      Don’t the “rules” make you nuts? Especially when that’s *exactly* how the storytelling works in Titanic? And, as I recall, Bridges of Madison County does the same thing. The other big “no-no” I’m told is “old-school” (from, like the 80s, dude) is to show the heroine/hero in their teen years for a chapter or three, then flash forward to present day for the rest of the book. Judith McNaught hit the bestseller lists with that formula, but I’m told editors and agents don’t like that now.
      I still say a story is organic. It will tell you how it needs to be written.

      Posted by Amy Atwell | November 6, 2010, 8:24 am
  15. Hi, Amy. Hope I’m not too late to leave a comment. I don’t even know what the last book I read was, because I’ve been reading in a non-linear fashion. 😛 I’ve been reading more-or-less random scenes from various romances I have on my shelves. I’m not really sure what that says about me .

    I sometimes enjoy books that are very non-linear. One I read a long time ago is Ceremony. It’s about a young man from Acoma Pueblo, and the story jumps around in time because, I guess, the Pueblo people don’t have the rigid ideas about time that we Westerners do. It was fascinating but kind of disconcerting.

    I do like dream sequences and flashbacks, as long as they don’t completely stop the action of the main story.

    Posted by Tori Minard | November 6, 2010, 10:11 am
  16. Amy and everyone–

    Thank you for the wonderful conversation!

    Have a great weekend.


    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | November 6, 2010, 4:14 pm
  17. Amy,

    I’m not sure if you’re still around checking this post, but I ran across a great interview by author Rebecca Skloot who wrote THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS. (I’m reading it for my book club.) In the video, she talks about the exact thing you’re talking about–non-linear narrative structure and how she did it. Fascinating! She storyboarded a movie with a structure that she thought would work for her story then laid her own book over the top. Here’s the link (scroll down the page for the video interview.)


    Posted by Laurie London | November 9, 2010, 12:35 pm


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