Traditional narratives tell a story in a straightforward, linear and easy-to-follow fashion. Fragmented narratives, on the other hand, jumble up the sequencing of a story, challenging the reader to piece together the different components of the story to make sense of it. Fragmented narratives can start in the middle of the action, and they often hop back and forth through the timeline of events.
Linearity and Non-linearity
Linear narratives have a beginning, a middle and an end, and these components are presented in that order, as with fairy tales. Fragmented narratives, however, might have a beginning, a middle and an end, but these components are jumbled together. The narrative might start in the middle of the story, transition back to the beginning of the tale and then flash forward to the end. In general, fragmented narratives can be thought of as linear narratives told in a nonlinear fashion.
In Media Res
According to literary scholar Martin Wallace, in his book "Recent Theories of Narratives," many classic examples of fragmented narratives -- from Homer’s “Odyssey” to James Joyce’s “Ulysses” -- begin in the middle of some action from the plot. In literary terms, this means the story begins "in media res," which translates from Latin as “into the middle of things.” Oftentimes, by starting in the middle of some action, these fragmented narratives catch the reader’s attention quickly and hold it securely before eventually cycling back in a nonlinear fashion to provide some significant background information on the narrative’s plot.
Fragmented narratives may also jump from a straightforward linear plotline backward in time to relate something that occurred in the past that informs and influences the events happening in the main plotline. Fragmented narratives such as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” both employ this flashback technique to demonstrate the interconnectedness of characters previously considered to be disconnected from one another.
As with flashback, the flashforward technique allows the narrative to jump forward past the events happening in the main plotline. In narratives such as “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the flashforward technique is used to illustrate to the protagonist -- Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey, respectively -- what life would be like if he were not around. Occasionally, a narrative will employ both flashforwards and flashbacks, as in the case of fragmented narratives such as David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” in which characters from the past and the future are shown to be interconnected with one another.