The Literary Term 'Nonlinear Narrative'

In nonlinear narratives, the story is about more than just a beginning, middle and end. Often, the order of the events is rearranged or deconstructed in a way that reflects the central character's psychological state or the story's theme. Knowing characteristics and examples of nonlinear narratives will help you to recognize these stories in film and literature, as well as create work that fits into this genre.


Nonlinear narratives are often used to place audiences in the minds of characters who have unusual ways of thinking or whose ability to process information is impaired. A prime literary example is William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury," which uses a stream of consciousness narration to reflect the mind of Benjy, who is mentally handicapped. In Christopher Nolan's movie "Memento," the main character, Leonard, suffers from a type of amnesia that keeps him from creating new memories. The story is told in reverse chronological order to allow audiences to see its events the way he does.

Time Manipulation

Since nonlinear narratives put a twist on the chronological order of traditional narratives, manipulation of time is often a characteristic. In some cases, time travel is an actual component of the story; Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife" tells the story of Henry, who has a condition that causes him to involuntarily travel through time. In other cases, the story takes place in multiple time periods, like in Tatiana de Rosnay's "Sarah's Key," which follows two characters, a Jewish girl arrested in Paris during the Holocaust and a present day journalist seeking to uncover her story.


The theme in nonlinear novels often deals with the ways people experience memory and time, and the role these elements play in human experience. A notable example occurs in Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," which focuses on the power of literature to unite people across time and space through its story of three women impacted by Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway." The movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," about a couple who choose to have each other erased from their memories following a bitter breakup, comments on how memory defines our relationships and can reveal their true natures.

Modern Approaches to Novels

According to the University of Rhode Island, Faulkner's original intention for "The Sound and the Fury" was to publish it with different parts of Benjy's memories typeset in different colors. This wasn't possible in 1929, but today, publishing technology has advanced to allow for creative visual approaches to nonlinear narratives. Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" interfaces the nine-year-old protagonist's drawings with his story about searching for information about his father, who died in the World Trade Center attacks. Similarly, Mark Danielewski's "House of Leaves" unveils the layers of its story through different fonts, footnotes and different page designs.

Modern Approaches to Film

One of the first uses of nonlinear narrative in film was D.W. Griffith's 1916 film "Intolerance," which sets up four stories in different times. Today, it has become a frequently used film tool. In the movie "Inception," director Christopher Nolan revisits the theme of memory's power through the story of a white-collar criminal who makes a living stealing valuable thoughts from people's subconscious. The film's use of special effects and technology bring the nonlinear narrative genre into a modern, 21st century context. The genre was also used to comedic effect in "The Hangover," where the characters attempt to reconstruct the events of the previous night after a friend's bachelor party gets out of hand.

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