A non-linear narrative is a story told in an unconventional way.
Non-linear stories are free from chronological shackles and events can be sequenced in a number of possible ways, all of which present many complex possibilities.
Popular examples in books and movies include attempts to mimic a character's memories (Legion), telling another story inside the main story (The Prestige), beginning at the end and working back to the beginning (Memento) and the creation of distinct parallel plot lines happening simultaneously (Game of Thrones).
Non-linear storytelling is less popular than its linear counterpart, probably because of its unpredictability. We like familiar story devices that reflect our day to day experience. When we are offered events that happen out of sequence or that involve re-orienting our perspective in strange or unexpected ways, the brain rebels because it does not mirror its direct experience.
So why do storytellers bother with non-linear narratives when they know that linear stories are so much easier for us to understand? Why would a storyteller deliberately confuse their audience by deviating from the standard linear structure? Is there any point in a story that starts with the conclusion and ends at the beginning?
The answer is because storytellers are creative people who will always find new and interesting ways to tell a story.
Choosing a non-linear narrative over its linear counterpart also reflects a storyteller's desire to craft a story free from the usual limitations of structure, pace, and the logical sequence of events we see in the physical world.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but when it's done well it bypasses our love of predictability and hooks us effortlessly into its extraordinary world.
Film director Quentin Tarantino is a master of innovative storytelling. His most famous movie Pulp Fiction (1994) tells four interwoven stories in a non-linear fashion. Hailed as a groundbreaking example of direction, cinematography, screenwriting and acting, it had a huge impact on popular and independent film making in the 90s and beyond. Despite its unconventional narrative structure, audiences went along with it because Tarantino so skillfully and cleverly weaves the outlandish, non-sequential stories together that we barely notice his off-beat storytelling devices.
What is nonlinear storytelling? | 6:44 mins
Gone Girl ( 2014) tells a story within a story. The protagonist Nick Dunne is suspected of murdering his wife, Amy Dunne. Initially, we're given no definitive answer as to whether Nick has perpetrated the crime. The audience is positioned to see her disappearance as a mystery and, while we are given some clues, we are left uncertain as to her ultimate fate.
Roughly half way through the story, we are suddenly catapulted back in time to before Amy Dunne's disappearance. The film then details events prior to and after her disappearance from Amy's perspective.