Interactive Storytelling Linear and non-linear stories

Lesson Objectives

At the completion of Linear and Non-Linear Stories, you may expect to be able to:

  • Describe the differences between linear and non-linear storytelling
  • Provide examples of effective and ineffective linear and non-linear storytelling techniques
  • Understand the ways in which multiple timelines function as non-linear narratives

Unit overview

The Interactive Storytelling unit will explore narrative techniques. Before we examine interactivity, though, we first need to understand the basics of storytelling.

In our culture, we have two main ways to present a story: linear and non-linear. This lesson will look at the differences between the two and discuss why linear storytelling is more common and popular than non-linear storytelling.

We all love a good story

Stories are as old as humanity and were first expressed orally and in bursts of colour on rocks and cave walls. Stories thread their way through our lives and provide entertainment, inspiration, warnings and advice. Stories connect us to our cultural heritage and teach us what it is to be human.

These days we have more ways than ever to create and circulate stories, including movies, songs, books, podcasts, YouTube/Vimeo videos, Gifs, memes, cartoons, and online news and magazines.

Story genres include fantasy, parable, biography, adventure, romance, fable, science fiction, tragedy, comedy, mystery, and thriller.

Linear narratives

Most stories follow a generally predictable and mostly chronological structure that consists of a beginning, a middle and an end. These stories are called linear narratives.

Linear narratives embrace cause and effect, and the story advances in a straight line from start to finish.

A linear narrative establishes a problem early in the story and resolves it by the end. Cinderella, for example, opens with a badly mistreated heroine who has no friends or allies. But by story's end, she has met and married a prince, her evil relatives are punished, and she lives happily ever after.

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky's protagonist murders an old woman for money. Consumed by guilt and paranoia, he resolves his shame by confessing to the police.

Linear narratives are the most common form of storytelling and we respond to them so well because they make us feel good. The video below explores the science behind this phenomenon:

4 keys to telling stories everyone will love, from cave paintings to Star Wars | 5:56 mins

Unfortunately, crafting a good story is no simple task and the storyteller needs great skill, timing, and sensitivity. Maladroit storytellers alienate their audience with ludicrous plots, unconvincing dialogue, poor pacing, one-dimensional characters, and anti-climactic endings.

Conversely, good storytellers know that stories follow a certain formula, yet they are not formulaic. Good storytellers also know that although there is no story rule book, there are certainly a few tried and true guidelines that stand the test of time.

Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice (published in 1813) is a classic example of effective linear storytelling. It features an immediately endearing and witty protagonist in the form of Elizabeth Bennet and a memorable cast of characters, ranging from the prideful but good-hearted Mr. Darcy to the fawning and ridiculously pompous Mr. Collins. We follow Elizabeth and her family as they interact in intriguing ways, from her older sister's efforts to be with the man she loves and who loves her, to Elizabeth's own turbulent and complex relationship with Mr Darcy.

In both the original novel and the 1995 BBC TV series, the story captivates its audience, which is why it remains to this day one of the most beloved and unforgettable narratives of all time.

When linear storytelling fails

The 2017 movie King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a recent example of incompetent linear storytelling.

It opens with a long battle scene that gives us no clue as to its setting, motivation, or participants. Nameless people and random monsters fight and die while we're given no reason to emotionally invest in anyone or anything.

After the battle ends, we're rushed through a sequence of events: King Uther, Arthur's father, is betrayed and killed by his brother; the infant Arthur is smuggled away and raised by prostitutes; a montage of Arthur fighting in various stages of his youth that takes up far too much screen time and which could easily have been expressed in a sentence or two of dialogue.

Legend of the Sword offers little in the way of character development and so fails to garner our interest in Arthur's journey. Not only is it a woefully inaccurate adaptation of the Arthurian Legend, it is a terrible mess of a film.

Non-linear storytelling

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.

Primer is a complex, non-linear narrative that operates outside the boundaries of chronological time. Its creator, Shane Carruth, said he avoided simplifying his work to make it easier for his audience to understand. Instead, he made it a puzzle to solve rather than have them sit passively absorbing the story.

The film explores the relationship between Aaron and Abe, two friends who accidentally invent time travel. Both undergo significant changes as they continue to use their invention. The narrative becomes difficult to follow as the characters begin to abuse their new-found power, leaving us to wonder which version of the characters we are watching and just what they have been doing with their on-screen appearances.

Primer jumps back and forth in time and a major reveal is that one of the characters has secretly taken the place of a past version of himself. True to telling a story outside of standard chronological conventions, one of the final scenes takes place at the genesis of the plot, with Abe attempting to erase the events up to that point.

While Primer now has a cult following and is highly praised for its intelligent plot, its complex structure and ambitious plot prevents it from gaining mass appeal. While this may fall within its creator's expectations, Primer is unlikely to ever be considered a non-linear classic like Pulp Fiction and Memento.

Multiple timelines

Stories that contain multiple timelines also fall under the non-linear story banner.

Rather than simply being an aspect of time-travel, multiple timelines act as branches that extend from a single point. This often takes the form of small changes to the beginning of the story, which creates a butterfly effect, distorting the old narrative and forcing it to take on a new form.

A film that is very much driven by multiple timelines is Run Lola Run. Lola repeats the same day three times. With each repetition, the story differs slightly depending on the time she leaves her apartment. Just one minute earlier or later means a completely different outcome for each scenario. When one story ends we are taken back to the beginning when she first leaves the apartment.

Film is obviously not the only medium to use multiple timelines as a narrative instrument. Books (especially fantasy and science-fiction) incorporate timelines as a vehicle with which to tell multiple sides of a story. Take the interactive novel Fate/Stay Night by Kinoko Nasu, where the events of the story take place over the course of the same two weeks over three differing iterations.

These three timelines are referred to as 'routes' and can be accessed through the reader's choices. This creative decision allowed Nasu to explore certain characters in depth during the first route, leaving the others for the second and third routes. It also allowed him to craft three distinct narratives that could each explore a unique scenario without being bogged down by the novel's large cast.


Non-linear stories have grown in popularity over time, particularly with avant-garde artists and writers who were some of the early adopters of internet storytelling. Although the internet was not as ubiquitous in the 90s as it is now, creative-types used text, images, sound and gifs to create non-linear narratives with hyperlinks. Initially, whether the art or stories made much sense was secondary to pushing creative freedom. It was usually experimental, and in the case of storytelling, never really gained huge popularity.

Key Points to remember.

Below is a summary of the key points you need to remember from this lesson:

  • Stories come in many forms including movies, books, podcasts, videos, poems, songs, and myths
  • Most narratives are told using linear storytelling techniques
  • Non linear narratives are not constrained by chronological order or cause and effect
  • Non-linear narratives can confuse people so they require careful planning
  • Game books are early examples of branching storylines in literature
  • Non-linear storytelling provides more creative freedom and was adopted by artists and writers in the 90s to push new ideas for stories and creative work
  • Timelines can be used to create distinct non-linear narratives


Created with images by Markus Spiske - "untitled image" • Paweł Furman - "untitled image" • ErikaWittlieb - "games of thrones action figure hbo robb" • Genty - "wormhole time travel portal" • Seth Macey - "When Time Stood Still" • geralt - "time clock alarm clock" • Jake Sloop - "Tower Climb"

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