Nonlinear Narrative

in mediias res

Nonlinear narrative, disjointed narrative or disrupted narrative is a narrative technique, sometimes used in literature, film, websites and other mediums, where events are portrayed out of chronological order. It is often used to mimic the structure and recall of human memory but has been applied for other reasons as well.

Beginning a narrative ‘in medias res’ (Latin: ‘into the middle of things’) began in ancient times as an oral tradition and was established as a convention of epic poetry with Homer’s ‘Iliad’ in the 8th century BCE. The technique of narrating most of the story in flashback also dates back to the Indian epic, the ‘Mahabharata,’ around the 5th century BCE. Several medieval ‘Arabian Nights’ tales also have nonlinear narratives employing ‘in medias res’ and flashback techniques.

From the late 19th century and early 20th century, modernist novelists such as Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust experimented with narrative chronology and abandoning linear order. Examples of nonlinear novels are: Laurence Sterne’s ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ (1759–67), Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847), James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1922) and ‘Finnegans Wake’ (1939), William S. Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’ (1959), Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22’ (1961), and Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969). Defining nonlinear structure in film is, at times, difficult. Films may use extensive flashbacks or flashforwards within a linear storyline, while nonlinear films often contain linear sequences. Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941) — influenced structurally by ‘The Power and the Glory’ (1933) — and Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ (1950) use a non-chronological flashback narrative that is often labeled nonlinear.

Experimentation with nonlinear structure in film dates back to the silent film era, including D. W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’ (1916) and Abel Gance’s ‘Napoléon’ (1927). Nonlinear film emerged from the French avant-garde in 1929 with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s ‘Un Chien Andalou’ (‘An Andalusian Dog’). The surrealist film jumps into fantasy and juxtaposes images, granting the filmmakers an ability to create statements about the Church, art, and society that are left open to interpretation. Buñuel and Dali’s ‘L’Âge d’Or’ (1930) (‘The Golden Age’) also uses nonlinear concepts. The revolutionary Russian filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Alexander Dovzhenko also experimented with the possibilities of nonlinearity. Eisenstein’s ‘Strike’ (1925) and Dovzhenko’s ‘Earth’ (1930) hint at a nonlinear experience. English director Humphrey Jennings used a nonlinear approach in his World War II documentary ‘Listen to Britain’ (1942).

Jean-Luc Godard’s work since 1959 was also important in the evolution of nonlinear film. Godard famously stated, ‘I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.’ Godard’s ‘Le weekend’ (1968), as well as Andy Warhol’s ‘Chelsea Girls’ (1966), defy linear structure in exchange for a chronology of events that is seemingly random. Alain Resnais experimented with narrative and time in his films ‘Hiroshima mon amour’ (1959), ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (1961), and ‘Muriel’ (1963). Federico Fellini defined his own nonlinear cinema with the films ‘La Strada’ (1954), ‘La Dolce Vita’ (1960), ‘8½’ (1963), ‘Satyricon’ (1969), and ‘Roma’ (1972), as did Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky with his modernist films ‘The Mirror’ (1975) and ‘Nostalghia’ (1983). Nicolas Roeg’s films, including ‘Performance’ (1968), ‘Walkabout’ (1971), ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973), ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ (1976), and ‘Bad Timing’ (1980) are characterized by a nonlinear approach.

In the United States, Robert Altman carried the nonlinear motif in his films, including ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ (1971), ‘Nashville’ (1975), ‘The Player’ (1992), ‘Short Cuts’ (1993), and ‘Gosford Park’ (2001). Woody Allen embraced the experimental nature of nonlinear narrative in ‘Annie Hall’ (1977), ‘Interiors’ (1978), and ‘Stardust Memories’ (1980). In the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino influenced a tremendous growth in nonlinear films with ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994). Other important nonlinear films include Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Magnolia’ (1999). David Lynch experimented with nonlinear narrative and surrealism in ‘Lost Highway’ (1997), ‘Mulholland Dr.’ (2001), and ‘Inland Empire’ (2006).

In the years leading into and the beginning of the 21st century, some filmmakers have returned to the use of nonlinear narrative repeatedly, including Steven Soderbergh in ‘Schizopolis’ (1996), ‘Out of Sight’ (1998), ‘The Limey’ (1999), ‘Full Frontal’ (2002), ‘Solaris’ (2002), and ‘Che’ (2008); Christopher Nolan in ‘Following’ (1998), ‘Memento’ (2000), ‘Batman Begins’ (2005), ‘The Prestige’ (2006), ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008), ‘Inception’ (2010), and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012). ‘Memento,’ with its fragmentation and reverse chronology, has been described as characteristic of moving towards postmodernism in contemporary cinema. Richard Linklater used nonlinear narrative in ‘Slacker’ (1991), ‘Waking Life’ (2001), and ‘A Scanner Darkly’ (2006). Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai explored nonlinear storylines in the films ‘Days of Being Wild’ (1991), ‘Ashes of Time’ (1994), ‘Chungking Express’ (1994), ‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000), and ‘2046’ (2004); as did Fernando Meirelles in ‘City of God’ and ‘The Constant Gardener.’ Charlie Kaufman is also known for his fondness of nonlinear story-telling as applied in ‘Adaptation’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’

In video games, the term nonlinear refers to a game that has more than one possible story line and/or ending. This allows the audience to choose from multiple different paths, that may be compatible with their style of play. This increases replay value, as players must often beat the game several times to get the entire story. Role-playing video games, such as ‘Fallout,’ often contain multiple paths which the player may choose from the beginning of the game. Multiple endings also appear in some adventure, survival horror, and stealth, and platform games. Some video games mimic film non-linearity by presenting a single plot in a chronologically distorted way instead of letting the player determine the story flow themselves.

Game developers often use the idea of character amnesia to give a game a beginning. The audience only has the understanding that there is a preceding history before the events of the game take place. The character’s amnesia allows the developers more leniency with what possibilities or paths the audience can potentially take. This option of choosing paths ultimately results in the development of a non-linear story. Furthermore by creating a nonlinear story line the complexity of game play is greatly expanded. As stated earlier, non-linear game play allows for greater replay value which allows the player to put together the different pieces of a potentially puzzling storyline. This idea of having a complex and deep storyline while the user has little or no prior knowledge of past events is clearly evident in games like ‘Facade’ (the player is put into a situation that lasts approximately 10 to 15 minutes in real time yet the events recalled seem to have a basis in years of dramatic history).

In contemporary society webpages or to be more correct, hypertexts, have become affluent forms of narratives. They allow for individuals to actually interact with the story through links, images, audio and video. An established hypertext narrative is Public Secret, which documents the reality of being incarcerated in California’s Criminal Justice System. It brings to light the way inmates are treated. This functions as a non-linear narrative because it allows for its audience to witness through text and audio the reality of being a female inmate. However, there is no exact beginning or end as there are in comic books or video games. This website consists of multiple subtopics that do not force the audience to make their next selection based on what their previous experiences are.

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