Narrative structure: One step ahead or two back?

All stories, no matter which genre, consists of plot, characters, setting, point of view and theme. How those various elements are weaved together is called narrative structure. This structure marks the way that your story is presented to readers for them to experience.

As you might imagine, there are countless ways to structure a story. Still, those approaches can be broadly grouped into a two basic categories that center on the way the story’s events are presented in terms of time. Generally, stories either are linear or nonlinear.

Linear stories are written in chronological order with no deviation in the time flow. If the first scene occurs from noon to 1:10 pm Tuesday, then the second scene must occur after 1:10 pm Tuesday and not before noon of that day. The third scene must chronologically occur after the second scene, and so on. The direct causality pattern of the events featured is followed. The linear approach by far is the most common story structure.

In contrast, nonlinear stories will break chronological order by shifting between time periods. These shifts usually occur through flashbacks or by utilizing a stream of consciousness approach, in which one’s thoughts, as in real life, are presented as they occur. This means that characters will relive past experiences in the present. Nonlinear stories sometimes are referred to as a disjointed narrative or a disrupted narrative.

Typically, linear stories are the norm because they match the way we experience life. As many excellent writers have pointed out, however, we don’t think in a linear way. Thanks to memories, we can find ourselves “living” in the past as the clock’s second hand steadily clicks forward into the future. Because of this, stories that are character-oriented more commonly utilize a nonlinear structure, as this approach better allows readers to experience life as the character would.