According to Wikipedia, Non-linear narrative is defined as a technique, sometimes used in literature, film and other narratives, where events are portrayed, for example out of chronological order, or in other ways where the narrative does not follow the direct causality pattern of the events featured.
Humans tend to identify with linear storytelling because that is how we perceive time, the fourth dimension. The hands of a clock move in just one direction. Now imagine if humans could observe time like the rest of the dimensions. We will be in a situation in which Cooper found himself in the final moments of Interstellar. It won’t be pleasant to see our past, present and future in one go.
Usage of non-linear technique is a very fascinating form of storytelling. Whenever I have encountered the method, whether in movies or books, it has given me a rush equivalent to a shot of drug, it’s like the excitement you feel before jumping off a cliff with a rope tied to your leg.
Can anyone forget how the technique was excellently used in Memento or Pulp Fiction? How Babel played with multiple parallel narratives to create an enigmatic cinematic experience? When you see Citizen Kane, Kurosawa’s Rashomon or Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, don’t you think the stories would have lost their charm if they would have been told in any other way?
Coming to literature, Emily Brontë masterfully employed the technique in Wuthering Heights to give us the unfathomable and ruthless Heathcliff. Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five are shining examples of how the method can be used to create books that will remain incomparable. Taking examples from present, can you imagine David Mitchell’s momentous Cloud Atlas narrated in a linear timeline or Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See retain its beauty without the shifts of timeline?
What I find captivating about this technique is that it leaves the reader uncomfortable, giving an impression of a disjoint narrative. It’s like showing a part of a picture to a child, asking her what it could be. Finally, as more parts are added, the picture will start making sense to the child. The book using a non-linear technique demands the utmost attention and patience from a reader. The level of engagement is high as the reader is not only reading the story but is trying to piece it together. There might be some time before the reader reaches a point when the book starts making sense. So, the author has to keep the interest intact from the first page or the reader would throw up his hands in exasperation.
When I started writing False Ceilings, I knew I will be writing it non-linearly. Perhaps it was because of influence of the books I have read or maybe because I had an exact picture in my mind about how I want the story to unfold. I divided the chapters based on specific timelines in the life of the six protagonists.
Each protagonist has a chapter that details events in their life but do not cover their complete life span. For example, Manohar’s chapter depicts the last five years of his life while Meena’s chapter extents from her birth till a few months into her marriage. I also employed a technique where I hid details of events that should have happened in those chapters only to reveal them in the end. That is why, when you are reading Lipi’s chapter (who is the last protagonist); you would be connecting the dots of all that you have read previously. There would be a few pleasant surprises and you would wonder why you were not able to see the crumbs sprinkled all over. Many readers have told me that they loved how everything came together at the end. As the last pieces of the jigsaw fall into place, the book starts making sense and the reader appreciates the idea behind writing it in a non-linear fashion. The technique not only hides the secret till the last chapter but also the relationships in this dysfunctional family.
I cannot even think of comparing my book to what has already been achieved in fiction using the technique of non-linear storytelling, but I have tried my best to create a unique and absorbing experience for the readers.
It’s not just piecing together of the story but what the readers will find interesting is the task of piecing together the relationships between the characters as well and understanding their journey. In the heart, it is a simple story of a flawed family; about its destruction under the weight of its own expectations.
And yes, before you ask, my next two books will also have elements of this technique. I am quite smitten by it. Happy Reading.