Nonlinear or disruptive narrative is a technique used in storytelling where the events of a story are achronological, i.e. it is not in a chronological manner, and illogically placed. This method has been used in films, literature, video games and other narratives. In the field of video games, the meaning of the term is different as the stories get played out by the decisions made by the players’ interaction in the game.
The world had come to know that it was during the 5th century BC that nonlinear narrative had come into existence. This monumental piece of literature work is none other than the Indian Epic, the Mahabharatha. The Mahabharata was written in an Indian language called Sanskrit and this major tale has played an important role in the religion of Hinduism, and also played a vital part in the upbringing of the cultures in the Indian subcontinent. This story talks about the human goals (Dharma or duty, Artha or purpose, Kama or pleasure or desire and moksha or liberation) where it explains the individuals’ relationship to the society and the world and the workings of karma or destiny. With 1.8 million words written, the Mahabharata is the longest epic poem in the world.
The Illiad is another grand poem which is credited to Homer, also uses nonlinear narrative. Made in 8th century BC, this poem was set in the events of the Trojan War, which was a ten year siege by a congregation of Greek states led by King Agamemnon. The poem, although covers the final few weeks of the war, describes the battles which had taken part in the war and also depicts the arguments between King Agamemnon and the legendary warrior Achilles. The Illiad is the oldest known Western work in literature.
These two poems have a common nonlinear narrative between them. They were the first works to feature the method of In Media Res (It is a latin phrase which in English translates “into mid-affairs”. This technique of narrative is when the story either begins in the middle or in its conclusion. It was introduced by the poet Horace.) and the first to implement the technique of using flashbacks (Analepsis which is the other word for flashback, is a method which is put in between a narrative and it acts as a tool to explain the events leading up to the current state of the story. It is generally used for a character’s origin or major events which have occurred in the past.)
From then on, novelists such as Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Marcel Proust and many others during the 1800’s to 1900’s played around with the nonlinear narrative, dumping the idea of writing a book in a linear fashion.
In the Modern Day, the author Chuck Palahniuk, known for his book Fight Club, writes all his books in a nonlinear fashion. An example would be his book Survivor where the story goes backwards as the end is the starting point of the book and the conclusion of the book is the beginning.
Examples of nonlinear novels: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne; Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; Catch – 22 by Joseph Heller; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark; Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh and Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic.
To define nonlinear storytelling in films is a bit of a task since various films uses the methodology of flashbacks or flashforwards in a linear storyline whereas nonlinear films most of the time includes a lot of linear sequences. Citizen Kane by Orson Welles is an example of a film where the storyline is in an achronological flashback narrative which is tagged as nonlinear.
Experimentation of nonlinear narrative in films started in 1916. This was the era of Silent Films where the film is without any sound and the viewer only gets to see images of the film. Intolerance: Love’s Struggle through the Ages by D.W. Griffith is the first film to try out nonlinear storytelling. This film is considered to be one of the masterpieces of its generation. This film was made because D.W. Griffith’s previous film The Birth of a Nation apparently did not go down well with the people, stating that the film had a huge amount racist content.
The film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) is a surreal film made by Salvador Dali and Luis Brunuel. This film was made in 1929 and is considered the first film to be in a constant state of nonlinearity. The film makes statements about the Church, art and society; which are left to open interpretation by the viewer.
Other films made in this era which uses the concept of nonlinear narrative are L’Age d’or (The golden Age) again by Salvador Dali and Luis Brunuel, Strike by Sergei Eisenstein, Earth by Alexander Dovzhenko, Listen to Britain a documentary by Humphrey Jennings.
After World War II, nonlinear narrative had evolved from its embryonic state and it was Jean Luc Goddard who famously stated, “I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order”. His works have played a major influence in the method of nonlinear storytelling. Le Weekend (Week End) by Jean Luc Goddard is one of the first films to showcase the randomness of events in a film. Chelsea Girls which was made in 1966 by Andy Warhol was a film very similar to that of Le Weekend in a sense of techniques used. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Muriel (1963) by Alain Resnais are films which had experimented with the narrative and the time. Then Italian director Federico Fellini invented his own style of nonlinear narration in his films La Strada(1954), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 and a half (1963), Satyricon (1969) and Roma (1972). From then on various film makers like Nicolas Roeg, Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Greenaway, Chris Marker, Raul Ruiz and Agnes Varda have all experimented with nonlinear narration.
Robert Altman from the United States incorporated the style of nonlinearity in his films such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001). Woody Allen tried his hand in nonlinear narrative in Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978) and Stardust Memories (1980).
The 1990’s witnessed the growth of nonlinear films due to influential figure Quentin Tarantino who was the catalyst for this cause after his film Pulp Fiction (1994). Other significant works of disruptive narration are Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994); Terrence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line (1998); Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999); and Karen and Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001). David Lynch had experimented by combining surrealism and nonlinear narrative in his films Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006).
While coming into and in the beginning of the 21st Century, filmmakers have been constantly applying their own nonlinear methods into their films frequently. Schizopolis (1996), Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999), Full Frontal (2002) and Che (2008) were all movies done by Steven Soderbergh. Gus Van Sant’s movies like Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005) and Paranoid Park (2007). Hong Kong director Wong Kar – Wai with his own creative style in films tried his hands in nonlinear narrative in the films Days of Being Wild (1991), Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has made all his films in a nonlinear fashion. Christopher Nolan uses the ideology of nonlinear narration the films Following (1998), Memento (2001) and The Prestige (2006).
Memento followed a fragmented and reverse chronology narration in the film. This move was known as the film heading in the direction of post modernism storytelling in contemporary cinema. The narrative structure of the movie places the audience into the shoes of the protagonist. Therefore because of this structure, the viewers get turned into detectives and try to come up with their own solutions.
In the east, Japanese animation or anime (As it is commonly known that the term anime is only referred to animations done by the Japanese or any of the eastern countries) implements nonlinear narration in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Yami to Boushi to Hon no Tabibito (Traveller of Darkness, The Hat and Books), Touka Gettan and Baccano (Italian word which means ruckus).
In the series Baccano the story varies from each episode. The events of the anime take place in various settings from the 1700’s to the 1930’s. The stories are somehow related with each other although not directly with countless number of plots and it is up to the viewer to piece it all together.
The television series Lost created by J.J. Abrams extensively use the methodology of nonlinear narration. Set on an island, all the episodes of Lost have scenes interjected in them with a flashback or flashforward which is related to the primary storyline of the episode.
Damages another series too uses disruptive narration. The beginning of each season starts off with an event and then travels back six months earlier. Each of the episodes will feature the past, present and future which leads up to the main storyline.
Television reality shows like Big Brother, indirectly uses the methodology of nonlinear narration because of its interactivity. The public gets to decide that one of the contestants would get eliminated from the show. This kind of interaction plays with the participants as it develops very interesting scenarios for the public to view. Similar series like Big Brother are I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Back To Reality, Cabin Fever and Uttaradhikar (The Inheritance) a television show from Bangladesh