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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Four: Nonlinear Storytelling

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Four: Nonlinear Storytelling


Pivotal iotas: Use nonlinear storytelling sparingly. Don't lose the reader in the flashbacks. Beware the explanatory info dump. In medias res -- starting in the middle of the story -- and flashbacks to fill in the backstory can provide suspense, but don't overdo it. You can fill in backstory with dialogue and other means, you don't always have to do major flashbacks. Pay attention to the reader's learning curve -- speculative fiction plus nonlinear storytelling can make it really hard to read.

[Brandon] Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Four: Non...
[Howard] A New Hope!
[Dan] Ah, the season's off to a great start.
[Brandon] Nonlinear storytelling. That was a nonlinear introduction.
[Howard] That was. 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry...
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] And I'm Howard.
[Brandon] Perhaps in stereo, I'm not sure.
[Dan] We should have done the introduction out of order for the nonlinear storytelling one.

[Brandon] I'm Dan. Okay [garbled] we got two main things we want to talk about here. We'll go in medias res, we'll talk about that, and we'll talk about flashbacks, and they're kind of tied together. Then there are some other funky things you can do. But the beginning question is why. Howard, why do we use nonlinear storytelling? You did an entire Schlock Mercenary episode that way?
[Howard] I did an entire episode that way. Nonlinear storytelling is fun to do. There's a zillion reasons to do it that are fun and that are also wrong. Doing it right, I believe, is because the pacing of the book... you want the book to have a big climax towards the end, and if the unfolding of the story is such that if you told it linearly, the climaxes are in the wrong place. In medias res allows you to put those climaxes together, so for instance if we have a flashback story and a current story...
[Brandon] We can stagger those so that they...
[Howard] We can stagger them.

[Dan] A fantastic example of this is Pulp Fiction which is told completely out of order. Yet when you watch it, you can tell every scene is in the order it should be in, even though that order is not chronological.
[Brandon] Let's give a couple of other examples of nonlinear storytelling. There is the backwards story -- Memento.
[Howard] Memento's the backwards story. Use of Weapons by Iain Banks is... one story is being told forwards while another story is being told backwards.
[Brandon] Pulp Fiction is a great example.
[Dan] Even Tolkien did this. The way his books are written, at least The Two Towers and Return of the King, you get a huge chunk -- half the book from a couple characters' point of view, and then the second half of the book is the same timeframe from somebody else's point of view.
[Brandon] Which is kind of a soft way to do nonlinear...
[Dan] It's not the same thing, but it does jump around in time.
[Brandon] Doc Manhattan's sequence from Watchmen is also another great nonlinear storytelling example.

[Brandon] My answer to the question of why do we do it... I think it's more challenging, and makes then for a more challenging read, and if it's done well, there is a greater payoff. But the big danger is, since it's harder, you can do it poorly...
[Howard] Easier to do it wrong.
[Brandon] And fall on your face. There is something to be said for taking something manageable, tackling that and doing it really well. There are a lot of stories that turn out really well when you do that. An example -- Mistborn. I decided not to do The Way of Kings. If you've heard this story, I had a contract for a book called The Way of Kings. I thought it was too ambitious a project for me at that time. I told Mistborn instead. Theoretically, no one could tell that I was taking something that was a little bit easier to do. Because you handle it really well, you get the same payoff, you tell a really great story. I tell beginning writers sometimes you don't want to bite off more than you can chew.
[Howard] Don't experiment with the form for your first novel.
[Brandon] Maybe you want to, but don't bite off too many different things. Don't try everything at once. This sort of stuff is to be used sparingly. But when you can figure it out, it's awesome.

[Dan] You can see that again going back to Pulp Fiction. After that came out, there were a 1000 movies that all came out with the same weird chronology and none of them were as good. It's just because they were doing it because it was cool and not because they had a good reason.
[Howard] What was the time travel radio one?
[Brandon] Frequency.
[Dan] That was actually very well done.
[Howard] That was wonderful. It was linear but with the time travel bits thrown in it felt like it wasn't linear.
[Brandon] It was pretty nonlinear. The flashbacks. I'll count flashbacks as nonlinear.
[Dan] It's hard presenting time travel as truly linear.
[Howard] Exactly.
[Jordan] unless you are just boring time travelers. I'm going to go ahead 5 seconds into the future.

[Brandon] Let's talk about the follies first. We've talked a lot about them. What do people do wrong, what mistakes do they make?
[Howard] They use flashbacks to give you backstory about a character which isn't necessary. They show... they tell instead of showing.
[Brandon] You can really get lost in the main story using flashbacks. When I was a teenager, I wrote a flashback story. The story was essentially... I thought it was really deep and poignant... it was a guy walking across the desert. We would cut to him walking across the desert for a few seconds, and then we would jump into a dramatic flashback of his past, and then the guy in the desert, and then a dramatic flashback from his past and things like this.
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the fact that I can hear Jordan but you can't -- Jordan is over here groaning. Apparently you read this?
[Brandon] Yeah, he read that. The thing was, the exciting story was all the flashback stuff. By framing it with this boring stuff of a guy walking across a desert, I made the exciting story boring and confusing. I sent it to a magazine. What they wrote back is we couldn't follow it, we were lost. By couching this exciting story in a boring story, I ruined the exciting story.
[Dan] The counter example to that is an episode of Firefly, which I believe is called Objects in Space, which is the same thing. Except it works because the frame story has a lot of tension. It has a time bomb... not an actual bomb, but there's a time limit, there is a deadline we're counting down to and that made the frame work.
[Brandon] My big problem was having a boring story and an exciting story and not telling the exciting story, telling the boring story. My other problem was not being able to cut in and out smoothly enough. I could say a big folly of using too many flashbacks is the whole not knowing how to weave in and out properly to keep people understanding what's going on.
[Howard] Speaking of cutting in and out properly, we should probably break for an ad.
[Brandon] Okay.

[Dan] This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by Warbreaker, the new book by Brandon Sanderson which comes out Tuesday, June 9th. The great and wonderful Michael Moorcock says the following about this book. "Brandon Sanderson has written an heroic fantasy depending on originality of character and plot. His heroines and heroes are outstanding, especially Vasher the Warbreaker whose special relationship with his sentient sword is both sardonic and sinister. The mysteries of life after death, of identity and destiny, the politics of magic are unveiled through three-dimensional characters. Not only has Sanderson drawn a freshly imagined world and its society, he has also given us a plot full of unexpected twists and turns. In subtle prose notable for its quiet irony, Sanderson tells the story of two sisters and the god they are doomed to marry. Anyone looking for a different and refreshing fantasy novel will be delighted by this exceptional tale of magic, mystery, and the politics of divinity. It's fair to say Warbreaker might even take your breath away."

[Brandon] We're back!
[Howard] That was smooth.
[Brandon] That was a smooth break. I still think we should do something nonlinear.
[Jordan] I'll just put an ad from last year in.
[Brandon] We'll put an ad from last year in. An ad from the future? Any other cliches of flashbacks that you guys...
[Dan] One thing that shows up, especially when you get into mysteries and thrillers... not technically a flashback, but the explanatory info dump where one character will put the pieces together for the reader, which feels a lot like a flashback and can often be very boring.
[Howard] I'm not sure if this was done right or done wrong, but I remember being very uncomfortable during it. It was Ang Lee's Hulk, the scene where he flashes back and remembers his dad accidentally killing his mom. We know that something horrible happened in his childhood and all of the flashbacks are leading up to that, so it was really dramatic, but I didn't like it.

[Brandon] Anything else you see a lot with people making mistakes using nonlinear storytelling? I would say that the biggest danger with all of this is the idea of using in medias res improperly. In medias res... well, what is it? Let's talk about?
[Howard] Literally? Into... the midst...
[Dan] Into the midst of affairs. That would be the exact translation.
[Howard] Into the midst of affairs! Thank you, English major.
[Brandon] When we were talking about this podcast earlier, Dan said, "Didn't we already talk about this? In late, out early?"
[Dan] And I was slapped down, dear listener.
[Brandon] No, you are lightly...
[Dan] I was lovingly corrected.
[Jordan] With a chair.
[Howard] So the question you're asking, Brandon, is how is in medias res different from in late, out early? And the answer is, with in late, out early, you are coming in late on the action, but you are beginning the story. With in medias res, you are coming in in the middle of the story. You may be coming in late on the action where it's more interesting, but you are going to go back and fill that [inaudible -- gap?] that's come earlier.
[Brandon] Or just assume that people will catch on. Beforehand, I explained it like this. In late, out early is a guy walks into a bank and then a bank robbery happens. Too early is we see him get up, have breakfast, get in his car, drive to the bank -- all that boring stuff.
[Howard] That's a Stephen King novel. Sorry, Mister King.
[Brandon] In late is we get in and then the bank robbery happens. In medias res is you start the story as the gun man is shooting somebody. There are three people dead on the floor. The bank robbery is right in the middle. A big famous example of this in fantasy is Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson in which he just tosses you into the middle of a war and you're expected to pick everything up.

[Howard] There are... I've seen... I think every television show out there has done an episode where we come in late on the action and then it goes to 24 hours earlier and you start seeing the pieces come together. Done well, you don't feel like I already know how this ends up so I don't care. You feel like well gosh I didn't get quite enough information when I saw that bank robbery, I wonder...
[Brandon] Done poorly, it feels like yet another gimmick. That every... like you said, we've all seen every TV show do.
[Dan] 80 percent of the episodes of Alias did exactly that, and it got so old after a while.
[Brandon] It works because we're not expecting it. It's a departure. When it ceases to be that, it becomes expected, and it can become boring just like anything else.
[Howard] When I did it with the jungle storyline, the first flashback was when the protagonist is being buried -- alive but nobody knows he's alive -- we are in his still not dead brain. That was a fun place to have a flashback because the character is threatened and we are seeing how he ended up being threatened.
[Brandon] We know the status is very different from what we... in stories like you are telling, it works very well because we know the status quo at the end of the previous episode so to speak and then suddenly we're thrust into something that is completely different. We are left with that whole anxiety of how did it get here. Which is a wonderful time bomb of its own. We know that these characters are going to hook up at some point in the future that we never expected that they would ever... how is it going to happen? It gives that sense of progress that we've talked about before.

[Dan] One of the tenets of writing suspense -- it's actually an Alfred Hitchcock quote which I'm paraphrasing. He said when a bomb is under a table and it goes off, that's action. When it's under a table and it doesn't go, that's suspense. You can use flashbacks in this way to build that. By showing us that there's a bomb under the table and even perhaps showing that it is going off, but then jumping back in time and letting us worry about it for a long time.
[Brandon] Another thing to remember though is not every in medias res story has to be tied to flashbacks. You can start in the middle of the action and everything be picked up through character dialogue and these sorts of things, where we pick up what has happened before and we know we're in the middle... it's essentially you're launching us into act two or the end of act one rather than starting at the beginning of act one.

[Howard] When you say flashback... define flashback for me?
[Brandon] Different types of flashback. For me, a flashback is a scene break and we're in a different time and place. We're cutting to a scene. And either someone's explaining... imagine it in a movie. You are seeing events happen. Whereas just characters talking about what happened in the past is not to me a flashback. Maybe I'm quibbling over...
[Howard] Now, that's a...
[Dan] I think talking about the past can function as a flashback in certain cases, but for the most part, you're right, it's an actual in scene...
[Brandon] It gets fuzzy, because sometimes if you have someone sit down and say, "Okay, I'm going to tell you a story about my childhood" and then launches into a 10 page story...
[Howard] That feels a lot like a flashback.
[Brandon] In most cases, depending on what type of story you're telling, I would just say scene break, show it to us if you're going to have us experience it.
[Howard] I remember the chapter headings in the Mistborn trilogy in many cases functioning like flashbacks.
[Brandon] Another viewpoint. It was [garbled] viewpoint.
[Howard] It was another viewpoint, but it was a viewpoint from the past. It was filling in critical pieces of the story. It was fun watching those pieces unfold.

[Dan] And I think what this is also illustrating... something else which is that a flashback can often be used instead of an info dump. Louis Sachar does this in Holes. He has a lot of back story that must be told...
[Brandon] Holes works brilliantly this way.
[Dan] But rather than having characters sit down and tell the story about the old pioneers or whatever, he actually shows the scenes with the old pioneers and that makes it work.
[Brandon] That's not appropriate for every story, but it is appropriate for some. A big warning. I was going to get into this earlier, I should say it now. Remember that in science fiction, fantasy, horror, we are writing in genres with steep learning curves already. When you add in medias res or you add a wealth of flashbacks, you can spike that learning curve up so fast that it can be very dangerous. When you use it correctly, it can give a much more fulfilling, a much more enriching story...
[Howard] If you're going to play with the perspective of a completely alien being, and play with nonlinear storytelling...
[Brandon] And rename everything and have new laws of physics.
[Howard] Oh, wow, give me a hook that I can hang my hat on, quickly.

[Brandon] We're out of time. Let's have Dan give us a writing prompt.
[Dan] I want you to write a story about a flashback that is completely false and made up.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: flashbacks, in medias res, nonlinear storytelling, writing excuses
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