I tend to write in a non-linear style. I skip around between character perspectives and anywhere within the timeline and sometimes show situations from multiple perspectives with different details. Often the story changes depending upon who is remembering it. For stories that span multiple works, I’ll review a situation from an earlier story through a different character’s viewpoint.
Some of my favorite writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip Roth, and Stephen King employ alternate methods of fashioning their prose. Vonnegut and King sometimes insert versions of themselves into the narrative (a technique I use in Rebecca Too) and Roth presents alternate histories and multiple outcomes in his work. Thomas Pynchon uses a non-linear technique throughout his work with varying degrees of success. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace takes the technique to its extreme by telling a large portion of the story via footnotes.
Just like in Catch-22, in which Yossarian’s behavior seems bizarre until Heller finally explains it, often the point of a non-linear story requires some unraveling. In this style, order of revelation becomes key, and frequently involves a twist. In a traditional story, the action is cumulative, and we see the outcome as it develops. There can be flashbacks to help fill in the gaps but we see the main story in a straight line. With non-linear storytelling, we might start with the outcome and progress through various random segments of the story without knowing exactly where we’re headed.
I suppose my storytelling style reflects my way of thinking. Ideas sometimes come to me all at once in an effect I liken to a pinball machine, with lots of bells and flashing lights, as ideas bounce around in my brain. When I’m in a creative mood, everything inspires me, music, television, artwork. I still carry around in my head snippets of stories or characters inspired by poetry I read in high school or college. I imagined the opening scene of my sci-fi fantasy novel Crazy Like the Foxes early in college and played it over in my mind for nearly twenty years before putting it into written form.
Of course, writing this way makes it a challenge to keep the point of the story straight in the reader’s eyes. It’s not for everyone, but can be rewarding for those who risk the journey through it. One of my favorite parts about Moby Dick is the meandering feel of it, which emulates the journey the narrator takes, tossing in allegorical asides along the way. It wasn’t until I better familiarized myself with stories from the Bible that I finally understood the point of The Rachel searching for its younger crew members who’d been swept overboard.
That’s the reward of a non-linear approach to fiction, carefully controlling chaos while leading the reader through myriad twists and turns and leaving them with as many questions as answers. The best can enlighten and inspire those who follow it to question conventional reality and see the world from a different frame of reference. Confusing as it can sometimes be, for those who risk it, the results can be very satisfying.