Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 4: Non Linear Story Telling

Don’t you just hate it when things unfold out of order? Why do writers do that?

We explain why they do it, and how they do it, and then we discuss how to avoid some common mistakes. Non-linear storytelling is inherently risky, after all. Maybe not as risky as jumping ahead two episodes in a non-serial podcast schedule, but it’s still life on the edge.

Writing Prompt: Write a story about a flashback that is completely false…

This week’s episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by  Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson, now available in hardback from TOR.

(If you’re waiting for Episodes 2 and 3, we’ll flash back to them in due time…)


39 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 4: Non Linear Story Telling”

  1. No fair, Jordo, this time the podcast doesn’t have the consistent naming scheme! 😛

  2. Hahaha. He’s onto you, Chaos.

    Cute, guys. Real cute. 😛

    Non-linear storytelling can be fun!

    …and I’ll have to wait until I can actually listen to it to contribute something useful. Not that I’ll contribute anything useful then. XP

  3. the Firefly episode referenced was ‘Out of Gas,’ and was one of the best-told of the whole series. 🙂

  4. Explaining in media res as “into the midst of affairs” helps a lot. Many times I hear it explained as “in the middle of the action.” I have seen new writers start their book or short story with the swing of a sword that barely misses the enemy. Often this falls short of being a hook–for me at least–because I do not have any interest in the character yet. Using “into the midst of affairs” allows an author to imply something important has happened. The author’s job then is to intrigue the reader enough with that important event so that the reader wants to continue reading.

  5. There are two big differences between someone sitting the reader down and recounting an event and a flash back. The first is the recount is obviously biased–any other that doesn’t make a recount biased shouldn’t be writing. The second is that a flash back has much more detail. Looking at these briefly there doesn’t seem to be that big a difference, but when you’re reading you can tell the difference and it’s huge.

  6. I should add that there is one more difference between recounting and flash backs: the narrator can address the reader in a recounting, and often does. It allows the author to play the voice of the ‘future narrator’ off of his/her past counter part.

  7. Ten lashes for non-linear podcast progression! (whoooPAH!)

    Also, am I a complete loser if I admit that over the last week I downloaded every last Writing Excuses podcast and listened to it on my MP3 player during my workday commute? While digging in the yard? Why sitting at the airport?

    Big kudos to Brandon, Howard and Dan for making these available.

    Extra big kudos to Jordan and whoever else works behind the scenes to produce, cut, mix, and publish.

    I spent a few years in public and community radio. I know! Audio is much tougher to produce than it might seem to everyone else out in Listener Land.

  8. I’ll confess to thoroughly dissecting Larry Niven’s “Neutron Star” to see how he used non-linear story telling when I wrote a vaguely similar story, both starting with a lone starship pilot arriving at a star and encountering a problem. In both cases the issue is to explain the backstory as to how he got into that situation without boring the reader. Flipping back and forth between story (trying to solve the problem) and backstory works well. Niven was clever enough to work try-fail cycles into the backstory (Schaeffer’s thoughts about stealing the ship vs Ausfaller planting a bomb on board), too.

    (That particular story (Niven’s, not mine) is genius on multiple levels. In addition to being a classic science fiction puzzle story, it’s also a kind of locked-room murder mystery. And a couple of the more prominent aspects of his Known Space stories were, if not invented for, appeared first there.)

  9. I think the key for non-linear plots is the same for every other “device” known to writer-kind: Use it if it works for the story you’re telling. If you’re just being cute, don’t do it.

  10. I was at this website a few months ago a saw that I could buy season 1 of writing excuses. I was waiting then for season two to be completed and then I was going to buy them both. How can I purchase these babbies. Don’t you guys want my money?

  11. I can’t let a podcast on non-linear writing go by without mentioning Chris Wooding’s The Fade. It does basically the same thing as the Ian M. Banks story that was mentioned: The bulk of the story is told linearly, moving forwards; another part of the story is done in flashbacks, which move backwards. The pacing and the construction in this novel are just fantastic, and you should all go read it.

    (Also, the scenery is awesome. And the first person narrator.)

    Dan, I must say, I love your writing prompt. Most of the prompts strike me as just fun exercises, but I’m going to have to make a serious attempt at this one. (Not surprising, really; I do a lot of experimentation with non-linear storytelling.)

    But first I must do more research on ice volcanoes.

  12. Yet again, this podcast brings to light new information about the way I write. I just got done polishing off a chapter that involves flashbacks in the novel I’m writing. It’s just in that one chapter, though, not spread throughout the entire book. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s towards the end of the book and is supposed to be one of the big revelations that happens before the final chapter. Of course, if you are going to infodump, I think doing so at the end of the book is infinitely preferable to doing it at the beginning. You can build up to it that way.

  13. I’m surprised there was no mention of LOST. One of the best written and executed non-linear stories I’ve ever seen. Flashbacks, flashfowards, and time travel all used to enhance the storytelling.

  14. @ Linda

    Yes, I’ve tried Write-Or-Die and used it for an entire novel. After I finished I went back a read through the story and found it nearly unreadable–it still is as I’ve given up hope on that project.

    To get back on topic, I’ve never written a flashback. I’ve read too many flashbacks used incorrectly within the context of the story. I’ve never had the desire to try it, just like dream sequences.

  15. Write-Or-Die was fun, but I could never actually use it seriously, because not being able to save compulsively makes me a very unhappy camper.

  16. This episode was timed exactly right for me! Today I finished formatting a novel to release online which is spectacularly non-linear. The podcast itself didn’t cover the way I used non-linearity in my story, but I felt pleased that I’d not fallen into the many traps listed in this episode. To be honest, if I’d have listened to this episode when starting the novel I’d probably never had started it.

    On another note: great discussion on in medias res!

  17. @Mike Barker Thanks for the transcript. Also, you reminded me of my favorite moment at LTUE 2009, when I stole a joke from my brother.

    An audience member in the “keeping your science real” panel was harping on how much he hates time travel in science fiction, because obviously it’s not real. I told him “those are all good points. We will have had a discussion on them shortly, and you were satisfied.” The raucous laughter pretty much ended the discussion of time travel, and we were able to move on.

  18. If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with

    Racuous laughter, of course. What did you think I was going to say?

  19. Yes! the Firefly episode was “Out of Gas.” Objects in Space was another great episode. Wedon’s commentary on Objects in Space was definitely worth watching.

  20. because i have nothing to say about writing in a non-linear style, i’ll recommend some books instead. 😀

    for the SF fans, a novel told in a non-linear way that i recently read (for an actual english lit class about pop culture and literature) is ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula K. LeGuin. each chapter goes back and forth from the main character’s time on one of two planets. it’s interesting, but confusing if you’re not paying attention to when each chapter ends.

    there’s also ‘salt fish girl’ by Larissa Lai (which i read for the same class). again, each chapter goes back and forth in time and space (and also narrator), but Lai lets you know who the narrator is. this is for people who enjoy character development and freakish science experiments with their post-apocalyptic fantasy novels.

  21. Usually a bit of non-linear Storytelling has to be done very well for me to enjoy it. Flashbacks just feel like vital information that the author can’t think of a better way to tell us. A flashback feels like a highlighter or a beacon, telling you that “This will be important later, start thinking about why.”

    However it can still be done right. The first example I can think of is in Kill Bill Vol. 2, when she gets trapped in a coffin, and while we all wonder how she will escape they have a flash back showing her martial arts training leading up to her learning to punch planks of wood at extremely short distances. Problem solved.

  22. Hey

    I know I’m late again but I just wanted to add my ‘thank you’ for this pod cast.

    Dose anyone have more info on stuff like this?

    I just realized while listing to this cast that linear story telling, is a problem stopping me from writing a novel I have been playing with. It is Historic fiction so the reader already knows how it ends. I need a way to show how it led up to that and the more personal trials of it, including several flash backs that show how this person became who he became. I have flirted with a first person view point for this story, but haven’t had much practice with it so I feel completely lost. How do you do good flash backs without over using the ‘childhood dream’ or ‘distant memory’ thing. I am afraid it would be to distracting.

    Thanks again one and all

  23. Just a suggestion — don’t emphasize the flashback aspect. This is a new scene — you need to establish time, place, point of view, just like with any new scene. The fact that it takes place in the past relative to the rest of your plot is just a bonus.

  24. Hi, I recently discovered this podcast, and I have to thank you for its awesomeness. I plan to become a writer in the future, so it’ll be very helpful!

    However, I subscribed to the RSS feed in iTunes, and for some reason, I can only see Season 3 Episode 4, 1, 33, 32, 31, 30, 29, 28, 27, 26 (in that order). I would like to listen to it from the start; so help would be appreciated.

    Love your books.

  25. Not an iTunes user, but that’s pretty obviously the episodes in reverse chronological order. Season 2 ended with episode 33. So what you have is Season 3 Episode 4, 1 (due to the nonlinear presentation), then Season 2, Episodes 33-26.

  26. I know I’m a few weeks behind on this, but it struck me as I was listening to the podcast that the summation of Brandon’s non-linear story unfolding as a man walked across a desert was awfully similar to “The Gunslinger,” by Stephen King. The first half of the book begins with the slow, methodical chase across the desert, and as that part of the story goes on, the gunslinger remembers the last person he’d seen and spent time with, on the edge of the desert. And while he was at the settler’s hut, the settler asks the gunslinger to tell him the story about Tull, the last town the gunslinger was in, which prompts a flashback to a point even further back before the beginning of the book.

    It was very effective when King did it, because the scene in Tull was very high-action, culminating with powerful climactic shootout. But putting that at the beginning of the book, where it fit chronologically, might have clouded the character and setting King worked so hard to establish with the pursuit across the desert, and his interaction with the settler.

    Just food for thought.

  27. Good non linear = Reservoir Dogs – funny, interesting, suspenseful, character driven.
    Bad non linear = Kill Bill – long, boring stories that have little to do with the plot and lead to flat characters.

  28. So.

    Came across a list of ’10 podscasts for writers worth listening to.’ This, of course, was on the list, and that’s how I ended up here.

    These podcasts have been the biggest help to me so far, second only to On Writing, which my wife bought for me back when I told her that I was serious about becoming a writer. I love the nature of the discussions, the way you toss ideas back and forth…it’s as if each podcast is an impromptu brainstorming session on the topic…which they are, in a way.

    I’ve learnt a lot since I’ve started listening, and now I’m bouncing back and forth among the seasons, grabbing episodes as I go, listening, making notes and experimenting with different things as I perfect my process. I find it a pleasure to realise that a lot of the problems that I have aren’t specific to me, i.e., there’s nothing wrong with me as I try to write, I just need to work out the framework within which I’ll get my work done.

    You guys have been a tremendous help, and your podcast is the most enjoyable one I’ve come across so far, bar none.

    Please, keep up the good work! 🙂

  29. I just noticed this episode was listed nonlinearly in the archives.


  30. Dunno if anyone reads old comments, but I have to say _Way of Kings_ is now one of my favorite examples of non-linear storytelling. The way Kaladin’s story is handled is just great – I loved how tension was kept in the mystery of his past right up to the end of the book.

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