Most stories work with a linear narrative structure. A linear narrative structure starts the story where the earliest events take place and ends the story where the latest events take place. For example, Cinderella by the Brothers Grimm starts with the death of Cinderella’s mother, the first event that takes place, and ends with her wedding, the last event that takes place.
A nonlinear narrative structure, on the other hand, doesn’t follow these chronological rules.
In this guide, we’ll be discussing some common nonlinear narrative structures (flashback, foreshadowing, in media res, and stream of consciousness) and explaining what they do for the work as a whole.
A flashback is when you insert past events into the current story. The flashback can take place anywhere in the story.
Flashbacks can be scenes in the story, or they can be the entire story itself.
For example, in the book "To Kill a Mockingbird," Scout Finch starts the book by recounting her childhood memories of growing up in Maycomb, Alabama. These flashbacks provide insight into Scout's character and help to understand the events of the present story. This is an example of a scene, or a series of scenes, that make up a flashback.
For another example, in Wuthering Heights, the book starts long after nearly all of the events of the book have occurred. This makes the novel one long flashback to the past.
Foreshadowing is the use of hints or clues that suggest what is to come later in the story.
Sometimes, this will be very direct, such as in the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet, which states outright what the ending will be.
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life; /Whose misadventured piteous overthrows/Do with their death bury their parents' strife. Source
Another example is the opening sentence of The Secret History, which directly states:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. Source
Other times, foreshadowing is more subtle. For example, in Julius Caesar, a soothsayer famously tells Caesar “Beware the Ides of March.” Later, Caesar is killed on that day.
In media res
means “into the middle of things.” It starts the story in the middle of the action
, rather than at the traditional “beginning” of a story.
For example, The Odyssey begins after Odysseus has been missing for ten years, before going back to explain what Odysseus was doing for those ten years.
This narrative structure presents the inner thoughts and emotions of a character in a continuous flow, rather than in a linear fashion. Often, this writing will have limited or even no punctuation.
For example, the last chapter of the novel Ulysses by James Joyce uses stream of consciousness to describe everything going through the head of its main character, Molly:
…silly women believe love is sighing I am dying still if he wrote it I suppose thered be some truth in it true or no it fills up your whole day and life always something to think about every moment and see it all around you like a new world I could write the answer in bed to let him imagine me short just a few words not those long crossed letters Atty Dillon used to write to the fellow that was something in the four courts that jilted her after out of the ladies… Source
By using these narrative structures, authors can directly affect readers' experiences by creating anticipation, suspense, or tension.
For example, foreshadowing can build excitement for readers, as they try to predict what will happen next. Foreshadowing can also add a sense of foreboding or tension to a work, because the readers now know something the characters don’t.
In medias res can make the story more engaging and unpredictable, as readers have to piece together the events that led up to the current situation.
Stream of consciousness can give readers a deeper understanding of a character's thoughts and emotions.
The narrative structure of a work is how an author chooses to tell a story. If you’re dealing with a non-linear narrative structure, ask yourself: why did the author choose this method to tell this story? What does the method do for the work?