Can We Write a Good Non-Linear Novel?

The novel is one of the most marvelous literary genres created by humans. If you want to leave a literary legacy in prose, writing one is a prerequisite. However, despite how much I am obsessed with novels, there is one significant flaw to the entire genre; it has essentially a one-dimensional format. What I mean is that most novels follow a linear progression, so that event A follows event B, event B follows event C, and so on in a one-dimensional chain of events that goes from the beginning to the end. At this point you might say, “Okay, but aren’t stories supposed to be like that? Each story has a beginning, middle and end, this was taught to me at elementary school, why are you teaching me this again?”

But this it is not how we experience the world. If you paid close attention to how you live your life, you’ll realized it’s nothing like the linear narrative found in novels, plays, movies and other creative works. You were born in the middle of another person’s story, namely your mom or dad’s life story. You didn’t learn about how the world works as a linear narrative, but only hear bits and pieces of information you eventually put together to get a coherent picture. When you go about your daily life your stream-of-thought is highly non-linear, as for example when you go to the grocery store all sorts of thoughts unrelated to grocery shopping pop into your head. Your life is constantly interrupted; for example you want to be a writer, or a scientist, or a musician, but throughout your life you are constantly diverted and go through years doing things unrelated to your main goal. Eventually when you die, your story will be at an end, but the life-stories of other people continue on and there really is no ending to the story of the history of the world. So even though we live our lives in multiple dimensions, our novels are still in one-dimension. Even though novels can use techniques such as in medias res and flashbacks that break with linear storytelling, it still doesn’t go far enough.

Is the fact that the novel is one-dimensional only a theoretical problem? No, because there is one (or two) genre(s) of literature where this problem is felt, and I’m talking about science fiction and fantasy. The problem with many sci-fi and fantasy novels is that the world the characters live in follow different rules from our own. Along with rules, such novels often have lots of backstories that forms the background to the main story. In such a work, the writer has to explain the rules to the reader before he or she can make sense of the work, but it is difficult to accomplish without breaking the linearity of the narrative.

One way of doing it is to write a manual about how magic or technology works in the universe of the novel. But this is problematic because a reader would have to slog through pages of explanation before he or she can understand the work.

Another way is to explain the rules in the narrative itself. Again, this is problematic because it must be done with finesse or the reader will complain. If you simply drop a chunk of exposition in the middle of your story it would ruin the linear flow of the narrative. You must somehow drop the explanation in a way that naturally flows with the narrative, which takes a lot of skill.

The last method, and the most clever, is to introduce a character that does not understand the rules in the sci-fi or fantasy world the writer created, but who learns the rules along the way. This is a fantastic way of explaining the rules without interrupting the flow of the narrative, except that it comes with its own problems. The problem is that the reader naturally identifies with such a character, since he or she also didn’t know the rules of the world inside the story. If the character is naturally charming, then it’s a good thing, but if the character is terribly annoying it makes the experience of reading the novel much worst. I know this because I personally read a portion of a novel that uses this exact technique and failed quite miserably.

But all of these techniques try to cover up a limitation almost all novels suffer from, that is they all adhere to the linear narrative format. Perhaps it’s time to consider other formats that makes more sense for stories that are less linear. I can think of three different approaches, each of them inspired by a different medium.

The Wiki Novel

Have you ever gone to Wikipedia (or any other wiki), but instead of reading through one article to get just the information you need, you kept getting distracted clicking through one link after another, and you were so engrossed browsing through the wiki that you wonder where 3 hours went? Sometimes you may do this intentionally, simply browsing through Wikipedia because you find clicking through article after article entertaining. Why can’t novels function like this? Instead of a single linear narrative, you have a bunch of interrelated short-stories that are cross-referenced with links. One part of the story can refer to events to another part of the story by a hyperlink, which avoids the writer having to awkwardly write a paragraph of exposition that interrupts the flow of the narrative. If this is done correctly, the reader can enter into any chapter of the story and it would still make sense. This way the reader can choose to read the most interesting chapters first and become excited about the work right away instead of having to commit to chapters of explanation before he or she can find the story enjoyable.

The Episodic Novel

Instead of writing a novel where each of the chapters make sense only in the context of the previous chapters, write a novel where each of the chapters can be standalone short-stories that can be enjoyed on their own. This is a technique used by many television programs. In the world of television, one cannot expect the audience to have seen all the previous episodes of a show, therefore many television programs adopt the convention that all the episodes are independent pieces. That way the audience can watch any episode and fully understand it. This is not appropriate for all novels, but it may be combined with the techniques of a wiki novel to create a wiki-episodic continuum that uses the best of both techniques.

The Video Game Novel

This idea is exactly what it sounds like; a novel in the form of a video game. This one is probably the hardest to pull off since most novelists aren’t video game developers, but there is an aspect of video games that fascinate me as a writer. The interactivity of video games immerses the reader into the world of the game in a way that books cannot. What I mean is that there are very few novels that forces the reader to take an action as a character in the book, then the text changes based on what the reader chose to do (and perhaps gives some insight to what would happened had the reader made another choice). I know a few writers have done this (oddly enough I discovered that Ayn Rand wrote a play that uses this gimmick), but there hasn’t been a massive number of novels that functions quite like this.

In the end, will my suggestions work? It’s difficult to say. Some might think that my talk of a non-linear novel to be somewhat experimental, but the fact is that writers have been experimenting with it for a long time. One of the earliest examples was Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, all the way back in the 18th century. One of the striking features of the novel is how the narrator keeps skipping around the story, at one point even saying something to the effect, “while most writers take you from point A to point B to point C, I take you from point A to point C, then back to point B while visiting point F along the way.” It is now mostly forgotten, but we can take a lesson that not all stories have to start from the beginning, go to a middle and finally end up at the end, the way we have been taught in elementary school.