Memento and the Truth About Non-Linear Storytelling

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by Fin Wheeler

You want to make it in the creative industries, and your middle-class sense of entitlement suggests you shouldn’t let a little thing like no knowledge of linear storytelling get in your way. So, you’ve decide to become a loud and proud advocate of non-linear.

While a triumph of determination over skill might have gotten you somewhere in decades past, these days we have both feet firmly in the insanely competitive digital age. Anyone who has watched cat or kid videos on YouTube will tell you, the clips with a strong narrative are far, far more likely to go viral.

Humans are naturally and irresistibly drawn to narrative. And in the age of ever-shrinking attention spans and ever-increasing competition from non-traditional storytelling platforms, it’s become more vital than ever that those of us who wish to become well-paid professional storytellers (writers, directors, editors, producers) be able to tell linear stories.

It’s also essential that we’re able to articulate why and how our tale follows standard three act structure.

But What About Punk?

In my final year at film school, I had this teacher. He was a massive fan of non-linear, and also a massive fan of punk and every music movement where learning to play the instrument and/or read music was optional.

His argument about non-linear storytelling and non-skill based music was that they are pure forms of artistic expression. They’re not about discipline and craft, but about raw, untrained non-conformist talent. He’d announce that anyone who didn’t appreciate it was just too conventional and non-visionary. (I was always tempted to ask him why, if he believed the only true talent is untrained, he picked up a regular pay check as an arts educator.)

I have nothing against the punk movement, but it’s inaccurate to suggest that the popular, successful albums of the Sex Pistols lack skill and narrative.

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Everyone can appreciate that those first short scripts or films you created took a mammoth effort, and that adding a sense of mystery and complexity with a few non sequitur scenes can give a beginner an immensely satisfying feeling, much like a little kid using a big word to impress adults at a dinner party.

While it’s perfectly fine to make a few jumbled short scripts/films when you’re first learning to express yourself through screen forms, those narrative-free experimentations won’t get you hired as a professional writer, and isn’t that ultimately what you’re after?

With millions on the line with every project, why would a producer risk hiring a creative who has no linear storytelling ability? Examples of non-linear storytelling aren’t enough.

So, What is Linear?

Technically, all screen stories are linear. You don’t write 90 one-page scenes and then let each individual audience member/reader decide what order they’re going to view/read them in.

Within the industry, the term ‘non-linear’ can be applied to stories that have non-essential scenes. If a reader describes a script as non-linear, it can be a coded way of saying the script is bloated with scenes that don’t actively contribute to the telling of the plot and/or the protagonist’s emotional journey, and that the chronology of the story’s events isn’t clear.

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What About Memento?

Films such as Memento, Slumdog Millionaire and Atonement are commonly referred to as popular, successful examples of non-linear screen storytelling. In fact, the story in each of these films is quite strongly linear; each scene contains information that adds to what has previously been revealed to the audience.

Each of these movies is told/revealed in a non-chronological way, rather than a non-linear one.

(It’s fine to say ‘non-linear’ when you mean ‘non-chronological,’ just as long as both you and the person you’re talking to both understand the distinction.)

How Can Narrative Skills be Improved?

Firstly, don’t make excuses for your work, and don’t argue when someone says a scene is unnecessary and/or boring. You’re not the audience for your film. If a potential audience member doesn’t get what you’re trying to say then, by definition, you haven’t effectively communicated.

That film school lecturer I mentioned earlier, for a semester I was stuck with him as my tutor for my weekly one-hour script development session. He’d always arrive late, having only half-read the pages I’d spent all week slaving over. He’d waste at least half an hour complaining about his finances, or regaling me with stories of his past glories (he spent most of his working life driving TV stars to and from set; they routinely failed to recognize his genius).

It was frustrating, knowing all my screenwriting classmates were getting their full hour of script notes and screenwriting tuition from working writers, while I was stuck there with Mr. Personal Problems, but then ten minutes before the end of each session he’d glance down at my script, he’d skim the first few lines of each scene and say things like “Bored… Too long… Do you need scene 5 and 23?”

He wasn’t the most polite person, but in a roundabout way the experience was useful.

As a writer, you can’t sit there pausing every scene so you can explain things to every reader. A script must be as clear and concise as possible. And the story you’re trying to tell must also have a logical narrative (whether chronological or not).

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What About Inception?

Yes, there are ways in which the sci-fi world of that movie seems to defy rationality, but you can still explain the plot in a logical way. The protagonist goes into a metaphorical watch: first he jumps into the hours, but he’s followed so he has to escape into the minutes. He’s hunted still so he hides in the seconds, but isn’t successful in that endeavor either, and has to go back to normal life outside a watch… but did he jump back out into his real world or a parallel one?

While the science of the world might confuse, the story/narrative is a very straight forward tale.

Readers and producers are incredibly time poor, as are audiences these days. While we’ll happily watch an old black and white with ten minute scenes, modern audiences are more likely to change the channel and check their social media than watch a ten minute scene (with no relevance to the plot) in a contemporary movie.

Is Audience Everything?

Filmmaking equipment is certainly more affordable and user-friendly than ever before, and there are enough aspiring performers out there willing to forgo a fee in exchange for the promise of fame. It’s possible to have an entire career as an amateur online feature filmmaker.

But if you aspire to be a professional, paid storyteller, then you do have to know how to tell a linear story.

It’s not about paying huge fees, reading all the right books, and attending expensive classes, though producers do appreciate it if you’ve read the top screenwriting books and can quantify the elements and aspects of your story in the terms they’re familiar with. Learning to better tell linear stories comes down to observation, analysis and practice.

Next week, tune in for 6 Ways to Improve Your Linear Storytelling.

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Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

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