by Lucy V
“Non linear” has been one of THE buzzwords in screenwriting for about a decade now. And non linearity can be a fantastic storytelling device: flashback, flashforwards, framing stories, dream sequence, montage and fragmented structure can really help us make amazing connections with our audiences. Yet even with a huge back catalogue of movies to draw from, spec screenwriters STILL drop huge clangers when tackling non linearity. Before you waste your time going round the houses with various plot threads of madness, ask yourself these 5 questions:
5) Does your story *need* to be non linear? When tackling non linear screenplay submissions, this is often the number 1 note I write. Why? Because everybody wants a “good story, well told” – and if you’re writing a non-linear script with STYLE over SUBSTANCE, guess what! Your screenplay gets fired at the wastepaper basket (or rather, moved to trash). So be honest with yourself. Does your story actually NEED to be non linear? Or would it have more impact told the traditional way?
4) Where does the story start? Very often a spec screenwriter will start their script with an intriguing hook … then we don’t see the circumstances around that hook for an extended period, by which time we’ve forgotten who is who, doing what and why. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced to a character, only for them to disappear in favour of the “real” protagonist a couple of pages later and then not turn up again until well into Act 2 or even beyond. Similarly, many other screenwriters think they need to introduce the characters THEN the story – never do this. Never make us wait. Introduce the characters and the story HAND IN HAND.
3) Flashback …. From what??? OK, this is a pet peeve of mine. If you START with a flashback on p1 as the first thing we see, what the hell are we flashing back from?? And is there a REALLY GOOD story reason for doing this? Yeah yeah you reckon, but trust me: when you’ve read as many screenplay submissions as I have, there are very few TRULY good reasons for it. Sad but true. So, ask yourself: do I really need to START with a flashback?
2) Do you start as you mean to go on? You’ve got that intriguing hook … brilliant! Then it all stops and we’re back with the characters eating breakfast, getting in the shower, going to work. Seriously? LE YAWN. Similarly, make sure your non linearity actively SUPPORTS and INFORMS the genre you’re writing and doesn’t fall into cliché. Starting with dream sequence these days is generally a no-no, unless you can REALLY do something surprising with it. Here’s the most clichéd script opener EVER. Similarly, you can’t just start introducing non linearity to “explain” various bits of back story because you can’t think of anything else at that point. There needs to be logic to it. Don’t change the goal posts.
1) Have you re-structured your structure? It comes down to this: most spec screenwriters splurge non linearity all over the place; they don’t appreciate non linearity needs a structure of its OWN. But think about it. The most famous non linear narratives are finely tuned, whether all their flashbacks “add up” to make a story of their own (THE CROW, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY); or the main plot goes backwards and the sub plot forwards (MEMENTO); or the story returns to a certain point (GROUNDHOG SAY, PREMONITION, VANTAGE POINT); or plays out in the “wrong” order (PULP FICTION). You can find out more about structure and non linearity at the relevant links bundle in The B2W Required Reading List.
CONCLUDING: So when it comes to non linearity, make sure you know EXACTLY what you’re doing – and why. And invest in your structure. It’s the ONLY way forward without tying your narrative (and your reader!) up in knots. BIO: Lucy V Hay is a script editor, novelist and blogger who helps writers via her Bang2write consultancy. Lucy is author of the book, WRITING AND SELLING THRILLER SCREENPLAYS (Creative Essentials).