Non-linear narrative in fantasy

One of the aspects of fiction writing that I’ve had to work hard on over the years is how to structure a good story. For many writers this comes naturally, but I started with an interest in worldbuilding, high fantasy concepts and prose, which alone do not a good story make. I found out the hard way, writing ‘stories’ with lamentably little conflict and which got canned by my writing group — and rightly so.

The solution was to take a writing course and read multitudes of articles and books on story structure (among other essential aspects of the craft!). And I continue to do so whenever a new article or blog site presents itself, because I figure that the more I read, the more I’ll absorb, and the more intuitive it will become.

Having spent too much time writing ill-conceived stories, I have especially learnt the value of outlining. Being an engineer at heart, I tend to approach the process methodically and now that I know ‘the rules’ it affords me great satisfaction to tick some of the boxes. However, I also like to give my creative side room to move, so I try to limit the rigidity to major turning points/disasters supported by a heap of potential obstacles that I can insert when the moment feels right.

But now I face a new structural challenge — one for which there seems to be comparatively limited advice. This pertains to a style that is fairly widespread in fantasy: the parallel or double (or multiple) storyline. I’m not talking about subplots here; I’m talking about scenarios where groups of characters diverge (often geographically) to ‘do stuff’. One of the best known examples would be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, specifically The Two Towers (where Sam and Frodo leave the Fellowship, Merry & Pippin are captured by the Urukhai, leaving Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to follow…) and Return of the King.

Structuring non-linear stories seems to be discussed a bit in screenwriting circles, mainly with reference to films like Pulp Fiction and Love Actually, which have ensemble casts and several story threads that intersect. Screenwriting guru Linda Aronson runs courses and has written a book covering all the different forms of non-linear narrative, which she calls: tandem narrative, multiple protagonists, flashback, consecutive story, double journeys, and fractured tandem. I’m guessing ‘double journey’ is the closest to what I’m referring to.

What I’m speculating about is how to manage the tension levels and turning points in such stories. For example, if a 3-act structure is being employed, should it apply to both (or all) storylines, or just the main one?

Tolkien largely avoided this in the The Two Towers by dealing solely with Frodo and Sam in the second half of the book — not a method preferred by modern writers and readers. On one of the documentaries accompanying the extended movie DVD, the screenwriters discuss how they spliced the book together for film. Specifically they were justifying the addition of the Sam/Frodo/Faramir scenes in Osgiliath at the end by stating they needed something to play-off against the battle of Helm’s Deep (and also the Ents’ attack on Isenguard). They wanted something high in tension, but not so high in tension as the battle with Shelob the giant spider (which came chronologically later in any case). Hence they created the Osgiliath bit, which is not in the books.

If the above is any indication, it appears I’ve answered my own question and parallel storylines should have parallel climaxes — and from this I might infer turning points as well. I guess this makes sense, because the last thing you want to do is release any tension the reader may be feeling.  If you’ve got to drag the reader away from something exciting, you had better present them with something equally as exciting!

But what I want to avoid is the parallel stories reflecting each other too perfectly. If both story threads change direction suddenly at exactly the same time it would surely look contrived… My gut feeling is that one story arc should take precedence and adhere to more conventional structure, while the second (and third…) dance around it raggedly, complementing the main thread. Maybe they play random tag team with narrative and emotional climaxes.

I’m just surprised there’s not more readily accessible information on this subject, because it’s a device used widely in fantasy trilogies or series in particular. Anyone have any thoughts or know of any good articles?

4 comments

  1. I can’t offer any resources that talk about this, sadly, but an interesting example of one type of non-linear narrative is the first Harry Potter book. Take a look at how the different plot threads come in and out at different stages and it structurally adds interest to the book. Obviously though you’re thinking of the divergent POV stories, but I wonder if you can’t do the same sort of staggering and weaving in that instance too, just with POV storylines?

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  2. Funny, I wouldn’t have termed HP1 a non-linear narrative as I understand it. Will have to go back and take a look! Although I suspect you’re referring to sub-plots? As I remember it, the book pretty much follows Harry all the way.

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  3. House of sand and fog is a great example of a mainstream book that does it — and actually does it in first person, which is more unusual. I think the trick is to leave the reader hanging whenever your finishing a scene and swapping POVs so that they want to return to that storyline when the time comes.

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    1. Yes, but once again, those individual narrative journeys entwine around each other. I’m more interested in scenarios when they’re for all intents and purposes separate stories (a la LOTR The Two Towers and many other fantasy epic series) that will eventually come together.

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