Nonlinear, when does it work?

At one point when watching a Benedict Cumberbatch movie, my friend commented that this actor must have the requirement that all of his movies or series be nonlinear. At one moment Cumberbatch would be studiously studying a problem in the 1940s, then the scene would jump back to some prior time and we would have to wait until someone spoke the character’s name to figure out the childhood version of his adult character. 

A nonlinear timeline requires good planning to make it fit into the drama seamlessly. It also requires a very good reason to make the reader work so hard to figure out what is actually happening. Jumps within time may amp up the excitement or cause thoughts to spin and unravel.

When using a nonlinear plot line, information has to be repeated. The reader is given some prior knowledge concerning the events that will occur later in the book, but earlier in the chronology. Does that sound confusing? It is. That’s why the information has to be repeated for clarification. If the nonlinear books and movies were presented in a simple linear manner, they would be shorter, and the resolution to the conflict more obvious. But the beginning would not be as exciting.

One of the most frequent uses of the nonlinear timeline is starting in res media, dropping the reader into the middle of the action. Then, the plot timeline backs up and introduces all the prior events that describe who the characters are and how they got into this tangle. If the backup can be pushed to the real beginning of the story, it can move chronologically forward until reaching the point at which the book begins. This may be frowned upon as too much backstory at one time. However, the book is easier to understand if the beginning story is narrated in a straightforward manner, as if it is part of the plot.

Nothing is quite as confusing as continuing the current storyline, sprinkled with a profusion of flashbacks. If these chronological shifts are too distracting in a book, I skip past these memories that inform me about earlier events. Then, I try to pick up the story where it starts up again. I may miss clues that have been dropped, but at some point, the author will explain them again. That is why I rarely go to theaters to watch suspense movies. I can control the order in which I watch events with a subscription or recording.

The nonlinear timeline may be used to evoke emotions or overused to produce confusion. The main character’s actions reappear in flashbacks until the reader/viewer is not sure if they are in the present or the past. As the show Sherlock continued it was not so much about following the clues as untangling the neurotic mess in the mind of the title character. The difficult of following this sequence is exactly why my friend and I gave up watching Benedict Cumberbatch play Sherlock Holmes.

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