Writing a Nonlinear Narrative
by Jenn Bishop
In the months leading up to the publication of The Distance to Home, one of the most common compliments from early readers has been about its nonlinear narrative structure. Though the first chapter takes place in the present summer, the second takes place the previous summer, with chapters alternating between the two summers as readers get closer and closer to the novel’s climax.
Want in on a little secret?
The story didn’t always work this way.
In the very first version of the story, I began in the past, and then switched to the present. But as I read it aloud to some early readers (okay, a bunch of my regular tween patrons at the library where I was working then), they gasped at the sudden discovery that a character who was alive during the first chapter was suddenly dead in chapter two. Good point, empathetic readers! So, I rejiggered the beginning, grounding the reader in the present before bringing them back into the past. It made a lot more sense for the story—sort of like how you wouldn’t want to introduce a lot of backstory right away—and it no longer provided that jarring effect for the reader.
When I queried my book, I only had a few chapters set in the past, sprinkled throughout the story. My agent, bless her heart, saw that my concept had potential but that the execution needed some work. She thought the story would be so much stronger if the chapters alternated throughout—that is, for the story of last summer to take up as much or almost as much room in the novel as the story of this summer. The idea had never occurred to me. I knew it would take a lot of work, but I was game
Like with so many elements of writing, nonlinear narratives are a beast you’ll have to wrangle. But what’s a revision without a fair amount of wrangling, gnashing, and chocolate? The Distance To Home may be the sole nonlinear narrative I’ve published thus far, but I do feel like I’ve learned a bit in the process. And I’d love to share my tips with anyone considering using this structure for their novels.
Here are some of my key takeaways:
1. Be open to experimentation. There are so many different ways to use a nonlinear narrative. You can alternate time periods for the same character (as I did). You can start with a moment in the present, and then rewind to events that happened before. You can use interpolated texts, like a found diary. Etc. The opportunities are somewhat endless, and, to some degree, you won’t really know if they work unless you try. So, it’s sort of like everything else in writing. Tinker away!
2. That said, respect the logic of the nonlinear narrative. There must be a reason for the nonlinear narrative; it cannot just exist because you think it would be fun to write. Is it a way to bring important backstory to life? Would your story be better served by multiple POVs? Does it more effectively build tension?
3. With dual narratives, each story needs to stand on its own. One of the things I spent the most time on revising with my agent was making sure that the past and present threads of The Distance to Home carried their own weight. What that meant was at one point separating out the two stories and revising them individually as two short middle grade novels, making sure each had a distinct narrative arc. As a reader of multiple POV novels, I know well that feeling of wanting to be done with one character’s chapter to be back with the character I most enjoyed. Anytime you have multiple narrative threads, you want the reader to be pulled by that through-line in both plots, unable to put the book down at the end of one chapter, knowing the next will pick up a different thread that’s just as engaging.
4. Switches in time, etc. require their own logic. Whether your book features snippets from a found diary or skips back and forth chronologically, each switch needs to have a trigger, or reason. There’s got to be something that connects one chapter to the next, even if it’s a small detail. Those connections provide such an important frisson for the reader, sometimes raising questions, sometimes answering them, sometimes providing that aha moment.
5. You don’t have to go it alone. There’s nothing more useful for understanding nonlinear story structure like examining a mentor text. It doesn’t have to be of the same genre you write, but any book that utilizes the same story structure you’re aiming for can be immensely helpful. Close readings with a pen or highlighter handy can really illuminate the inner workings of a nonlinear narrative, and help you unlock the key to your own.
My inner librarian can’t control herself with the opportunity to put together a little bibliography. While there are plenty of nonlinear narratives out there to explore, here’s a little reading list to get you started.
1. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
2. Crow Mountain by Lucy Inglis
3. The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
4. Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn
5. In Darkness by Nick Lake
6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
About Jenn Bishop
Jenn Bishop is a former youth services and teen librarian. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where she studied English, and Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Along with her husband and cat, Jenn lives just outside of Boston, where she roots for the Red Sox.
About The Distance To Home
For fans of Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Rita Williams-Garcia, Jenn Bishop’s heartwarming debut is a celebration of sisterhood and summertime, and of finding the courage to get back in the game.
Last summer, Quinnen was the star pitcher of her baseball team, the Panthers. They were headed for the championship, and her loudest supporter at every game was her best friend and older sister, Haley.
This summer, everything is different. Haley’s death, at the end of last summer, has left Quinnen and her parents reeling. Without Haley in the stands, Quinnen doesn’t want to play baseball. It seems like nothing can fill the Haley-sized hole in her world. The one glimmer of happiness comes from the Bandits, the local minor-league baseball team. For the first time, Quinnen and her family are hosting one of the players for the season. Without Haley, Quinnen’s not sure it will be any fun, but soon she befriends a few players. With their help, can she make peace with the past and return to the pitcher’s mound?
The Distance to Home will be out June 28 by Knopf Children’s
A huge thank you to Jenn for sharing her wisdom on nonlinear narratives with all aspiring writers. We truly appreciate your time and effort put into telling your story and even putting together a list of recommendations!
As always, a huge thank you to all publishing/writing professionals who have, will be, and are participating in this feature. Thank you for helping our future writers.
We hope you all have a wonderful rest of your week, and a safe and happy weekend.