by Linda Cowgill
Action plays an important role in organizing the plot of a nonlinear film, but it isn’t based in a singly pursued goal that dominates the plots of most conventionally structured films. Dramatic unity is achieved by the intersection of two key factors: a theme or controlling idea and a framing action.
Why are nonlinear narratives so much more prevalent in novels than films? Why does a great nonlinear film feel so revolutionary, when in fact they’re as old as the medium itself? Why do novels often feel flat when they unfold linearly, while films often fall flat when they embrace a nonlinear structure?
To grapple with these issues, it’s best to recall the difference between story and plot. The following sentence outlines a story: The king dies and then the queen dies. A plot requires the notion of causality: The king dies, and then the queen dies of grief. Novels construct plots to tell their stories, but can explain their meaning in the narrative. Films use plot, action and consequence, to convey meaning.
Books also allow more freedom than plays and movies in telling a story. Novelists can drift from their plot, often stopping it all together to parcel out necessary exposition. A novelist introduces us to a character engaged in action. When he decides we need more information to understand this character, he launches into the backstory, explaining motivations by dramatizing earlier actions and their consequences.
In film and theater, we generally see action unfold in time. Audiences find it easier to focus on action that develops chronologically than action that skips around time periods. Film is more immediate, and more easily grasped if we see a clear progression of cause and effect relationships leading to a climax, held together by a single protagonist.
Yet some films boldly go where few dare and adopt a more novelistic structure. This nonlinear narrative structure defies the conventional rules of plot construction and breaks apart the standard notion that a film’s scenes must advance in chronological order from opening to climax. Nonlinear film deconstructs a character, complicated event, situation, or a combination of these elements by reordering the time sequence and creating a new arrangement of time for dramatic, and thematic, purposes. This rearrangement makes the telling of a story more compelling than if we left the scene progression in chronological order.
Each time a well-done nonlinear film opens, it seems radical. Think of Pulp Fiction. Critics praised the film’s originality and the public couldn’t remember the last time they saw a film like this. It didn’t matter that Reservoir Dogs came out two years earlier. Mainstream audiences didn’t see it, and so Pulp Fiction felt fresh, contemporary. But this unconventional story telling technique is as old as the feature film itself. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) uses nonlinear structure, first in telling four separate stories set in different epochs, then by interweaving them in the last reel. In the 1930s, Preston Sturges wrote The Power and the Glory, a nonlinear precursor to what many consider the nonlinear grand daddy of them all, Citizen Kane.
Nonlinear structure traditionally puts the emphasis on character as a strategy for describing a personality free of constraints imposed by a linear, goal-oriented plot. We may want to focus on a character’s whole life (Citizen Kane or Isadora). Or the character may have a nonmaterial goal or spiritual need compelling him to act that doesn’t easily translate into tangible, goal-oriented action to dominate the plot, but nevertheless can serve as the basis for a strong thematic unity (The Conformist or Two for the Road).
Films such as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs forego an emphasis on character and use a nonlinear plot to unravel a complicated event. In them, plot twists and action take precedence over characterizations.
This unconventional structure doesn’t mean audiences understand film in a new way. Viewers understand by making cause-and-effect connections between the scenes. Each beat of information must relate to what comes before and after, even if a scene transcends the chronological order of time. In nonlinear films, relationships created between the various time segments form a specific meaning when taken all together. The film Jacob’s Ladder baffled most viewers because they couldn’t make the connections between time segments to understand the story.
There are no set rules for constructing a nonlinear plot, but one can avoid the pitfalls of Jacob’s Ladder. The key ingredient all great nonlinear films share is their dependence on dramatic unity — the synthesis of thematic ideas and plot movement.
In most films, the actions of a single protagonist pursuing a specific goal provide the basic unity for the story. His goal governs the plot structure. How the character changes as a result of the conflict provides the meaning.
Action plays a fundamental role in organizing the plot of a nonlinear film, but it isn’t based in a singly pursued goal that dominates the entire structure of the film. Theme plays the other role by defining the choices of incidents and events to include.
Dramatic unity is achieved by the intersection of two key factors: a controlling theme or idea and a framing action.
The Controlling Theme Or Idea
Because action does not direct the plot in a nonlinear film, theme takes on even greater importance. Theme defines what a film experience is about. The more diverse and out of sequence the incidents, the more we need theme to hold the segments together. At the end, each scene and sequence contributes to the ultimate discovery of what the film is about.
Citizen Kane deals with the impossibility of finding love if one can’t give it. Kane (Orson Welles) needs to be loved and searches for love, yet he does not know how to return it. The sequences depict his failed attempts at finding love. All end tragically because Kane can’t love in return.
Annie Hall is about how our neuroses conspire to thwart our search for happiness. No sooner does Alvy (Woody Allen) find Annie (Diane Keaton), who makes him happy, then he tries to change her, making her unhappy. Alvy’s neuroses conspire to keep him from finding happiness.
Citizen Kane and Annie Hall explore a character. Through desire, obsession, contradiction, ambivalence and conflict, a believable human paradox is crafted. These films affect us because the characters are less heroic but more true to life.
In Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon, sequential action takes on a greater role, but the film can only be understood through its theme. Rashomon deals with the obliterating consequences to the human psyche when an ‘objective’ truth cannot be substantiated. Only compassion can restore faith and make sense of the human experience.
Reservoir Dogs depends less on a definitive theme than a controlling idea. The film dissects a bungled jewelry store heist as the survivors try to determine what went wrong. The theme tells us trust is impossible among those who break society’s rules.
When a nonlinear film explores a character, theme relates to the protagonist’s inner need and emotional life. The organization of out-of-order sequences illustrates the connection between the character’s actions and his need, and this must be shown through directed action. The sequences built in the plot are founded on the same principles of action in linear, goal-driven films. We set up the action of the sequence (character’s goal in the segment), develop this driving action through conflict and then climax it at the end of the sequence. These sequences are like mini-plots. They aren’t just a collection of scenes showing the personality and the interesting life the character had. We still need action and conflict to focus the plot and make what we want to show fascinating and entertaining.
The sequences in Citizen Kane are built on the driving force of Kane’s personality as he pursues different objectives in his life (building his paper, seeking public office, making Susan an opera star). The results show how his inability to give love destroys his relationships. All are based in the character’s actions.
In Annie Hall, Alvy needs to confront his own self-loathing and understand himself before he can accept others. By the film’s end, he reaches a level of self-awareness, but it’s not enough to change his personality and save his relationship with Annie.
The Framing Action As Context
Nonlinear films use a specific action to frame the plot. This framing action creates continuity in the structure and establishes a context in which to tell the story. As the separate episodes shatter normal (sequential) time by intercutting the past, present and future, the framing action produces a unified flow in a specific plot. This allows viewers to orient themselves in the story. Whenever the film cuts back to the current task, the audience understands where the characters are in relation to that task and the plot.
In Citizen Kane, the reporter is assigned the task of finding out what “Rosebud” means. This is the reason he goes to hear the stories about Kane. Thompson provides the link between the separate episodes as he pursues his goal.
The story task and context grounds the plot in a specific set of circumstances that form the dramatic reason for the examination of the other elements in the film. In Rashomon, three men sit under the Rashomon gate in the pouring rain, trying to make sense of the separate stories in which three different people admit to killing the same man. Reservoir Dogs focuses on the situation in the warehouse where the heist survivors try to learn who set them up.
Annie Hall doesn’t have a current problem for the characters. Instead the film opens on Alvy, standing before the camera as if doing stand-up. He jokes about life, but then gets to the point: Annie has left him and things just haven’t been the same. The film unfolds as if it is a visualization of a long comic monologue about male/female relationships. Alvy’s relationship with Annie becomes the frame of the film. His pursuit of Annie is the action that directs the plot’s construction.
The framing action is stronger if there are obstacles and complications for the protagonists completing the ‘present’ task. In Citizen Kane, Thompson has no idea what ‘Rosebud’ means. In Rashomon, the contradictory stories form barriers for the men as they try to understand what really happened. In Annie Hall, Alvy’s obstacles to a successful relationship with Annie are his own neuroses. In Reservoir Dogs, the men’s attitudes, fears and Mr. Orange’s (Tim Roth) wound are all obstacles or complications the characters have to deal with in the course of the framing action.
A framing action strengthens dramatic unity in a nonlinear film the same way goal-oriented action unifies linear films. It allows the audience to focus on a specific course leading toward a distinct goal — and the audience hopes for success or failure depending on the mission. The more dramatic the framing action, the higher the tension and more deeply involved the audience.
Don’t confuse nonlinear films with ones using flashbacks. Many films open on a situation in the present and then flash back to the story, and at the end return to the opening situation (Saving Private Ryan, Little Big Man). Others open at the end of a conflict then flash back to its origins, proceeding in sequential time up to the point where the film began (Sunset Boulevard, Carlito’s Way). This method creates initial tension to grab our attention and make us wonder what caused this action. Other films use a major flashback at one point (Casablanca) or several small ones throughout (Midnight Cowboy, Ordinary People).
Films like The Usual Suspects and The English Patient are essentially linear stories, using two time frames proceeding in a chronological order. These are strategies to create context and tension, or deliver exposition. The main plots of these films still proceed in a chronological order of events.
About the Author:
Linda Cowgill is a screen and television writer who teaches at Loyola Marymount University and the Los Angeles Film School. Her feature film, “Opposing Force,” was released by Orion Pictures in 1986. She has written for such shows as “Quincy,” “The Young Riders” and “Life Goes On,” for which she won a Genesis Award. Most recently, she optioned her script “Honor Student” to World International Network. She received her MFA from UCLA where she won a Jim Morrison Award for best short film. Ms. Cowgill is the author of the popular film school textbook Writing Short Films and Secrets of Screenplay Structure.