Storytelling out of order

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The non-linear story can be a powerful choice in writing. 500 Days of Summer, a great romantic-drama/comedy, made me pay attention more closely last night because it hops among 500 days of memories in a relationship. Linear, chronological stories set our expectations for when the important stuff happens. The tension can slack off. Non-linear lets us enjoy dessert before the salad course arrives. (Or it makes us wash the dishes before the entree.)

Some people complained about the movie’s construction, but Roger Ebert says this is how we remember relationships anyway: out of order, the painful right alongside the good. It takes skill to put together a story this way, either to make it clear where you’re at in the chronology, or write it so well (as in the movie) that the audience/reader doesn’t care. The beauty of the language engages your readers.

The writing also uses the power of the movie — the image — to establish character instantly. One favorite part from the movie, a cunning example of surprising and authentic character development:

Teenage Summer stares at herself in the mirror. Her hair extends down to her lower back.

NARRATOR: Since the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, she’d only loved two things. The first was her long blonde hair.

She picks up scissors from the counter and begins to slice.

NARRATOR: The second was how easily she could cut it off… And feel nothing.

(How can you tell this was a first draft? Well, our actress in the movie is a brunette…)

Some movies use voiceover or narration to explain away a confusing plot. Not this one. The Narrator gives us the omniscient voice to set the stage of a character’s development, or act as a Greek chorus. If you’re interested in reading the movie’s first draft, you can download it.

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