(SPOILERS: Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Inception – though I’ll give you plenty of warning in case you haven’t seen them.)
The stories of most movies unfold in a chronological fashion. Oh sure, sometimes there are flashbacks or framing stories, and sometimes the framing stories can get pretty complex. But usually the scenes in the primary story arc are done in chronological order.
A handful of movies, however, play with the chronology of their story. Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan seem to particularly enjoy rearranging narrative time.
Though movies like Pulp Fiction, Usual Suspects and Memento break with sequential narrative, all still fit into the three-act structural paradigm. In fact, it may be more important than ever to have a strong structural spine when you’re messing with your story’s time line.
The most important thing to identify is the Main Tension (which I’m now calling the Dramatic Question) of the movie. This will give you your catalyst and resolution and tell you – and the audience – what the scope and boundaries of the story are.
If you fail to spell out a clear dramatic question early in the movie and then answer that in a resolution near the end, then you will probably either lose audience interest when your narrative thrust becomes confused or have an ending that is anti-climactic and unsatisfying. Or both.
The other elements of structure should still fall at about the same place in the running time of the movie. This may even be a reason to fracture narrative time – to maintain the emotional arc of the story where one doesn’t fit naturally. That can be particularly useful in a historical piece where the true events don’t line up into a neat structure.
Non-chronological movies require complex plotting, often at the expense of emotion. As such they tend to engage the intellect a lot more than the heart. This is similar to the mystery genre, which may be why so many of these kinds of movies are crime stories with a strong mystery at the core.
Let’s take a quick look at a few films with non-chronological narrative:
Memento (screenplay by Christopher Nolan)
Memento’s main storyline occurs in reverse. There’s also a forward moving storyline (the scenes in black and white) intercut with the main plot. But Memento ends up having a fairly traditional three-act structure. The main character is Leonard. The dramatic question is “can he find the man who killed his wife.” The catalyst is when we learn that this is his mission and the resolution is when we find out the answer. Though the scenes fall in reverse order, the act breaks, midpoint, etc. all appear in order to the audience.
The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie)
The Usual Suspects has a much more complex storyline as well as a large ensemble of major characters. The main character of the ensemble is Dean Keaton – he’s the guy with the problem at the catalyst. He wants to go straight but he’s been forced to commit this crime. So the dramatic question becomes, “can Keaton escape his life of crime?”
Interestingly, we learn the answer right up front. We see that Keaton will end up being shot by Keyser Sose. So the dramatic question for the audience then becomes “who killed Keaton” or more specifically, “who is Keyser Sose?”
The movie has a framing story – Agent Kujan questioning Verbal – but ultimately this framing story will also be where we get the answer to that crucial question. So in a way we’re cutting back and forth from the climax of the movie to the events leading up to it. The other structural beats fit into the chronological progression of the past storyline where we see Keaton get drawn into then try to extract himself from the mission.
Pulp Fiction (written by Quentin Tarantino)
Pulp Fiction is a real tough one. It has three major interlinked storylines, each with their own main characters and three act beats, intercut in non-chronological ways. With these kind of multi-storyline movies you, the writer, need to pick the storyline that will structure your movie. The beats of that storyline become the spine on which the other storylines are attached.
What holds Pulp Fiction together is the Vincent and Jules storyline. We begin (after the brief Pumpkin/Honey Bunny prologue) and end with their experiences recovering the briefcase. This storyline binds the movie into a cohesive whole for the audience.
What makes Pulp Fiction particularly challenging is that the other storylines are not intercut in chronological order. We even see Vincent die in one of them! Pulp Fiction uses multiple unusual narrative devices to tell its story.
Inception (written by Christopher Nolan)
Since Inception just came out, I thought I would close by mentioning the section where the team of dream infiltrators split into different dream “levels” creating three parallel timelines moving at different speeds. This is not actually non-chronological narrative. Time is moving forward in a direct linear fashion. We just have the equivalent of three locations where things happen at different speeds. But time itself only moves forward.