When writing a narrative that jumps back and forth throughout time and events (ie. PULP FICTION, THE KILLING) is it standard operating procedure to write the story in a more traditional straight ahead format then re-arrange the script; or is the script written in a non-linear format as we see it in the movie?

–Matt Higgins

While there have been cases where a film’s timeline was juggled after-the-fact (HEAVEN AND EARTH was one), the vast majority of scripts are written with the non-linear elements in place. It’s a cliché, but screenplays are really blueprints for making a movie, so the two forms should match up scene-by-scene.

If you’re planning to write a story that will ultimately unfold in a non-linear way, such as GO or MEMENTO, it’s a good idea to make a second outline of the story as it happens in "real time," to make sure the logic tracks. In fact, this kind of outline is helpful with any kind of story, because even if a script moves forward scene by scene, inevitably characters will refer to things that happened "earlier," and it’s important to make sure all these events could have happened in the sequence you propose.

Personally, I find that non-linear structure is often just a flashy trick to disguise bad storytelling, or worse, a boring plot. It demands that the audience pay closer attention in order to figure out what’s going on, but rarely rewards the effort.

An analogy: When laser printers first arrived, they gave people access to calligraphy fonts like Zapf Chancery Italic, a typeface designed for wedding invitations. Suddenly, people printed entire newsletters in 9-point Zapf Chancery Italic, without any consideration of whether it was the right tool for the job. (It’s not. It’s almost unreadable.) Now I cringe whenever I see the font. It’s been ruined for me.

What these novice designers – and many novice screenwriters – failed to recognize is that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. I wrote GO with three overlapping chunks because that’s the only way it made sense; to intercut between the plotlines would have slowed everything down too much and made it confusing. In short, I used a strange timeline because that’s what the story required.

Always ask yourself why you’re choosing a particular way of telling the story. Used well, and with the right material, non-linear structure can be a very powerful technique. Used poorly, it just makes a crappy movie harder to follow.

(Originally posted in 2003.)