Eggs for breakfast. Turkey sandwich for lunch. Spaghetti for dinner.  

Short stories and novels tend to use the same structure over and over again: linear. Probably because linear stories make sense. The story starts somewhere, character A makes a mistake or changes their life or meets character B, and then conflict arises out of that change and, look, there’s the middle of the story, until finally the ending, where everything is either nicely resolved or wrapped up in a fiery death. Humans experience time linearly, so they write linearly as a default. And that works well for many stories, but the presence of a default implies the existence of an abnormal structure that has the potential to be, well, abnormal. Always using a linear structure is like eating the same thing every day. Eventually, you get sick of eating eggs each morning. 

Deciding to use a non-linear structure should not be taken as an open invitation to create a story structure that confuses the plot and character arcs. Those and other elements should still be preserved in the narrative. But it’s possible to start somewhere that isn’t quite the beginning. Maybe a particular story began a long time ago, and the main character is desperately trying to escape it. Or perhaps two, or more, stories are intertwined, fighting for presence in the structure before coming together. A story that jumps around in time creates intrigue and tension that compels readers to push on. 

The 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin is a great example of non-linearity working to the benefit of a story. The story opens with the unnamed narrator finding news about his brother Sonny getting arrested for the selling and use of heroin, and, after jumping ahead a couple years to his release, the story moves to the past for a whopping twelve pages. There, the story lingers on a moment where both brothers are on the cusp of a new version of adulthood. The narrator has joined the army and is about to get married. Sonny, still a teenager in school, struggles to pin down his future. He wants to be a piano player, but the practicality of this dream begins to chase him down as he grows older.  

If the story had been linear, opening with the brothers when they were younger, the reader would be just as in the dark as the characters. However, since the story gives readers the information that Sonny has been arrested for drug use, it provides a different interpretation of the backstory that Baldwin shifts to, lending a darker tone to these early moments in the characters’ lives. One scene on page twelve, a conversation with the narrator and his mom about Sonny, is particularly harrowing knowing where Sonny is headed:  

“I want to talk to you about your brother,” she said, suddenly. “If anything happens to me he ain’t going to have nobody to look out for him.” 

“Mama,” I said, “ain’t nothing going to happen to you or Sonny. Sonny’s all right. He’s a good boy and he’s got good sense.” 

“It ain’t a question of his being a good boy,” Mama said, “nor of his having good sense. It ain’t only the bad ones, nor yet the dumb ones that gets sucked under.” She stopped, looking at me. “Your Daddy once had a brother,” she said, and she smiled in a way that made me feel she was in pain. “You didn’t never know that, did you?” – “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

She goes on to tell him about how his dad’s brother was carelessly run over by a car full of white people, killing him and traumatizing his dad in a way that he never recovered from. Though time and history is linear, its effects against oppressed minority groups are often not. The past imposes itself onto people in the present. In creating a plot line that frequently jumps around in time, with his familial history pushing forward into the story’s present, Baldwin mirrors this non-linear aspect of history in the struggles Sonny and his brother face in 1950’s Harlem.  

Linear stories offer a neat narrative, where backstory might be added in through dialogue or a throwaway line to give any needed context to a character’s life. Done right, a non-linear plot line can be just as clean, and it grants writers freedom to give details as they see fit. To adapt the clutches of time to their own interests. To deviate from one of the most standardized elements of storytelling. So, please, enough with the eggs. 

– Haley Souders, Mid-American Review