Nonlinear storytelling

Stories in all directions

Linear and non-linear storytelling

In the context of our context maps, we often talk about non-linear storytelling – stories that don’t have only a beginning and an end, an up and a down, but many directions. But what actually is a story? What is linear and non-linear? And is one form of storytelling better than the other?

The first texts were written by priests on clay tablets. Since clay dries slowly, the priests wrote from left to right so as not to smudge what they had written as they continued to write. The letters stood next to each other in lines, underneath came a new line. Beginning and end, above and below, left and right.

Even today, a story as we know it is linear – it begins, it ends, it has a suspense curve. Yet, we no longer write on clay tablets, but have hypertext, video cameras, VR glasses and smartphones. Just as we can go anywhere with our devices and communicate with the whole world through the internet, our stories can now take all directions in time, place and theme.

Can stories be linear at all?

No – says media scientist Rainer Leschke, who has studied non-linear storytelling. Every story has different tempos, time jumps, sometimes flashbacks or changes of location. Stories are linear only in the literal sense, in the sense that texts have lines and are read from top to bottom. The genre of hyperfiction, one of the first forms of non-linear, interactive storytelling on the web, failed. The text modules, from which the reader can assemble a story, would have to get lost in clichés in order to result in a comprehensible story.

At this point, we want to define what a linear story is for us: it has a beginning, an end, a middle and a suspense curve. Usually, one part builds chronologically on the other – you have to have read the first chapter to understand the second. The reader or audience has no influence on the course of the story. In contrast, non-linear storytelling can be started at any point and illuminate a topic from different perspectives.

What are linear and non-linear stories suitable for?

If a story has only one protagonist, takes place only at one time or in one place, it would not make sense to tell it non-linearly – that would only create confusion. Non-linear storytelling is suitable for presenting complex issues, for telling stories that take place in many places, at many times and have many protagonists. Non-linear storytelling is particularly useful when not only a story is being told, but hard facts also play a role. The design guideline ‘form follows function’ applies here.

Non-linear storytelling in film (Spoiler Alert)

Bruce Krasting, Banksy-graffiti-street-art-pulp-fiction (7003771177), CC BY 2.0

Long before the invention of the World Wide Web, filmmakers and artists such as surrealist Salvador Dali experimented with non-linear structures in films. Well-known examples of non-linear storytelling in modern film are Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the science fiction film Inception or the Netflix mystery series Dark.

These creations work with different forms of non-linearity. The plots in Pulp Fiction appear independent, but are linked by certain motifs, for example the suitcase or the protagonists’ clothes. In Inception, reality has different levels (real world, dreams and dreams within dreams) in which the same characters live. And in Dark, the protagonists travel through time and encounter themselves several times at different stages of their lives, until at some point the main protagonist has to fight his own later self who wants to destroy the world.

Films are not, like the web, interactive. The storylines in these examples are not linear, but the viewer cannot intervene in the action either. This is different from video games.


The Wolf among us - an example of non-linear storytelling in games
Foto: BagoGames on Flickr

When stories are told as games, this is called gamification. This form of storytelling is known from so-called adventure games and pen & paper role-playing games – games with few action elements and a strong story. Well-known examples are the pen & paper role-playing game The Dark Eye and video games such as The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and a href=””>Tales from The Borderlands by the developer studio Telltale Games. The Netflix film Bandersnatch, which is part of the science fiction series Black Mirror, also lets the viewer make decisions that affect the course of the story. In principle, of course, you can also find forms of non-linear storytelling in many other (video) games with a strong story and diverse decision-making possibilities.

But: even if the storylines are influenced, there is a beginning and an end that are often similar or the same. The developers want to tell their story and not just any story. They don’t make full use of interactivity – if you were to ask Rainer Leschke, he would say that otherwise the story wouldn’t be any good either.

How is a storytelling game created? The video game producer Telltale Games primarily processes already existing stories – whether from fairy tales, TV series or first-person shooters. According to developer Job Stauffer, the visual design of the games begins perhaps two weeks before their completion – the rest of the time, the team works on the story, which does not strictly follow the template. “Our games mechanically follow a familiar format, but all of our games have different stories, and the stories are the gameplay,” Stauffer told wccftech in an interview. While the stories are adapted, they are still basically linear stories.

True stories – journalism

Journalists tell stories from real life – and as we all know, that rarely runs in straight lines. The classic linear narrative form in journalism is reportage: one protagonist, one time period, one place.

The feature is different: it alternates between narrative and informative elements, between different protagonists, places and times. The feature is non-linear in the same sense as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but not interactive; it is also read on the web as on paper and watched on television from beginning to end.

On the internet, you can not only jump between different websites, but also use different media. Depending on the topic, a story can best be told with text, video, audio or perhaps an infographic. Here, the possibilities of a non-linear story can be fully exploited – and they will be.

Now, let’s get those stories out there!

There are a lot of multimedia, interactive journalistic stories out there. For example, the project ““My Neighbourhood”” by the LVZ volunteers, who each present a Leipzig neighbourhood with multimedia long-read, panorama shots and interviews with residents. Or the story ““Migration Trails”“, which accompanies two refugees on their journey to Europe using interactive maps and social media messages.

The Uber Game (Financial Times) combines journalism and gamification: the player puts himself in the shoes of an Uber driver who has to earn 1000 dollars in a week. The game is based on interviews with dozens of Uber drivers. ““Rebuilding Haiti”” follows a similar path, in which the player decides how to rebuild the country after the earthquake in 2010.

You can dive deep into these stories, and suddenly even digital natives stay glued to a story for hours – those who are allowed to choose their own journey through the story are captivated.

Many stories, many directions

In our magazine on, we don’t just tell one story at a time. Many interactive and multimedia features become a thematic dossier. A similar – and more comprehensive – example is the World Economic Forum Davos’ ““Strategic Intelligence” des Strategic Intelligence“, which aims to contextualise all the issues that are changing the world. Again, readers don’t just get stuck, they understand a topic much more comprehensively. Interactivity is fun, and fun helps learning.

But we are nowhere near the end. Whether we will ever be able to travel through time remains open (according to physicists, we won’t… according to current knowledge). But through new formats like virtual or augmented reality, we can also move in the real, three-dimensional world and link reality with the virtual world. Our smartphone shows us the street we are currently standing on, how it looked in the Middle Ages or how it could look in fifty years. Where can the journey go? Preferably everywhere!

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Photo by Reuben Hustler on Unsplash

BagoGames on flickr