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Linear vs Non-Linear

Page history last edited by Michael Malone 14 years, 4 months ago

Linear and Non-Linear Storytelling in Traditional Mediums


A Linear plot begins at point A, progresses through events which build towards a climax, and then finally reaching point B. This type of linear plot is also referred to as the Aristotlean plot structure. It can usually be represented by drawing an arc. There are other types of linear plots, such as one that can be represented by drawing a sine and cosine curve together. The general advantage of a linear plot is you know (most of the time) where to go next, as well as you know it's going to have a beginning and an ending.


A Non-Linear plot typically presents the audience with multiple paths from point A to point B.  A common misconception about Non-linear narratives is that none contain any point A or B whatsoever.  In reality, many non-linear narratives merely have a multi-branch story arch.  In other words, it pre-determines all of the ends but does not specify any of the means.  The choices provided in non-linear narratives therefore offer more control over plot development to the audience.  Suddenly the text needs you (the reader) in order to progress.  This hightens the immersion for many users by creating a bridge between the narrative world and reality.




The Conundrum of Hypertext and Traditional Narratives



While Non-Linear narratives are usually associated with freedom of choice, there is a legitimate argument that it often limits the audience's mobility.  This is most apparant when comparing Hypertext fiction such as Patchwork Girl to a traditional narrative such as LolitaPatchwork Girl actually presents only one starting point for it's users (the main page of the interface) whereas Lolita allows the reader to begin the novel on any page he choses.  Similarly, the only way to progress Patchwork is to follow a complicated string of story trees pre-determined by the author via links embeded within the text.  Lolita on the other hand restricts the reader in no way, since at all times the final page of the text will be completely accessible. 


Due to this, it is always best to think of a Non-Linear narrative in terms of the story that is being presented rather than the way in which it is presented.  For instance, while Lolita offers the reader the option of reading any page at any time, this will result in complete catastrophe for plot development.  Lolita was not written to be read out of the expressed order as laid down by the author.  Thus, in the story Lolita might disappear on the roadtrip before even leaving on said roadtrip.


In contrast, a successful Non-Linear narrative will feature one of two means for plot progression: 1) Loosely connected, interchangable plot points. These allow the reader swerve in and out of the main story arc, but all lead to the same conclusion.  2) A series of seperate branching story archs which may or may not intersect. All readers will begin at the same point, but each will come to a different conclusion based on the story arch their choices lead them. 


A Non-Linear narrative, when presented in traditional formats -- such as the novel, hypertext, or film -- could also be told by a combination of both.  When dealthing with video games, however, the question is not one of "linear or non-linear", but rather the degree of linearity.  Even a rigid side-scrolling platformer such as Super Mario Bros. has some degree of a branching plot.  Will Mario make use of the warp pipes in level 1-2? This can drastically alter the (admitedly) simple narrative of the game.



Fully Non-Linear Storylines Threaten the Very Fabric of Narrative


All stories which make use of non-linear plot devices intend to challenge the classification of Narrative, a term which has always been a vague classification to begin with.  But most authors still retain the heart and soul of the traditional narrative stucture.  There's a hero, a villain, a conflict and a climax.  In recent years however, new media has been able to break from almost all restraints of storytelling.


World of Warcraft for instance could be considered more of a tool for narrative creation than a narrative in and of itself.  The game provides a set of tools at the gamer's disposal: races, items, locations, scripted etc.  These tools can be thought of as a language - characters, words, sentences, paragraphs - the building blocks of the narrative.  The player then utilizes these tools to construct his own story in whatever fashion he wishes.  There are limits to a gamer's imagination of course, laws by which he must abide.  But there are no more limitations in World of Warcraft than those imposed by the laws of grammar, physics, and logic which have governed our story telling for generations.



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