Non-Linear Narratives

I was first introduced to non-linear narratives through Quentin Tarintino’s 1994 cult hit movie Pulp Fiction.  I was hooked.  When I saw Christopher Nolan’s Memento in a small art theater in 2000, I had to return to watch it again a week later.

These two movies are among my all-time favorites, and I eagerly recommend them to anyone who hasn’t seen them, but I’m hesitant to recommend them to my students.  Both are violent and Pulp Fiction, in particular, has some very mature themes.  I certainly couldn’t use either one in a classroom, which is a shame because the non-linear storylines offer unique opportunities to use a variety of verb tenses to discuss the difference between the order in which the events occur chronologically and the order in which they are presented in the narrative.  Trying to untangle these two timelines is a fun challenge even if English is your first language.

The non-linear narrative in music video above, Darling It’s True by Locksley, affords all of the same opportunities, but instead of a gruesome scene in which a gangster’s moll overdoses in a drug dealer’s livingroom, there is a catchy pop rock beat.  Another advantage that a three-and-a-half-minute video has over a feature-length film is that it can be viewed and reviewed several times over a much shorter period of time, which is absolutely necessary if you’re going to wrap your head around the difference between the order in which the events occur and the order in which they are presented.

So, the next time your students are struggling to find an interesting application of the past perfect, have them watch this video and then ask them whether the lead singer had met his bandmate at the corner store before he visited him at the tailor’s. And if so, how many times?  When the video was recorded, had he visited the store before he went to the tailor’s?  If your students are focused on the task of untangling the timelines instead of worrying about which tense they are using (or which tense they will have been using) you’re doing something right.

Have you ever used non-linear narratives with your students?  If so, leave a comment below and share your favorite examples.


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4 responses to “Non-Linear Narratives

  1. Jeff

    Hi Chris,
    If you haven’t seen it yet check out Chairlift’s ‘Met Before’ video at
    Somewhat of a choose your own adventure music video.
    I’m teaching a Freshman composition class in Fall centered on games/media as learning tools. I’ll try out Locksley’s video and see what my students think.

    • I’ve been thinking about ways to build Choose Your Own Adventure-style stories with students. YouTube has lots of options that make this sort of thing pretty easy to do (see my previous post on interactive videos for some examples). By implanting buttons into videos, a branching narrative could be stitched together if you have the footage of all of the possible options (see this visualization for how complex branching narratives can become.)

      Let me know how your students react to this video.


      • Jeff

        This is a bit off topic but I’ve also been toying with The Republia Times You have to choose headlines for a propaganda newspaper. The maker released the code so I’m curious if I can get it tweaked to some ESL context for topic sentences.

  2. Hadn’t seen that before. Very interesting, in a creepy way. I thought I was pretty good at it, but then I failed. Not sure how to feel about that result. I’d be interested to see how you tweak it for ESL. Some good potential there.

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