Linear Vs. Non-Linear Narratives

Many multimedia stories take advantage of the digital space to include multiple entry points and a structure that allows the user to navigate wherever they want without disrupting the narrative. New media theorist Lev Manovich calls these “hyper-narratives” where the user is free to follow multiple trajectories through a database of connected elements. I’ll call them non-linear narratives. There’s still an overall leaning, but it’s kept loose. It’s up to the user to connect the pieces together to uncover it. As Katerina Cizek says of her non-linear interactive documentary Out My Window, “Small tales that, as they add up, create a collage of meaning, of experience. Together, subtly, gently, the stories accumulate into epic narratives.”

Indeed, Out My Window is a great example of a non-linear narrative. There are 13 different apartments from different parts of the world, each of which offer multiple stories. But common themes of home and community emerge. Someone from Johannesburg talking about violence in their neighbourhood is echoed by a Chicagoan. Someone from Prague talking about urban renewal after a period of conflict is echoed by a Beirutian.

Similarly, two New York Times stories connect multiple stories from a specific geographical area to get at a particular time and place. Anticipation On A City Block and Beyond The Stoop both interview different people from a single city block to talk about community, the former in the context of President Obama’s inauguration, the latter more generally about New York living. None of the individual stories are particularly detailed or deep, but they are personal, and taken together, give the user at least a small sense of the varied life on the block. The user is left to consider how these different people live together, even though these relationships are not made explicit.

Such non-linear narratives also have the advantage of allowing the user to consume small amounts of content at a time, a form of consumption well suited to the Internet. And should the user only have the time or inclination to look at part of the content available, they are free to do so without feeling like the story is incomplete.

However, by spreading meaning among many smaller stories, they can have more difficulty generating the kind of impact a more unified narrative can have.

For example, the story Waterlife communicates a small amount of information about 23 different topics that cover everything from fishing to pollution to dredging. The user is never given more than a cursory review of any one issue. Should they want to know more, they have to click on outside links and leave Waterlife, which interrupts the narrative. There are no characters for the user to connect to or devices to tie the different pieces together beyond the navigation and common topic. This makes for a rather impersonal experience. In contrast, Out My Window, Anticipation On A City Block, and Beyond The Stoop are able to maintain more unity by focusing on shared human experience as much as topic.

Multimedia stories can also be more traditional linear narratives with an obvious beginning, a middle, and an end.

This Land follows journalist Dianne Whelan as she travels more than 2,000 kilometres by snowmobile across Canada’s arctic with a group of soldiers. It is divided up into 12 chapters, one for each day of the journey. Everyday Whelan travels further and learns (as does the user) something new about life and survival in the arctic. Eventually, she reaches her final destination, the safety of the military base at Alert. And while the ending is somewhat anticlimactic (everyone is asleep when they get to Alert), the journey allows the user to connect with Whelan in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a non-linear narrative.

Another NFB story, Welcome To Pine Point, was designed as a liquid book (although less book-like than other stories like Our Choice). There are pages divided into chapters that the user flips through one after the other. Details about the town and the people who used to live there are filled as the story progresses. There is never too much information at once. The user is drawn in slowly, making for a stronger connection to the characters. This type of storytelling demands that the creator remains in control of the narrative.

Done well, both non-linear or linear multimedia narratives can be very compelling. While the digital space certainly allows for more non-traditional forms of storytelling, it certainly doesn’t mean the end of more traditional techniques. Indeed, as stories like Welcome to Pine Point and Our Choice demonstrate, the basic book form can find new life online.


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