Is a Linear Plot Necessary for Good Storytelling?

We humans are obsessed with order and time. We mark our lives out in milestones: our first steps, our first kiss, our first love. This progression from A to B to C gives our lives meaning and the passage of time marks our progress through it.

Perhaps this is why the hero’s journey is our most popular storytelling form. Much has been written about the hero’s journey, from better writers than me (see Dan Harmon's wonderful guide), but suffice it to say that it is a highly codified form of the plot structure taught in high school that includes an exposition, a narrative hook, some rising action, a climax, and the denouement.

Simple Plot Structure Refresher

In the movie Star Wars, the exposition is where we meet Luke Skywalker and see his idyllic life upon Tatooine. The narrative hook happens when Luke accidentally triggers a message meant for Obi-wan Kenobi. The rising action (most of the movie) is Luke’s training, adventure, and plans to stop a weapon of mass destruction. The climax is when Luke and the rebels stage a raid on the Death Star. The denouement is when Luke destroys the Death Star and gets a medal. The End.

Because of their inherent linear nature, traditional forms of media (books, radio, film, etc.) are well suited for the hero’s journey structure. Unlike their linear predecessors however, new media technologies (web, video games, etc.) offer audiences the ability to choose. This relatively new element of choice, allows writers to explore a myriad of non-linear storytelling possibilities.

Today writers can play with constructing multiple converging and diverging storylines. Does Han shoot first? Do we have Luke side with Darth Vader and crush the rebels? Does he leave the fight entirely and go back to nerf-herding? By publishing in a digital media, we can let the audiences choose the path the hero takes—and that path may not always be a fruitful one.

As a writer myself, I’ve struggled with the suggestion that technology should alter a storytelling structure that’s been with us since the Ancient Greeks. How can we possibly improve on a form that has given us the glories of Oedipus, Robin Hood, Luke Skywalker, and even Jesus Christ? It’s a daunting prospect. But just as state-of-the-art technologies create new avenues to explore in science and industry, they have opened up new forms of artistic expression as well. Can new forms of non-linear storytelling be as compelling as the hero’s journey? Experimentation is the only way to find out.

When we began adapting some of these new technologies for Asunder, interesting new storytelling patterns began to emerge, especially after we added the concepts of fixed space and dispersed time with the notion of choice. Join us, won’t you, as we explore these patterns on this blog.