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How to Play with Time in Your Stories

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Snooze Fest

Often when we're writing, we're looking at things from a point A to a point B. The story starts in one place, and ends when that story has sufficiently wrapped itself up. However, if you're writing a lot of pieces, it can get a little boring and predictable. Maybe you can try writing your scenes out of order, but when you put them all together again, you've got the same type of story. Sometimes, the answer is to shake it up entirely and write something that uses the idea of time in a completely different ways.


The most basic way to write a story is of course, linear. As mentioned before, this means the story is told from beginning to end. Time is linear, so this is often the most realistic use of time. That's part of the reason it is used so often. It is also just so easy. The format can be described like this. 1, 2, 3, 4.

Backwards linear


Backwards linear is also pretty simple. This is just like linear writing, in that the story is told straightly, but it is backwards. You start at the end and end at the beginning. This is often written linearly and then edited to work better backwards. Things like foreshadowing, and considering when and how characters are introduced require a lot more planning. You should also probably demonstrate that your story is being told backwards early on as not to confuse your audience.

The format is: 4, 3, 2, 1.

A notable backwards linear story, is Kaufman and Hart's 1934 play Merrily We Roll Along. This was later adapted into the 1981 musical by George Furth and Stephen Sondheim.


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Cyclical storytelling, also known as circular storytelling, is sorta hard to describe. When you write a story with a circular structure, the story begins and ends at the same place. This format is common in absurdist media, as the format can be used to demonstrate a cynical outlook at the world such as "no matter what we do, we'll always end up the same." This format must be used carefully, since otherwise the audience can feel cheated out of an ending.

The format is 1, 2, 3, 4, 1 or 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1.


Non-linear is the broadest category of story that there is. This refers to any story that doesn't use a structure that is entirely linear. This could mean scenes are outright out of order, or that the piece has conflicting timelines all demonstrated within the story, or even that time is not used within the piece at all. These all take some level of planning and intention to write effectively. You must know what exactly you're demonstrating by straying from more typical and understandable formats. Much like backwards linear, you must also be sure that your audience knows how time is changing (or how it isn't) whether directly or through hinting.

Examples of formats could be

1, 5, 3, 6, 2, 4


4, 1, 2, 3


While you may not find playing with time in your works easy or fun, sometimes it is a good thing to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone with how you're writing. That being said, it is always important to know what you're doing and why. If your goal is to write effectively, then paying attention to how you're writing, what you're writing, and when you're writing, is a good way to tell a story that others' will enjoy.

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