You Know Everything’s Coming Together Now*

Story PiecesSome crime novels don’t follow a strictly linear plot. Rather, the reader is given various pieces of a story and as the story goes on, sees how those pieces fit together. That sort of plot takes a deft hand, because it’s important that the story not seem chaotic. But when the plot makes sense overall, and when the reader is willing to ‘let go’ and let the pieces fall together, this kind of story can make an interesting alternative to the traditional, more linear plot.

Agatha Christie sometimes experimented with not-exactly-linear plots. For instance, Sad Cypress begins as Elinor Carlisle, on trial for murder, is asked to say whether she is guilty or not guilty of poisoning Mary Gerrard. Then, in flashback form, we learn a bit more about Elinor and about her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman. In bits and pieces, we learn about Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura too, and we see how her history relates to those of Elinor and Roddy. When Aunt Laura is taken ill, both young people go to visit her and readers follow along as they renew their acquaintance with Mary, who’s the lodgekeeper’s daughter at Aunt Laura’s home. Roddy finds himself infatuated with Mary and that’s used against Elinor when she is later arrested for poisoning Mary. Dr. Peter Lord, Aunt Laura’s doctor, wants Elinor’s name cleared, so he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. As Poiroit does, we very slowly see the bits and pieces of this story fall together. In the end, we learn how past relationships have led to both Aunt Laura’s death and Mary’s. The story isn’t really told chronologically, but it does make sense as the pieces are slowly fitted together.

That’s also true of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. The story’s focus is a car accident in which Paul Bradley, who’s driving a silver Peugeot, is hit from behind by the driver of a blue Honda. The two men get into a loud argument and the other driver soon wields a baseball bat with which he intends to kill Bradley. As one would expect, a crowd has gathered by now. One of the onlookers is mystery novelist Martin Canning, who’s never done a brave thing in his life. But almost by instinct he throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Watching all of this is former cop-turned-PI Jackson Brodie. With this background laid, Atkinson goes on to tell the story of how each character came to be at the scene of the accident, why the accident happened, and what happens to each person as a result. Atkinson doesn’t tell these stories in a linear way. Rather, each piece of the story is explored, and then we slowly see how all of the pieces fit together. And yet, the main plot – what led to the car crash and what resulted from it – isn’t ‘lost in the shuffle.’

Karin Fossum’s When The Devil Holds the Candle is the story of the disappearance of Andreas Winther. His mother Runi is concerned because he hasn’t been home for a few days, so she goes to the police. At first there’s not much cause for worry. There are many reasons why a young man might take off for a few days and not tell his mother. But when more time goes by, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre begin to look into the matter. One important source of information is his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. But Zipp claims that he doesn’t know where Andreas is. Sejer is fairly certain that Zipp knows more than he’s telling and Sejer’s right. As the story unfolds, we follow the events of the last day Zipp and Andreas spent together. We also follow the lives of some of the people with whom they interacted. There’s also the thread of the ongoing interaction between Zipp and Sejer as Sejer tries to find out what really happened. Fossum doesn’t tell this story in chronological order. Rather, each piece of the story slowly adds to the whole picture that we get of what happened to Andreas.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to Thea Farmer, who has left her job as a school principal and had a dream home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Then she suffers a financial setback and has to sell her perfect home. She moves instead to the house next door which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, a new couple Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy Thea’s dream house. Right from the start Thea doesn’t like them; in fact she refers to them as ‘the invaders.’ Bit by bit though she establishes a kind of rapport with Frank. And then when  Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them, Thea forms a kind of bond with her too. It’s that bond that leads Thea to a fateful decision when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice may not be providing an appropriate home environment for Kim. This story isn’t really told in a linear way. We go back and forth and pick up bits and pieces as we learn Thea’s story. Slowly, we learn why she stopped teaching, why Kim moved in with her uncle, and what happens when Thea decides to take matters with her neighbours into her own hands. Duigan uses Thea’s responses to prompts from her writing coach to tell the story, so interspersed through the novel are also scenes from her writing class. It all comes together, but not in a linear way.

That’s also true of Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. The focal point of the novel is the murder of thirteen members of the Atwal family. They’ve all been poisoned and several of them stabbed as well. What’s more, a devastating fire, presumably set to cover up the murders, has destroyed much of the home. The main suspect is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, but there are also signs that she could very well have been a victim too, but just happened to survive. The major problem is that Durga hasn’t said anything about the events of that night, and without her telling what she knows, the police can’t make any progress on the case. Social worker Simran Singh is asked to work with Durga in the hopes that she’ll be able to get the girl to discuss the murders. Bit by bit, Simran does find out what happened on the night of the murders. She also finds out some very disturbing things about the Atwal family and about the local community. The story isn’t told in chronological order, although we do follow the events logically. Rather, we learn bits and pieces as Simran does.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that those stories are also not always told in chronological, linear order. Rather, we meet characters and see some events from their perspectives. Then we follow along as the members of Adamsberg’s team get involved in cases. Bit by bit the pieces fall together and we learn how everything fits in. But the stories aren’t told in sequence.

It’s not easy to tell a coherent story that really falls together without using a fairly chronological approach. But when the author does it skillfully and without losing sight of the main plot, it can be a very interesting alternative to more typical storytelling approaches. What do you think? Do you like this approach to storytelling or do you prefer a more linear one? If you’re a writer, do you experiment with this kind of approach?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Anthem-Revelation.


Filed under Fred Vargas, Karin Fossum, Kate Atkinson, Kishwar Desai, Virginia Duigan

19 responses to “You Know Everything’s Coming Together Now*

  1. kathy d.

    I haven’t minded the stories told out of chronological order in The Precipice, Witness the Night or One Good Turn, or in Fred Vargas’ Adamsberg books. As long as the sequence of events is clear as to what’s current news and what events preceded them, it’s fine.
    What I don’t like is when it’s murky, confused and it’s not clear what was then and what is now. Or who was where when. If it’s not clear, I’m wondering if that character was there then or was elsewhere, etc.
    Just read a book where the past was clearly the past, but the plot’s resolution did not explain how the past impacted on the present well enough to be satisfying.
    I think writers have to step back and think as readers if certain plot devices work well so readers are clear about events.

    • Kathy – Well put! The important thing is that readers must understand the story’s events and be able to figure out how the story fits together. You might even look at it as making a story ‘user friendly.’ That doesn’t require that the story follow a strictly linear pattern. But it does mean that the story has to fit together in some logical way that the reader can follow.

  2. I must admit that most of the mysteries I enjoy tend to keep things in chronological order, although there are exceptions. Occasionally, flashbacks work. For example, in Carr’s “He Who Whispers,” we are told the story of a first impossible murder in the reminiscences of one of the people who was there (and who will go on to play a significant role in another such impossible case later in the book). And there are a number of successful books which use the sequential narrator technique first used (I think) in Collins’ “The Moonstone,” where each successive narrator adds to – and peels another layer from – the story. Innes’s “Lament for a Maker” does that very effectively. But those are still chronological, for the most part.

    • Les – I’m glad you mentioned the different narrators and perspectives in The Moonstone. That adds to the quality of the story I think and I like the way that Collins uses those perspectives to tell the story in, as you say, layers. and I think it’s interesting that a lot of classic crime fiction does use more or less chronological storytelling. For those kinds of stories, it works.

  3. Margot – Both as a writer and reader I prefer the more linear approach. But I do love prologues – as long as they’re linear ☺. On the other hand I like movies which effectively jump around in the chronology, like, for example, The Usual Suspects.

    • Bryan – Oh, The Usual Suspects is terrific isn’t it? And you’re right of course; it’s not linear. Interesting too how many readers prefer linear/chronological structures. And I have to admit; it is comfortable to write a linear kind of story…

  4. You’ve given me several books here to add to my TBR list, Margot. I love a complicated plot, parallel stories, and a great twist or two.

    • Pat – I hope you’ll enjoy them if you get the chance to read them. Sometimes well-done, complex storylines can be really engaging if the reader is drawn in by the characters and the plot.

  5. I think non-linear can be great, but only if it is REALLY well done. I do very much like books that have multiple sections, seen from different angles, and perhaps including flashbacks to other times. I recently re-read a book by Robert Player called The Ingenious Mr Stone, and that very much fell into this category. It’s more or less forgotten I think (it was published in the 1940s) and that’s a great shame….

    • Moira – Now that’s a fascinating topic in and of itself. How do certain books fade out, so to speak, while others don’t? And as you’ve shown, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with quality. You’re right too that non-linear stories really need to be carefully done and well-written to be successful. Otherwise it can feel like a labyrinth rather than a story.

  6. What a well-written post on a fascinating topic, Margot. I absolutely love non-linear plots because they are like jigsaw puzzles. I love when the last pieces are put and one is amazed at the picture that emerges. One of the great examples of this is Marquez’ s Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

    • Neeru – Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And sometimes, non-linear plots can be compelling when they’re done well. And you’re right that Márquez is a master of that kind of plot, with Chronicle.. being a particularly good example.

  7. Col

    I can cope with this type/style of book sometimes – as it makes a chance form my norm, but I don’t think I would enjoy these books always. I think more straight forwardedly constructed and presented mysteries are my bread and butter.

    • Col – You’re not alone. I think a lot of people like the more straightforward chronological approach to storytelling. As you say, it can be nice to change things once in a while, but you’re far from the only one who likes a more linear approach.

  8. Pingback: Review: The Papers of Tony Veitch by William McIlvanney | The Game's Afoot

  9. On the whole, I prefer linear, though a non-linear can be interesting as a change. It’s easy though for the main thrust of the plot to disappear if there’s too much jumping around and it takes real skill to keep the reader on side. Having recently read ‘The Last Winter of Dani Lancing’, which jumps back and forward through the timeline and from character to character, I found the author would suddenly throw in a bit of info which everyone except the reader apparently already knew – obviously holding things back to allow for twists. But because of the non-linear aspect it made it feel clunky and almost like cheating…

    • FictionFan – That’s exactly the risk I think with non-linear plots. If it’s not really clear to the reader what’s going on in the story, then the innovation of a non-linear plot gets lost in the frustration the reader feels. Or at least this reader. Non-linear plots can be interesting, even compelling, when they’re done well and when we can get a sense of what’s happening in the story. Otherwise, as you say, the result feels clunky, contrived and confusing.

  10. I really like non-linear stories, although they can get confusing. I usually find it worth it.

    • Tracy – There are definitely some non-linear novels that draw the reader into the characters’ lives and the events in the story. So long as they don’t leave the reader frustrated, they can be rich experiences.

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