Working With Non-Traditional Story Structures

Linda Aronson discusses alternatives to the traditional linear screenplay model.

Ever feel your film doesn’t fit the one-hero linear model? Ever wanted to use flashbacks, time jumps, multiple story lines or ensemble casts? Clearly, they are the way of the future.

Surprisingly, these complicated films – with their multiple protagonists, multiple storylines, flashforwards and flashbacks – actually drop into six family types. It’s not random. They use patterns based on multiplying (and sometimes fracturing and reassembling) a group of short three-act structures in very specific ways. This means we have templates to help plan our stories.

There are six main types of FLASHBACK – some simple, some complex. The simplest kind is when the detective asks, ‘Where were you on the night of the crime?’ and we flashback to see a little bit of backstory before the movie continues. But films that blend a past story with the present need a different approach. In a nutshell, you construct your two stories like concentric circles (each circle being a different story in a different time frame), link the stories at one special scene, and jump between the past and present stories on specific cliffhangers. The different forms will normally start at either the second act turning point or the climax. You have to switch protagonists between time frames. The same character may be a protagonist in one time frame and an antagonist in the other.


(Pulp Fiction, The Circle, The Butterfly Effect, Run Lola Run, Amores Perros, City of God). In this form, equally-weighted, self-contained stories follow one after the other and join together at the end. These stories are sometimes linear, but often fractured. In addition to fractured forms, there are three subcategories to this form, all constructed in different ways. I call the most interesting structure the ‘PORTMANTEAU’, because it works like a bag. It uses one story to contain the others, like a bag or suitcase. Pulp Fiction is a good example. Put very simply, portmanteau films usually open just before the second act turning point of the ‘portmanteau’ story, jump back to the disturbance (or catalyst), leave just before it gets to the first act turning point, and then stop. The other stories are inserted into this framework. Once the other stories have been told, the film returns to the first act turning point of the portmanteau story and follows it to the end. The film doesn’t lose pace or splinter into an anthology because it piggybacks on the rise to closure of the portmanteau story. Again, the possibilities are amazing.


(City of Hope, Caramel, Lantana, Traffic – and practically everything of Altman’s). Films in this form have equally weighted stories running simultaneously. Derived from the stage, this is a form familiar in television (Shakespeare does three equally weighted plots, as you know). These films, which are usually didactic, span a whole community. To stop your story from getting out of hand and turning into characters in search of a plot, I will show you how to hold it together by using a variety of devices, including truncation and a very specific type of plot that I call ‘the macro.’


(The Big Chill, American Beauty, Saving Private Ryan, Galaxy Quest, Tea with Mussolini, Ordinary People, Little Miss Sunshine, All About my Mother). These films are all either missions, reunions or physical or emotional sieges. They are always about groups, not the ‘one hero on a single journey’. Almost all films about families are multiple-protagonist films, because they are emotional sieges.

Unsuccessful multiple-protagonist films tend to meander in circles, particularly in an inherently static form like a reunion. In successful multiple-protagonist films, you treat each group of characters as versions of the same protagonist and construct the film accordingly. For example, ‘the radical student ten years on’, or ‘the soldier at war’.

Backstory problems are common in these films because they tend to be about unfinished business.


(The Departed, Brokeback Mountain, Finding Nemo, and The Lives of Others). This form uses two equally important protagonists who journey towards each other emotionally and/or physically. At least three plotlines are required. Fractured Tandem (21 Grams, Babel, Three Burials of Melchiades Estrada, The Hours and Crash). This form consists of equally-weighted stories, often in different time frames. The stories are FRACTURED and RECONSTRUCTED so as to steal jeopardy and suspense from the ending.

The astonishing thing about this form is that the second act is often so truncated that it barely exists. This form certainly manages to drive stories without a proper middle. The Hours, for example, is actually 3 one-act stories. By using my techniques, you can make it work for you. The most exciting thing about fractured tandem is that writers can use it to tell or fix stories that are exposition-heavy and require a long set up. In 21 Grams, for example, the normality of each of the three protagonists is vitally important to the film’s poignancy, but without hindsight it’s profoundly boring.

FLASH FORWARD gives the audience that much needed hindsight. Audiences love these complicated films, but only when they work.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Frank says:

    I would like some input on a similar (but different) structure. I have three characters, female, male 1 and male 2, whose relationships change in each Act making each Act its own little movie. For example in Act I, the female and male 1 are married, but she has an (emotional) affair with male 2; in Act II the female and male 2 are in a relationship, but she has a one night stand with male 1; In Act III the two males are friends competing for the female’s affection. None of the Acts are related except for the fact the same central characters appear in all three. The overall theme is how the choices we make on a daily basis have us arrive at the lives we live today. The protagonist female has a different back story for each act; her father’s presence (or lack thereof) is what ultimately defines her relationships with the men in her life. I have a few drafts but I am still working out some logic.

  2. Sean Hood says:

    One good reason to work with non-traditional structures is that screenwriters may well find themselves working in mediums other than film, including TV, Webisodes, Gaming, and other “new media” projects that explode three act structure.

    For example, Neal Edelstein’s (The Ring, Mulholland Drive) project Haunting Melissa:

  3. Talei Loto says:

    Brilliant post. I’ve been looking for some examples of non-linear writing. Thank you for this!

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