Media Specific Narratives:
Nonlinearity in Graphic Novels, Film, and Hypertext
There is nothing more constant, ubiquitous, and inescapable than time’s incessant march forward. It was the great poet, Robert Frost, who once said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life — It goes on” (Fitzhenry 261). Although events, emotions, and relationships add color to human narratives, life in its simplest form is a passage of time. Yet though humans can do naught to slow the passage of time in their own lives (ignoring high-energy physics), they can craft fictions with narratives that warp and distort the linearity of time. These nonlinear narratives, which may take many different forms, allow readers and viewers a temporary escape from the never-ending forward progression. These distorted plots can arise in novels, graphic novels, films, video games, songs, electronic literature – any form of media that provides a platform for a story to take place. The structure that each form of media provides is crucial to the development of the narrative. Studying these non-linear narratives requires the sort of “media-specific analysis” described by N. Katherine Hayles – a recognition that “all texts are instantiated and that the nature of the medium in which they are instantiated matters” (Hayles 67). Analysis of several types of media shows that the structure of a non-linear narrative depends heavily on the affordances of the medium in which it takes place.
Nonlinear narratives in graphic novels
Graphic novels, with their unique combination of artistic and textual content, enable readers to navigate complex narratives with relative ease. In describing the significance of graphic novels in his book Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life, Paul Gravett focuses on their functional flexibility – the power of combining images and speech balloons. He quotes the late, famed comic writer Harvey Pekar in claiming “Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures” (Gravett 10). There are certainly other media forms that combine visual imagery with dialogue (film, television, video games), although graphic novels set themselves apart by presenting dialogue as text to accompany the visual component. Graphic novels are composed of separate still images, with characters’ dialogue and interactions frozen in time. The narrative arises from linking these freeze-frame scenes together. It is easy for the reader to break his or her connection to the story’s chronology and jump around between scenes at any time. Indeed, movies and recorded television shows can be paused and rewound, but their narratives are not designed to accommodate such jumps, and to do so feels like a failure on the part of the work’s creator to create a coherent piece. In graphic novels, jumping back and forth between scenes is as easy as moving one’s eyes across the page (and sometimes flipping a page or two). Nonlinear narratives can be by their nature confusing to the reader and feel unnatural, and the ability to navigate quickly and easily between panels of a graphic novel helps to alleviate confusion in these nonlinear stories.
Ba and Moon’s Daytripper
Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s Daytripper (2011) presents a non-linear narrative strongly influenced by the affordances of graphic novels. Daytripper presents the story of Bras de Oliva Domingos, a Brazilian obituary writer, though a series of short chapters that end with the death of Bras. The chapters are presented out of order with regards to the chronology of Bras’s life – chapters of elderly Bras are intermixed with chapters of newborn Bras. The figure below diagrams the narrative structure of the story.
Ignoring the deaths, the chapters could be rearranged as a coherent linear narrative, though the nonlinear structure has a certain emotional power that ruminates on love and mortality. At the start of each chapter, readers have little idea at what point in Bras’s life the chapter will take place. Because the pace of a graphic novel depends entirely on the reader’s desired reading pace, readers can slow down and re-read passages until they are comfortable with understanding Bras’s current situation. The ease of flipping back and forth between chapters allows readers to see how the out-of-order chapters would connect in a linear narrative if the deaths were removed. If Daytripper were presented in its non-chronological order as a film or television show, viewers would likely spend so much effort trying to keep up with the plot and figure out what was going on that they would miss out on much of the story’s emotional and philosophical depth. Daytripper’s chronology exists highly out of order, but the graphic novel’s affordances make this daunting narrative not too difficult to swallow.
Nonlinear narratives in film
Like graphic novels, films combine visual imagery with dialogue, although they do so with a less flexible pace and a more immersive visual environment for viewers. In general, films proceed at a predetermined pace that is beyond the control of the viewer. Although films can be paused, fast-forwarded, rewound, filmmakers generally do not take these features into account as an integral part of their narrative (there are likely fringe films that experiment with these features, but for the purposes of this paper these are ignored). The pace at which events occur is often an important choice on the part of the filmmakers. Because of this pace rigidity, nonlinear narratives in film, while they may present events out of order, generally must have some sort of underlying chronological or reverse-chronological linearity in order to remain coherent and understandable to the audience. Viewers must expend mental energy keeping up with the pace of the movie, and if the narrative is entirely out of order with no rhyme or reason it will be very difficult for viewers to have a positive experience. However, films do have an advantage in that they provide a more immersive visual experience than graphic novels. Films present dialogue as actual audible conversations between characters, and the motion that takes place on-screen is smooth like in the real world. The affordances allow for a more realistic feel than graphic novels (although films can certainly present vibrantly fantastic worlds that are far from realistic). Additionally, the impact of music in films cannot be underestimated. Composers can drastically shape a film’s emotional impact with their scores and immerse the reader more fully in the film. This sense of immersion is important for nonlinear narratives – each time the story jumps around chronologically, the viewer must become accustomed to the change and attempt to figure out what is going on as soon as possible. Using a distinctive visual style or specific musical themes for different parts of the chronology can help the viewer to understand that a shift has taken place, and can help the viewer become more familiar with the given portion of the timeline if it pops up again. Overall, while films do have less flexibility for viewers in the pace that they proceed, there are elements of films that help the reader to remain immersed even as the film moves throughout its chronology.
Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) is perhaps the most well known example of nonlinear narrative within a film, and Nolan utilizes the affordances of film to make his manipulation of time possible and understandable. The events of Memento unfold in two timelines, one proceeding in chronological and one proceeding in reverse chronological order. Events of the two timelines alternate as the film goes on. At the end of the film, these two timelines meet in the middle of the plot’s chronology to tie up the story. The film’s narrative structure can be seen in the figure below. The left side represents the forward timeline, and the right side is the reverse timeline. The green arrows from top to bottom represent the progression of the film. Included is an example exchange of scenes between the two timelines to show visual differences, along with the final scene when the two timelines merge.
Nolan’s structure is intended to confuse viewers – the main character, Leonard Shelby, suffers from memory loss, and the reverse-chronological scenes force viewers to experience reality as Shelby does. As Noel Carroll describes in “Comprehending Motion Picture Narration”, “the audience does not know what has just happened prior to the moment before us… we are being dropped into situations in media res, which is, of course, the condition of Leonard’s life” (Kania 136). The end of each of these scenes links up with the start of the later scene that was previously shown, finally shedding background on how that scene started. Although the plot’s structure is confusing to reflect Leonard’s mental condition, Nolan is careful to limit this confusion and make choices that allow most viewers to keep up with the film and enjoy the experience. The two alternating timelines serve as the underlying chronological basis that allow the film to be coherent – once the viewer figures out the backwards nature of the reverse timeline, it becomes easier and easier to get comfortable with jumping right into a new scene with no knowledge of how it started. Nolan uses the affordances of film to build trust with the viewer that everything will come together in the end, as each scene’s mystery is slowly resolved piece-by-piece. Nolan is also careful to maintain distinct audio and visual styles for the two timelines. The forwards timeline is black-and-white, while the backwards timeline is in color. Most of the sound of the forwards timeline is restricted to Leonard’s own voice, as he narrates his own life and talks over the phone to an unknown listener, giving these scenes a haunting, mysterious feel. The backwards timeline has normal dialogue and interaction between characters, and the in media res nature of the scenes gives them an exciting, suspenseful feel. These distinctions between the two alternating timelines allow the audience to acknowledge that a switch has been made, to help viewers form at least some understanding of what is going on.
Hypertext fictions, which rely on clicking hyperlinks to move between the webpages that make up the work, depend on reader choices, and the amount of possible outcomes from these choices necessitates a non-linear structure. Hypertext fiction narratives provide links within their text to other parts of the narrative, and allow the reader to explore the work at his or her own discretion. It is very difficult for hypertext writers to develop a coherent story while still providing an interesting array of options for the reader – to provide simply two or three paths for the story to follow would be bland and defeat the point of hypertext. The best hypertext fictions form a complex, interconnected web, while still retaining narrative characteristics that give it literary depth. The work must be attractive and interesting enough on the surface to draw readers’ attention, and it must have enough depth to keep them reading. Poet and E-Lit scholar Judy Malloy describes the challenge of dealing with casual readers of hypertext, stating, “On the web, I can not expect the reader to read more than three or four screens before moving restlessly on to another url. So, it is particularly important in that each screen of a web hypernarrative be memorable in and of itself ” (Malloy). The nonlinear narratives that arise in hypertext are often like an interconnected network of lilypads, allowing the user to jump around between screens easily and spread outwards from the starting point. It is easy to get lost in a hypertext narrative, and can be difficult to find one’s way back to the starting point (if it is even possible). Readers of hypertext narratives do not expect the same literary and narrative depth that works like novels and films have, but hypertext narratives can often present a story in an intriguing way. Hypertext fictions give an agency to the reader that few other types of media can provide, and they allow the reader to shape a non-linear narrative however he or she wants.
These Waves of Girls
Caitlin Fisher’s These Waves of Girls (2001) is a powerful example of intellectual depth within a complex web of hypertext fiction. Fisher’s interconnected network of images, links, sound clips, and animations provides a fascinating perspective on female childhood and adolescence. These Waves of Girls resembles a stream of consciousness, and although its components do not come together to form an overarching story, the individual screens each have their own unique small story to tell in their own way. In the figure below, a sample of the web-like structure of These Waves of Girls is mapped out, with links between the screens, to show how the narrative is designed and to demonstrate all of the possibilities for the reader to navigate.
Each experience with the work is a new one. Larry McCaffrey, one of the judges for the 2001 Electronic Literature Award for fiction (which These Waves won), describes how the many pages within the web “evoke not just the girlhood of a single protagonist but a broader perspective of girlhood(s)” (McCaffrey). Despite losing some traditional narrative form of media types like films and novels, hypertext fictions gain a unique energy from their large web of possibilities, and they can end up packing a powerful literary punch.
“Ut pictura poesis” – as is painting, so is poetry (Horace). The aged Latin phrase, occurring most famously in Horace’s Ars Poetica, could not be more wrong. Different types of media, from painting and poetry to electronic literature, have significant variance in affordances, and result in different completed works. When examining narrative structure, specifically nonlinear chronologies, these distinctions make themselves extremely apparent. The web-like user agency of These Waves of Girls could not exist in a Christopher Nolan film, and the complex story (augmented by time jumps) that exists in Daytripper would not be comprehensible within a hypertext fiction. Hayles is firm in her support of media specific analysis, and she describes the necessity in examining “the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies” (Hayles 67). If one is to consider a text as an “embodied entity” (Hayles 67), one must consider the body along with the meaning of the entity itself. As digital media becomes more and more prevalent, and technology provides unprecedented affordances that allow incredible flexibility in literary design, narrative structure will continue to evolve in new ways and take on new forms. In the endless march of time, while certain types of media may become obsolete, other forms always rise to take their place. Narratives and their supporting media structures will continue to play an important role in humans’ own lives, and in their fictional escapes from them.
Fisher, Caitlin. These Waves of Girls. York University, 2001. Web. Nov. 2014. <http://www.yorku.ca/caitlin/waves/navigate.html>.
Frost, Robert. The Harper Book of Quotations. ed. Fitzhenry, Robert I. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993. Print.
Gravett, Paul. Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know. New York: Collins Design, 2005. Print.
Hayles, N. K. “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis.” Poetics Today 25.1 (2004): 67-90. Web.
Horace. Ars Poetica. Trans. Augustus S. Wilkins. N.p.: Macmillan, 1939. Print.
Kania, Andrew. Memento. London: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Malloy, Judy. “Hypernarrative in the Age of the Web.” Well.com. N.p., 1998. Web. Nov. 2014. <http://www.well.com/user/jmalloy/neapaper.html>.
Moon, Fábio, and Gabriel Bá. Daytripper. New York: DC Comics, 2011. Print.
Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Newmarket, 2001. DVD.
McCaffrey, Larry. “These Waves of Girls.” Weblog post. Electronic Literature Organization. Showcase, 4 Dec. 2005. Web. Nov. 2014. <http://eliterature.org/2005/12/fishers-these-waves-of-girls/>.