A crucial component of the storyteller’s craft is placing actions and details in a specific order. For most stories, this is pretty straightforward: start at the beginning, then tell the events in the order they happen, sequentially, in the course of time passing. It’s what we would nowadays call a linear timeline, though as far as human storytelling is concerned, it’s as ancient as the proverbial campfire.
While a linear timeline remains the dominant structure for most contemporary fiction and film, the fragmented, or nonlinear, timeline has become quite common, especially since the dawn of science fiction and the advent of characters who might literally travel forward and backwards in time.
But even in less convoluted genres — romance, western, or melodrama, for example — the use of nonlinear devices such as flashbacks have so long been a storytelling tactic, audiences barely blink when they see them.
It’s taken thousands of years to get here. Homer’s The Odyssey gave us one of literature’s first fragmented narratives. The famed epic poem of 800 B.C. begins near the end of Odysseus’s ten-year quest to return home from the Trojan War, and it uses flashbacks to explain the many travails delaying the hero from returning home to his family.
It’s said to start in medias res, meaning in the middle of the action. And many narratives adopt this approach: beginning a story with a more interesting bit to compel audience interest, then using flashbacks to fill in the backstory and explain how we got here.
But as storytelling has evolved, a sort of inverse approach has developed, wherein the action we witness first can be used to add meaning to a flashback we see later. In this way, the use of nonlinear storytelling can create dramatic reveals that make a tale more entertaining.
Perhaps the best example is a trope of the mystery genre, which is almost exclusively built around the use of flashback technique. Early in the story, we learn of a murder. Through most of the narrative, the audience receives hints and clues about the crime and its suspects. Then, at the end, usually guided by a detective/hero, we get a flashback to the crime itself, made more dramatic because it’s the missing piece to a puzzle the story has already presented.
Fragmented narratives allow even non-mystery plots to present and answer questions with this mystery-like structure. And they do, so often that we’ve learned to look for it. Whereas films used to employ title cards to let a viewer know an ensuing scene took place, say, “five years earlier,” storytellers in literature and film may now count on the audience’s learned ability to seek out context clues that suggest time and place.
So when the musical The Last Five Years bounces around the titular years without much fanfare or exposition, but merely by starting a new song, it almost seems natural that the story of a doomed relationship would be told this way.
The Last Five Years plays at Cygnet Theatre through November 17.