Little Women: Non-Chronological Narrative

The newest adaptation of Little Women surprised me by finding a new way to present the classic story without changing the plot itself… much. Rather than tell the story in chronological order as the book

A discussion of non-linear narratives, and when and how to use themThe newest adaptation of Little Women surprised me by finding a new way to present the classic story without changing the plot itself… much. Rather than tell the story in chronological order as the book and every previous film version has done, the story begins near the end and periodically skips back to show the girls growing up. It’s quite a creative approach to such a famous and well-loved story, but I thought it could have been handled a bit better.

All the actors played their roles well, but I especially liked Saoirse Ronan as Jo. She really embodied the character- her independence, spirit, and frustration with the restraints the world wanted to place on her. Florence Pugh played Amy well, especially as an adult, but I’m puzzled by their choice not to have a different actress play the younger version of the character. Besides the suspension of disbelief required to believe the 23-year old actress was actually 12, it made young Amy’s impetuous and selfish acts harder to swallow or forgive. She came across as vindictive and cold rather than as a child acting out in anger.

The aesthetic of the film was lovely- slightly different from what we’ve seen before, but very fitting for the story and time period.

The film had even more of a feminist slant than previous versions, which I enjoyed. It more closely resembles the true spirit of both the original book and Louisa May Alcott herself (the inspiration for the character of Jo) than anything we’ve seen before. There is a particularly interesting choice they made at the end (which I won’t spoil for you) based on accounts of the author’s life, which is a surprising but very appropriate meta commentary on the whole story.

There were some small choices I wasn’t a fan of, but those were easy enough to look past in my enjoyment of the whole story. Really, my only major problem with the movie was the chronology. It wasn’t a bad decision in itself, and actually accomplished some nice things, but it was handled poorly in my opinion. I’ll get into this more in the spoiler section of this post below.

If you are a fan of Little Women, I would recommend this movie to you, despite its flaws. It is a charming update to the classic story. If, however, this is your first encounter with the story, I might recommend seeing one of the older versions first (my favorite is the 1994 version with Winona Ryder as Jo). I’ve heard from people new to the story who were completely lost, as well as some who had no trouble with it at all, so take that with a grain of salt. They do provide clever visual cues to let you know where you are if you’re paying attention. Even if you easily follow the time jumps, however, there are other things that are lost in this manner of telling, especially your first time experiencing the story. But it’s definitely a movie worth seeing.

 

I won’t be getting into spoilers for Little Women until later in the post, so feel free to keep reading. I’ll let you know when it’s time to stop, if you haven’t seen the movie yet. Although if you’re familiar with the story in general, there aren’t many spoilers to be had.

 

Non-Chronological Narratives

First, let’s discuss non-chronological narratives in general. It can be a really powerful way to tell a story when done well, and there are so many ways to go about it.

***The following isn’t an exhaustive list by any means

Frame Story

In a frame story, there are at least two narratives. One or more is closer to the present and is often telling the reader a story that happened much earlier. The earlier timeline usually takes up most of the book or movie, with the later timeline acting as a frame (imagine that 😉 )

Dual Timelines

This type of narrative alternates between two distinct stories set in different times, but both proceed in chronological order within themselves. It could be the same person at different times in their life or different people, sometimes separated by centuries. They usually get equal time and attention.

Flashbacks

In this story there is a primary narrative which is regularly punctuated with extended flashbacks. Though the primary story is told linearly, the flashbacks jump around based on what the character is experiencing and what information the author wants the reader to know.

Mirror Narratives

I chose that phrase to describe stories with two timelines, one telling a story linearly, and one telling it backwards. Probably the most famous example of this is the movie Memento. In this movie, the story is told in short 2-3 minute scenes, alternating between black and white scenes which move forward, and color scenes which move backwards. The forward sequence happens entirely before the reverse sequence, and the final black and white scene flows directly into the first color scene.

Another story which uses this type of narrative is The Last Five Years, an off-Broadway musical that was made into a movie in 2014. In this story, however, both narratives cover the same span of time, one starting at the end of the relationship and one at its beginning. They meet in the middle for one scene, when the couple gets married.

Random

In these kind of stories, there is no obvious pattern to the chronology. The word random is misleading, though, as the order is very intentional, based on what the author is trying to accomplish.

 

This isn’t even all the examples I can think of. There are numerous ways you can play around with the timeline of a story. But rather than getting bogged down in the how, let’s move on to the why.

 

Why Use Non-Chronological Storytelling?

There are plenty of good reasons to use non-linear narratives in a story.

Context: A frame story in particular can give the reader a lens through which to view and interpret the story, and can establish the larger context for it. Titanic sets us up to view the story through Rose’s eyes and gives us an item (the necklace) and a scene (the drawing) to look for. If it were a less well known ship, or a fictional one, the frame story would also establish what the story is about.

Foreshadowing: You can let the reader know where it’s heading from the beginning. My favorite example of this is the narrator of 500 Days of Summer telling us “This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story” followed (after the opening credits) by Tom, brokenhearted over breaking up with Summer.

Mystery: You can pose questions or set up mysteries to draw the reader in. Wuthering Heights opens with the aftermath of Heathcliff’s obsession, prompting the reader to ask how in the world things ended up like this.

Multiple Stories/Perspectives: You can use this tool to connect multiple different stories, as in The Canterbury Tales, or allow for different perspectives on the same story, as in Pulp Fiction.

Control the Focus of the Story: By telling the reader some of what will happen, you can direct their attention to specific questions, or even actively create the questions in the reader’s mind. In Titanic, we already know that Rose survives, so our question becomes how will she survive, and will Jack make it too?

Time Your Plot Reveals: Differing timelines can allow you to reveal important information whenever it will be the most effective, since you don’t have to strictly adhere to a chronology. Flashbacks are often used this way.

Dramatic Irony: Sometimes you want your readers to know something before the characters do. This is easy to accomplish when they can jump forward in time anywhere from a few minutes to several decades.

Disguise an Unreliable Narrator: You certainly don’t have to have a non-linear timeline to use an unreliable narrator, but it can help you hide them from the readers, especially if you have multiple POVs. Their version of events won’t come under as much scrutiny if the countering stories aren’t being told in tandem.

Mimic the Character’s Experience of Time: Sometimes the characters themselves aren’t experiencing things in order. In Memento, we get to be almost as lost as Leonard, never knowing what events led us up to the moment we find ourselves in. Even in a more traditional narrative, a character might have amnesia, or have blocked out certain memories, so we get to ‘find out’ their history along with them.

Control the Reader’s Emotions: One of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal is the ability to determine how readers experience our story. This affects not only their understanding of the plot, but the emotions they feel along the way. The Last Five Years is my favorite example of this (spoilers ahead- if you haven’t seen it, skip to the next section). Throughout the play, you get the story of a relationship that ends with the husband leaving his wife for another woman. It’s fairly predictable how the audience will respond to that scenario. Even showing the husband’s side of things, they’re still also going to see how it devastates his wife, so it would be hard to get them to sympathize with him.

Jason Robert Brown gets around this in a very clever way. We get the wife’s story backwards, starting with her reading the note he left behind. It’s a heartbreaking scene, which is juxtaposed with an upbeat song in the next scene, in which the husband is excited over having met the girl of his dreams (her). His story proceeds chronologically alongside hers. They meet in the middle at the wedding. But then a funny thing happens. We’re now seeing the decline of their relationship primarily through his eyes. Her story of it has already been told, and now we see her in the happy early stages. By the end, we are seeing her through his eyes (moody, envious, depressed) juxtaposed with the happy, young woman he fell in love with, with the world ahead of her. The way the final song plays out between them manages to make her seem clingy and needy, with an unhealthy dependence on him.

It doesn’t succeed in making him an entirely sympathetic character. Cheating is still cheating, after all. But I can guarantee that the audience had a better impression of him than they would have if the story had been told in straight chronological order.

 

 


 

Okay, spoilers from Little Women starting now

 


 

I would say that this version of Little Women is a cross between a dual timeline and flashbacks, though it doesn’t fit either perfectly. Some time jumps are clearly intended to be memories, but others seem unrelated to what she’s experiencing in the moment.

How it Missed the Mark

My issues with the chronology in this film all come down to one thing. They seemed to assume that everyone watching would already be familiar with the story. But while that’s an understandable assumption, it’s simply not true. An entire generation has grown up since the last movie, and many if not most of them won’t have read the book. For them, even if the story line isn’t confusing, it still takes away pretty much the only plot twists the book has on offer, and all of them lose some of their power because of it.

I couldn’t believe it, on first watching, when they gave away one and a half of the two biggest spoilers of the original book in the third scene. Amy is in Paris with Aunt March and Laurie, and we learn 1) Beth is very sick, and 2) Laurie proposed to Jo and she turned him down. This is two scenes before we even see Beth for the first time (six scenes before we hear her speak- she’s simply playing piano in the first one) and seven scenes before we see Jo and Laurie on screen together. In a smaller way, it also takes away some of the sting of Jo learning that Aunt March is going to take Amy to Europe instead of her. By the time Jo first mentions her hope of it, we already know it won’t happen. It really is a shame, considering how well that story fits into the theme of the movie (more on that later).

In the end, this one scene effectively erases or diminishes the stakes for some of the most emotional moments in the latter half of the story.

What Was the Point?

So the question is, why did Greta Gerwig decide to tell it this way? It seems clear that she wanted to show a familiar story in a new way, but I believe she had more in mind than simply changing things up.

One could argue that the opening scene, Jo at the publisher’s office, provides context and sets us up for the feminist overtones of the story, and the ruthlessness with which she has to proceed in order to get by in her world. She has to choose, in a moment, to scrap the last several pages of her manuscript because morals don’t sell. As writers, we know how hard it is to kill our darlings, but she just takes a deep breath and lets them go. The editor also informs her that the standard pay for such stories is $25-30, but he will be paying her $20. While it’s not explicitly stated that this is because she is a woman, it’s reasonable to assume so, given the time and context.

The spoilers I didn’t like in the third scene could also be counted as foreshadowing. In this way, Beth’s death is a shadow hanging over the entire movie. It could also serve to nip the Jo-Laurie shipping in the bud, as this was one plot twist that has dismayed fans from the beginning. In this way, it also creates dramatic irony, as the viewers can watch Laurie falling for Jo, knowing all the while that it is hopeless.

All of these have some merit, but they don’t have enough of an impact on the story to justify this storytelling choice on their own. I think the real goal was something that didn’t make it onto my earlier list: to create a character arc for Jo.

Little Women, though it tells the larger story of the girls growing up, functions more as a series of vignettes than an overarching story. While that worked well for what it was, audiences now expect a character arc of some sort from their protagonists. But without the creative liberty to craft her own story, what was Gerwig to do? Cut up the original story and move the pieces around. It’s actually a pretty good solution.

She gave Jo a flat arc. In case you aren’t aware, a flat arc shows a character who already knows a defining truth, but it comes under attack, or she has to convince the world of that truth. Jo understands what she wants (independence) and even what she must do to get it, but the world is fighting her at every turn. Here’s how it plays out in the movie:

Jo’s Character Arc

Set-up: Jo’s struggles to be taken seriously as an author/her lack of interest in men or marriage, in the form of the attractive Frederick. 

First Plot Point- She has to give up her dream (at least temporarily) in order to return home and take care of Beth.

First Pinch Point (reinforcement of what she’s up against)– two conversations about women’s lack of options (Jo/Aunt March, and then Amy/Laurie)

Midpoint- restates her aversion to marriage in the beach scene (responding to the news of Meg and John)

Second Pinch Point- ?

Second Plot Point (also known as the dark night of the soul)– Beth dies, Laurie proposes and Jo turns him down, and then we see Jo at her lowest, talking to Marmee in the attic. She’s so lonely that she considers marrying Laurie if he were to ask again

Final Act/Climax- she burns her papers and notebooks, comes to the story she wrote “for Beth” and stops. We see her writing the book, sending it to the publisher, it being rejected, and then accepted, and her final negotiations with the publisher.

Final Scene- the first edition of her book being printed. We see Jo’s satisfied smile before it cuts to black.

How it Could Have Been Better

This is actually a very appropriate character arc for Jo, and I’m not opposed to Greta Gerwig playing around with the chronology to achieve it. But it could have been handled better. This arc is somewhat obscured by some of the other chronological shifts, and its impact is lessened in several places.

If it were up to me to rewrite this script, I would keep the frame story of Jo starting in New York at the publisher’s office and then eventually coming home to care for Beth. But I would cut out all the other scenes in the later timeline. The rest of the story would be shown (roughly) chronologically.

(The left column shows the later timeline, as Jo’s framing story, while the right column shows the ‘flashbacks’)

Set-up: Jo at the publishers, the boarding house, at the theater and then the pub with the Professor  
  Get to Know the Family: Christmas morning, taking food to the Hummels, letter from Father, putting on their play, getting ready for party (Jo burns Meg’s hair), Jo meets Laurie at the party and he helps them home
Jo gets gift (works of Shakespeare) and note from Professor, then he reads and critiques her stories  
  More family stories (Amy at school, Pickwick Society + Laurie’s induction, Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, then falls through the ice)
First Plot Point: Jo gets letter from home (Beth is worse), travels home, sees her  
  First Pinch Point: Jo and Aunt March discuss women’s options (or lack thereof) 

+ (Meg’s week away, beach scene, finding out Father is ill, Jo sells her hair)

Jo and Beth on the beach. Beth says she’s dying and you can’t stop the tide. Jo says “I did it once before”  
  Beth gets sick (scarlet fever), Amy sent to stay with Aunt March, Marmee returns, Beth gets better, Father comes home, Meg’s wedding

 

Midpoint: Laurie proposes to Jo, she turns him down

 

Find out Amy is going to Europe instead of Jo, Jo moves to NY, Amy meets Laurie in Europe and at the ball, Meg buys the silk, then discusses the expense with John

 

Second Pinch Point: Amy in art studio with Laurie (marriage is an economic proposition, especially for women, and men control entrance to the “genius club” so women seldom get in)

Jo reads a ‘homey’ story to Beth on the beach, and she loves it  
  Amy tells Laurie she always loved him, Meg tells John she sold the silk, Amy turns down Fred Vaughn
Second Plot Point (Dark Night of the Soul): Beth dies. After her funeral, Jo is packing up her things and tells Marmee she made a mistake turning Laurie down. She gives the stirring speech we heard in the trailer, about women’s potential and how sick she is of people thinking love is all a woman is fit for. But then we get the final line, the one the trailer cut out. “But I’m so lonely,” she concludes with a sigh. She’s so lonely that she considers marrying Laurie if he were to ask again, even though she won’t answer when Marmee repeatedly asks if she loves him.  
  We see Amy and Laurie, in mourning, preparing to go home early. They kiss

From this point on, the timelines merge, and I would keep the film’s final act as is.

Final Act/Climax: Jo burns all her papers and notebooks, showing that she has truly given up. But when she comes across her story “For Beth” she stops. We then see her writing her story, sending it to the publisher, it being rejected, and then accepted. Which brings me to my favorite part of the story- the publisher insists that the main character, being a girl, has to get married. The scene then cuts back and forth between Jo’s hard-nosed negotiations (“If I’m forced to sell my heroine into marriage… I should get something from it”) and Jo living out the storybook ending she’s being compelled to write.

The movie ends, as it should, with the first edition of her book being printed, and Jo’s satisfied smile as it cuts to black.

 


 

This would fix most of the problems I have with the movie.

  1. The future scenes only focusing on Jo would clarify the story’s through-line and make it much easier to follow for someone new to it.
  2. This would do away with the Laurie-Jo spoilers, which adds depth and stakes to the proposal scene and gives more weight to her decision not to cave in to the pressure. The future scenes in which Jo is in NY without him would still offer some foreshadowing, though.
  3. It lets the key thematic question (whether or not Jo will give up her independence and marry Laurie) marinate for a while. With this new chronology it would take up a quarter of the movie, allowing us to really feel the pressures Jo is under. As it is, in the film we see her refuse him in one scene, regret it in the next, and then see him having moved on with Amy in the one after that.
  4. The proposal makes for a much stronger Midpoint than the current one. This is her actively choosing her own path, despite incredible pressure, whereas the other scene is simply her theoretically opposed to the idea of marriage. It also falls immediately after her strongest personal belief statement yet, when she tells Meg that she’ll grow tired of John in a few years, “but we will be interesting forever”
  5. The two conversations explicitly dealing with women’s options (between Jo and Aunt March, and then Laurie and Amy) can be split up to act as the two separate pinch points, rather than diluting their power by having them so close together.
  6. They could build up Jo’s hope for the Europe trip (it’s her only chance, short of marriage, to get out and see the world) and therefore really make us feel the loss of it, especially since it is her unwillingness to fit in the mold of a proper young woman that prompts Aunt March to choose Amy over her.
  7. Moving the earlier scenes up gives us time to meet and grow attached to Beth before Jo receives the letter that she’s not doing well.
  8. It would also solve another thing that really bothered me, which was that we didn’t really have time to mourn Beth’s death. The film cuts back to Meg’s wedding immediately after the funeral. A quick flashback to a happier time is a great way to make your audience really feel the loss, but that’s not what we get here. We get a full scene, plus several more in which we have to suddenly shift emotional gears. By the time we get back to the later timeline, it’s more about Jo being lonely and thinking about the professor and Laurie.

 


 

 

So what do you think? Based on the reviews I’ve read, I’m in the minority in my critique of the chronology. So I’m curious to hear your opinions. If you’re one of the majority who loved it, please let me know why in the comments. Maybe you have insights I didn’t and can change my mind!

 

2 thoughts on “Little Women: Non-Chronological Narrative

  1. I get some of what you’re talking about, but I liked knowing up front that Jo didn’t end up with Laurie- it was devastating when I read it the first time

    1. I know, right? That’s one of the only arguments I’ve heard in favor of the spoilers that carries some weight for me.

      I guess for me, though, that adds to the impact of the story. Because in reality, it was exactly those reader expectations that forced Louisa May Alcott to marry Jo off, when she really wanted her to end up a “literary spinster.” And ultimately, I’m okay with disappointment in stories, as long as it’s foreshadowed enough to be resonant. But that’s a personal preference

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