The non-linear narrative, confusing or exciting? On one hand, this type of story structure can be an amazing tool to keep the audience hooked on a thriller or to make them second guess themselves while watching a mystery unfold. But on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to have much relevance outside of those two genres.
What’s a nonlinear narrative?
A story has a nonlinear timeline if the order of events of the plot don’t follow a chronological order.
For example: if the first scene there’s a kid riding a bike and in the second scene the kid is on the ground crying while the bike is abandoned next to him, this is a linear timeline. The events of the story happen in a certain order and they are shown to the audience in the same order.
Meanwhile, if the first scene showed the kid telling his mom about scratch and the rest of the scenes were a flashback that reveals how he fell from the bike, this would be a nonlinear timeline. The events of the story still happen in chronological order, but they are arranged differently for the audience.
Little Women is (obviously) following a nonlinear narrative. The movie keeps cutting from a scene set in childhood to a scene set in adulthood and vice versa.
So unless you watch the movie thinking that Amy has a rare disease that causes sudden grown spurts and then simply Benjamin Buttons back into a 12 years old, you’ll realize that the events aren’t shown to the audience in chronological order.
The biggest advantage that comes from using a nonlinear narrative is the possibility of juxtaposition. We as audience members can see the difference between the happy, colorful, hopeful childhood and the bleak, harsh future. We see how the characters have changed and who they face different challenges in different periods of their lives.
The story structure of Little Women
The non-linear narrative structure of this movie might seem a little complicated at first: there are scenes of the same characters as adults and as children one after another in seemingly random order.
Rewatching the movie a second time though it’s easy to see that there’s a pattern in the way the screenplay is written: Adulthood -> childhood -> adulthood -> childhood.
Also, Little Women follows something that John Truby in his book The Anatomy of story calls “Branching structure”.
Basically, the story revolves around an A plot (the main plot) that follows a chronological order, but sometimes it’s interrupted by a scene from the B plot (the secondary plot).
Here the A plot is about adult Jo writing her book and adult Amy living in Paris, while the B plot is about all the March sisters and their daily lives as kids.
This simple rearrangement of the events in the story makes it possible for the movie to stay faithful to its source material (the book Little Women) but also giving its own spin to the story. The book follows a linear structure showing the girls growing up and turn from children and teenagers into women. Meanwhile, the movie uses a non-linear narrative structure showing them as women and children at the same time, pointing out the difference between their childhood and their adulthood.
How each scene is connected
So, the movie keeps switching between past and present, but does it do it randomly? No.
Despite the fact that their lives are very different now from the time when they were kids, the decisions and passions that they had as young girls are still a big influence on the sisters. Every time adult Jo, Amy, Beth or Meg are faced with a problem in the present, they think about a similar situation or feeling that they had in childhood, and that’s when the next scene starts rolling.
This way each scene is associated with some sort of flashback that shows how things were different through juxtaposition.
We learn of Beth’s death because we see the difference between two scenes. In the first one, Jo runs down the stairs and finds both sister and mother happily having breakfast, Beth isn’t sick anymore. In the second one, she calmly walks down and sees her mother alone crying the death of her daughter.
My favorite example is the scene where Amy rejects Laurie’s first attempt at confessing his feelings with the words: “I won’t do it! Not when I’ve spent my entire life loving you” and the movie cuts to a scene (set in the past) where little Amy gets her foot stuck in a bucket after trying to make a calc of her “perfect” foot to give to Laurie.
My favorite (and probably the funniest) aspect of this movie is the way it turns (extra) meta towards the end.
The author of the real book Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, originally planned to make her protagonist a single accomplished author by the end of the book. Unfortunately for her, the editor and the fans were expecting Jo to marry Laurie and pretty much demanded that Jo would be married at the end of the story. Alcott, forced to go against her own plan, decided to be petty and marry Jo off to a random older dude named Professor Bhaer.
The end result is that the story of Little women is concluded with an undeveloped love story that doesn’t really make sense without the context of Alcott’s problems with her editor.
Gerwig uses the non-linear narrative of the screenplay as a way to work around this issue by intercutting a scene where Jo (a stand-in for Alcott) is forced to marry off her heroine in order to get her book published, and a scene where Jo runs to Bhaer and dramatically confesses her love for him.
This way, the people in the audience who didn’t know about the book’s backstory can enjoy the romance between Jo and Bhaer (which is a little more developed compared to the book); while the people who know about Alcott’s motives can see the scene with her editor as a nod to the real-life struggle of the author.
“Mr. Dashwood, if I’m going to sell my heroine in marriage for money I might as well get some of it.”– Jo (Little Women)
At the end of the day, we can say that Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women works so well because it uses a non-linear narrative effectively. The movie gives a new meaning to the original story without changing the plot too much, making this one of the best movies that were based on Alcott’s book.