Dream A Little Deeper: The Narrative Storytelling Style Of Early Christopher Nolan Films


Originally published on Moviepilot.com May 15th, 2017

“Are you watching closely?” If you aren’t you may miss the details.  The details are seemingly what writer/director Christopher Nolan obsesses over in his films. But, there is one in particular set of details at the heart of his films. Leonardo DiCaprio’s master dream thief Cobb in Inception muses on the question: “What’s the most resilient parasite? An idea.” Nolan’s ideas result in complex and ambitious scripts. Sometimes slaving away over 10 years to complete his screenplay, Nolan often employs a non-linear style of storytelling. Christopher Nolan’s use of non-linear narrative structure has defined him as a filmmaker and continues to evolve and persist throughout his filmography.

Following And Memento


Memento 2
‘Memento’ [Credit: Newmarket]

Christopher Nolan first found industry success in the year 2000 with his second feature film, Memento. The plot was an often used story where a man searches for his wife’s killer, but there are a few twists to this conventional plot. The man has short-term memory loss and relies on tattoos, photos, and notes to remember the details of his quest. Nolan’s narrative structure twist? The movie is told backward. This defines the movie’s identity.

Nolan already had experience with making a film in a non-linear fashion with his first feature, Following. This movie followed a writer as he followed people, and was told out of order, shifting the events of the movie around to hide its twists. While Following wasn’t a massive financial success, it helped shape Nolan as a storyteller, which helped him greatly with Memento.

Memento takes it even further with the movie starting at the very end. The movie shows an entire scene or sequence of events before flashing back to the scene that precedes it. Nolan described this as “dis-linear.” He wrote the script from beginning to end and then changed the details by shifting the order of events to the opposite order. The most interesting approach to his concept was to tell the story from the first person point of view, putting the audience or reader right into the mind of the protagonist.

“My solution to that, which took a while to come up with, was to tell the story backwards so that it denied the audience the information that the protagonist is denied. I asked myself how do I tell a first person story through the eyes of someone who, when he meets someone, does not know when or how they’ve met [before] or whether that person should be trusted? The answer was to put the audience in that position.”

This is an extremely conscious choice to make. Nolan could have told this story more conventional, but deciding to utilize this “dis-linear” form of storytelling deeply changed our perception of the film; the audience is never sure if they are seeing (what Nolan described as), “The objective truth.” They (the audience) does not know if the main character, Leonard, is lying to himself either. If the movie didn’t employ Nolan’s (at that time) emerging knack for non-linear storytelling, the story would not have been as mysterious nor as engaging.

Batman Begins


Batman Begins’ [Credit: Warner Bros.]

After Memento, Nolan’s third film, Insomnia, played around with “non-linear” design in brief moments of the film. The significance of this movie brought him over to Warner Brothers Studios, where he would reboot the Batman franchise that had been dormant after a string of bad films in the late 1990s. Batman Begins was Nolan’s first film in his eventual trilogy and would be the first Batman film to be told as an origin story.

How did Bruce Wayne become Batman? Previous films were not as concerned with this question. Nolan, however, wanted to explore this from a psychological standpoint, being grounded, realistic and bringing a noir feel to the genre. Nolan believed that noir films, “is the genre in which the audience is most accepting of non-linear devices.” The superhero subgenre and its superhero origin stories had been following the model of Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, where the audience would follow a very linear set of events.

Nolan broke that model completely with his first foray into the superhero genre. The movie’s entire first act consists of six different time jumps between Bruce as a child, as a man in his early 20s, and in his present day travels around the globe trying to find his place in the world. The model is somewhat more similar to Following, where the events are out of order (as opposed to Memento being told backward). This allows the plot to keep moving with a certain type of rhythm and speed. The movie feels like it’s moving forward even when the story is going backward in time. The story would have felt dragged out if it was told in a linear fashion.

With the main crux of this movie being psychological and answering the question of why would Bruce Wayne become the Batman, Nolan’s non-linear narrative structure allows him to punctuate Bruce’s past and show how it relates to his present. When Bruce’s mentor (Ducard) talks about vengeance bringing ease to the pain of the death of his wife, Bruce says, “That’s no help to me.” Ducard then asks, “Why Bruce? Why did you not avenge your parent’s death?” Nolan then flashes back to the part in Bruce’s life to answer that question.

This sudden transition makes the connection between these two events stronger. If told chronologically, then the audience would have to recall that moment in the movie when the question is asked rather than having the two scenes be played back to back, where it’s most effective. Man Of Steel took a similar approach (Nolan co-write the story with David Goyer).

The Prestige


‘The Prestige’ [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution]

After the great success of Batman Begins (both financially and critically), Nolan was afforded to do whatever he wanted for his next project by Warner Brothers. Nolan started up a project he had in development since Insomnia, The Prestige. The Prestige follows two magicians as their friendship turns into a rivalry. In Nolan’s fifth feature, he found himself once again challenged with how to structure his story. Nolan described his challenge to Variety:

“It took a long time to figure out how to achieve cinematic versions of the very literary devices that drive the intrigue of the story. The shifting points of view, the idea of journals within journals and stories within stories. Finding the cinematic equivalents of those literary devices was very complex.”

Nolan knew if he wanted to achieve certain points of view he couldn’t simply just tell the story from a chronological point of view. He also didn’t want the magic tricks in the movie to impress the audience. Nolan decided,

“We make the narrative itself the set of tricks, imbuing the story with mystery and suspense by the turns of the narrative itself, rather than through the tricks the stage magicians perform.”

The solution for Nolan and his co-screenwriter (and brother), Jonathon Nolan, was

“To structure the screenplay according to the same principles the magic trick is based on, the three-act structure of the trick: the pledge, the turn, the prestige.”

The three-act structure of the trick is as Michael Caine’s character, Cutter, explains,

“The first part is called ‘The Pledge.’ The magician shows you something ordinary… but of course… it probably isn’t… The second act is called ‘The Turn.’ The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary…. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige.’


‘The Prestige’ [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution]

In The Prestige, Nolan employs a similar technique that he utilized in Following by presenting the events out of order. The beginning of this movie starts with the “supposed” end result of this rivalry. Hugh Jackman’s magician, Robert Angier, is killed and Christian Bale’s Borden is on trial. The movie flashes back to the events prior to this as Angier reads the diary of Borden while also going through his own agenda. The movie then flashes back again through Borden’s diary and perspective while also simultaneously flashing forward between Borden reading Angier’s diary.

Arguably, this is Nolan’s most complex film from a narrative structure point of view. Every time the movie shifts to the different diary, we are seeing events presented through that character’s perspective. This allows the audience (much in the same way as Memento) to get inside the heads of the main characters. Also later in the movie, it is revealed that each character knows that their rival will eventually get the other’s journal, so each character doesn’t reveal “their full hand.” This also allows Nolan to hide the tricks and twists of the movie’s final “magic trick,” or, his final act, “The Prestige.” This is where the majority of the secrets are revealed to the audience. This, in effect, makes the movie’s mystery and story more engaging to the audience. In a chronological progression, the audience would see the plot twists from the onset, making the final revelation to each of the main character’s stories anti-climactic because they would have been already revealed.

The Prestige also represents the culmination of Nolan’s evolution as a non-linear storyteller. The audience can see Nolan use a combination of almost all his films in its structure. The movie starts near the end and is told from a first-person perspective much like Memento. The events are told out of order so Nolan can save the twists for the end like Following. Finally, Nolan also uses flashbacks in order to assert a central idea about the character to the audience to keep both the plot moving and to keep the audience informed like Batman Begins.


Inception [Credit: Warner Brother]

After The Prestige, Nolan would go onto larger production sizes. The monumental success of The Dark Knight allowed Nolan to get more original films off the ground. Throughout the rest of his career, he would continue to explore non-linear storytelling. While The Dark Knight was more conventional from a linear point of view, he would once again explore it with Inception and literally use the linear movement of time as a plot point in his sci-fi epic Interstellar.

Inception is, of course, Nolan’s one of his most famous works when it comes to dealing with linear vs non-linear storytelling. What does remain clear through his body of work is his consistent use of the non-linear narrative. He has implemented it in every film he has made thus far (with only the exception of The Dark Knight). This trait helps define him as a fiercely talented storyteller and continues to be a relative storytelling device that Nolan will utilize in the future. It remains unclear if his upcoming film, Dunkirk, will utilize this narrative styling, but there is no reason to believe that he won’t use it in the future.


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