River Teeth Revisted

Complicating Chronology: Non-linear Narrative in “The Deer I Shot”

April 2, 2024

By Katie Mathew

The speed of sound is 1,128 feet per second. My bullet traveled close to 2,000 feet per second. His hoof hung there, over the snow, still with death for a full twenty seconds. His eyes rolled up and his lips and nostrils twitched. There was no blood.

~ “The Deer I Shot” by Michael R. Shea (River Teeth 13.2, Spring 2012)

Telling stories from the chronological beginning is arguably the “default” plot structure. Freytag’s Pyramid is a common device used by writers to plot their stories, starting with the exposition, moving to the rising action, to the climax, to the falling action, and finally to a resolution. But is this traditional structure, while helpful and proven to be successful, the only effective mode of storytelling? In “The Deer I Shot” from RT 13.2, Michael R. Shea uses a nonlinear narrative—or a narrative that does not follow the chronological order of events—to tell the story of shooting a deer for the first time, as well as the killing’s aftermath. 

While “The Deer I Shot” ends in a place that is the chronological end, the journey to that point weaves between different points of time to stitch together the full story. If this essay were told in chronological order, it might start in the deer stand as the narrator shot the buck, move to his celebrating, then collecting the deer, taking it to the butcher, coming home to his family for their reactions, and then, ultimately, ending in that last scene where he’s writing the essay with venison cooking on the stove. Instead, the essay begins with the image of his freezer full of deer meat, then to him at the butcher, and then to the deer stand where he shot the deer. The rest of the essay moves between other events, constantly returning to that moment in the woods when the narrator shot the deer. 

Read the following excerpt and think about the transition between points in time:

As I drove away from the deer’s dismemberment, my thoughts began to shift. There was a moment, as I pointed my gun, when the barrel hit the tree stand with a metal-on-metal cling. The deer froze. His body was still except his nose, except those twitching nostrils. Twenty feet up, I froze, too. He looked at me. I thought we made eye contact.

Sometimes the transition between events is seamless—such as the transition from the drive to the moment where the narrator thought he looked the deer in the eyes—but, at other times, it is a bit jarring.

Take a look at this next excerpt and try to see why this next time jump is less smooth, and what the effect is:

We did not make eye contact. But in that moment, I thought he did. I thought he looked at me, then looked away. And then I pulled the trigger.

“Just like The Deer Hunter,” my mom said. “Remember that movie?”

“Don’t trivialize this,” I said.

“Did you cry?” my sister said.

“Don’t tell me anymore,” my mother said. “I’m going to cry.”

The end of the paragraph before is an intimate scene where the reader feels as though they are in the moment where the narrator is looking the deer in the eye. While the transition into the scene is smooth because the narrator describes his mind going back to that moment, the transition to the next moment in time is more jarring. This is because, instead of introducing the next time skip, Shea throws us directly into the scene with dialogue, giving the reader little time to adjust. 

This moving back and forth between events acts almost as flashback in the way that flashbacks oftentimes bring us back to a traumatic or otherwise significant event. However, flashback in linear narratives is different from nonlinear narratives where the story jumps between past and present. Flashbacks appear in linear stories wherein the plot follows a chronological order of events, interrupting the narrative to provide context or background. Nonlinear narratives move between times to stitch together a plot that does not need to be—and, in many cases, cannot be told correctly—in chronological order. The scenes set in the past are not flashbacks because they are scenes that act as plot points rather than context.

Nonlinear storytelling can be tricky to get right because it is very easy to confuse readers by moving in a non-chronological order of events. And despite the short length of “The Deer I Shot” compared to the number of jumps in time, Shea is able to compile a story that is easy to follow because Shea moves us back and forth between just a handful of moments.  

Because the act of killing the deer itself isn’t what the essay’s about, it makes sense that the essay would start after the deer is dead. However, because the killing is what incites the narrator to reflect on their character and sense of self, it also makes sense that the most frequented event is that moment in the deer stand. This brings more attention to the event and emphasizes its importance and impact on the narrator. Going back to the conversation between the narrator and his mother about The Deer Hunter movie, we can see this impact in the two words he says in response to his mother’s question of how he feels after shooting the deer: “It’s complicated.” The non-linear structure of this essay reflects these feelings by straying from the familiar linear narrative to a more unconventional one that complicates the narrative. 

Exercise:

Step 1: Chronologically write out the events of a linear story you’ve already written in the format of a timeline.

Step 2: Cut out those events and mix them around into a non-chronological configuration.

Step 3: Repeat Step 2 until you find a configuration that intrigues you. 

Step 4: Write the story in the order of events from that configuration.

Step 5: Analyze what was added, what was taken away, and what changed in the new draft. Compare to the original draft. 


Katie Mathew is an ice cream enthusiast, Oxford comma advocate, and writer. Her work in both fiction and nonfiction tends to be rooted in rural settings where she feels the most at home.

Photo by Clyde He on Unsplash

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