On May 2, 1941, The New York Times published a review of a movie that the paper’s film critic, Bosley Crowther, called “far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon.”
In fact, Crowther continued, Citizen Kane “comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.” Orson Welles’ soon-to-be classic was “a picture of tremendous and overpowering scope,” he wrote, “not in physical extent so much as in its rapid and graphic rotation of thoughts.”
“A rapid and graphic rotation of thoughts” sounds about right. Citizen Kane was perhaps the most visible film of its time to experiment with non-linear story structure. Not all viewers, though, were as enchanted by its challenging mechanics as Crowther was. In another review of the film, published in the literary magazine Sur shortly after its release, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges chafed at its intersecting and alternating plots and timelines. He criticized the director’s choice to include so many fragments of Kane’s life out of chronological order. And he expressed frustration about Welles’ reliance on the audience to combine those fragments into a cohesive narrative on their own, a task Crowther delighted in.
But research suggests Borges’ reaction may be the more typical one, a reaction to the way humans naturally process stories. H. Porter Abbott, a professor emeritus in the English department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, calls the preference for linear storytelling “a fundamental operating procedure of the mind.” At around 3 years old, our brains begin to compartmentalize sensory information from the world around us into the components of an ongoing narrative, with each of us at the center. We view our lives as a series of actions, causes, and effects that together form an ongoing story.
And just as living within a story is universal, so too is telling them. Tens of thousands of years before Crowther wrote his review, his prehistoric ancestors were using this process to communicate critical information in a way that would stick (a life-or-death warning about a dangerous predator, for example, is remembered more easily when told in story form). But at some point, prehistoric storytellers began spinning yarns for fun as well as survival—and the tools used to tell stories have remained largely unchanged over the thousands of years since. Abbott says some theorists consider three elements to be the “tripod” of any compelling story: suspense, curiosity, and surprise.
Matt Bezdek, a postdoctoral psychology researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, studies the neurological impact of those ancient tools in his lab today. “In moments when perceived threats to characters are increasing in a narrative, the audience focuses their attention,” Bezdek says. “There's decreased processing of the visual periphery and increased processing of wherever the narrative is taking place.”
When we watch movies, in other words, we remember more when there’s more at stake. In memory tests, Bezdek says, people remember the events of a film that occur at moments of high suspense better than they do events from the movie’s calmer points.
From epic poems, which often begin in medias res (in the middle of the action) to the works of modernist authors like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, storytellers in intervening millennia have increasingly experimented with non-linear narrative, weaving timelines, perspectives, and scenes and disordering structure.
“Disrupting the presentation of a story and deranging the order in which we are fed information is ancient,” Abbott says. “And it's part of the pleasure of narrative. The question is, when do you go too far?”
A study published in PLOS ONE in December 2015 may offer a clue. In that paper, a team of psychologists showed participants either an intact version of Alfred Hitchcock’s 23-minute film Bang! You’re Dead, or a scrambled version of the same film, with the scenes presented out of order. Both audiences were instructed to lift a hand each time they heard the word “gun” spoken in the film, which centers around a 5-year-old who comes across a real gun and walks around town shooting at people, thinking it’s a toy. The people who viewed the intact version performed significantly worse on the task than those watching the scrambled version.
“We wanted to give subjects a goal that they had to maintain throughout the duration of a highly engaging film,” says Anna-Lisa Cohen, the lead author of the study and an associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University. “Somehow, even though they viewed the exact same content, the fact that we disrupted the order of the scenes meant they were more disengaged from the film … [but] when they watched the film in the intact form and were drawn in, they completely forgot what they were doing.”
The results of that study illustrate humans’ innate preference for linear narrative, Abbott says: “In disrupting Bang! You're Dead to that extent, the audience could count the references to guns because that's how you maintain interest in what's happening," Abbott says. "You just drop the whole idea of trying to figure out the story and say, ‘Okay, now I’ll listen for gun.’”
Some works may circumvent this problem, though, by weaving a linear story together with a more disjointed one. “The standard mode of a mystery story is to tell two stories,” Abbott says. “One happens somewhat sequentially in time: Somebody comes into Sherlock Holmes' studio and says there's this terrible mystery, I can't figure it out. Sherlock and Watson start to work it out. That happens chronologically, but at the same time we're piecing this story together in the past: Who killed this guy and why?” This basic mystery blueprint—often attributed to Edgar Allen Poe, who used it in The Murders of the Rue Morgue in 1841—has the three key elements: suspense, curiosity, and surprise.
But that doesn’t mean stories that abandon linearity altogether are abandoned by the masses. It may mean, however, that some people find them a little harder to love. As Borges wrote at the end of his critique: “I venture to guess, nonetheless, that Citizen Kane will endure as certain … films have ‘endured’—films whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again.”