What allows an audience to make sense of stories with complex nonlinear time structures that are radically different from everyday experience? To address this question, we distinguish between two types of narrative nonlinearity: nonlinear storytelling (a non-chronological presentation of events in the narration) and nonlinear storyworlds (nonlinearity as a feature of the narrated world, for instance by way of time-travel or temporal loops). With most scholarly attention focusing on the former, here we focus on the latter, as the question of what allows audiences to make sense of strange and impossible storyworld temporalities has remained somewhat overlooked. Drawing on the available research on text comprehension, we first discuss how both strategies of nonlinearity affect narrative comprehension differently. We then ask what cognitive abilities allow spectators to engage with nonlinear storyworlds. Drawing on insights from conceptual metaphor theory and mental timeline theory, we propose that the comprehension of nonlinear storyworlds is facilitated by the cognitive ability to mentally represent time in terms of space. By metaphorically blending spatial and embodied concepts into narrative timelines, strategies of spatial mental representation allow spectators to conceive and comprehend various forms of phenomenologically non-experienceable time structures—a hypothesis we seek to demonstrate through several cases of nonlinear storyworlds from contemporary complex cinema.

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