Timeliness with Timelines
Writing a novel demands a firm control of pacing, character, conflict, setting, etc. One thing writers seldom consider, though, is the control they need to demonstrate with time. The beauty of writing is that we can control time. This is not a skill limited to time travel stories. In fact, time-travel stories are often very chronologically based. That is, it follows the chronology of the protagonist. However, non-chronological stories arrange events not in order of time, but often, of relationships. While a relational structure may seem different, there is precedent for it.
The human mind works hard to draw relationships between events and experiences. Walk outside in the rain, and the scent of wet pavement will remind you of when you were in third grade, and you went to school in the biggest downpour you’d ever seen. You stayed in the classroom that whole day, starting out the window, imagining the Ark floating by.
Or you walk into a theatre, and the smell of heavily buttered popcorn instantly reminds you of your first date with your wife, long before you married her, long before she divorced you, long before you had children or a mortgage. You wonder then what happened to her, and what happened to you, to make her leave. The thoughts make it difficult to enjoy your date with your new girlfriend.
While writers are not afraid of throwing in flashbacks, they seldom remember that they can also jump forward in time. Flashforwards can be fun, though they’re tough to pull off. Take the above examples. Here’s how they might sound:
Billy had never seen rain like this before. It changed the way he thought of weather, of how he viewed the world. It made him feel smaller than he already was, and he realized how important it was to have people to protect him—his mother and father, his teacher who kept the class in the room all day, who played heads-up seven-up with them while the playground flooded. Years later, at forty years old, Billy would see rain like this again. He’d be behind the wheel of his 2032 hybrid Corvette, driving faster than he should. He’d remember this day in third grade moments before he would lose control and careen into the side of the mountain.
When Billy was with Samantha, everything seemed more vibrant. He’d seen hundreds of movies in his eighteen years, but now, the popcorn smelled even more of butter and salt. The lights around the posters twinkled faster, brighter. Later, after marrying Samantha, having children, buying a house, and getting divorced, Billy would remember this day. He’d think of Samantha’s innocence, her understated beauty, her crushingly adorable smile, and wonder what happened to them, to her, to make her leave him. Even then, he’d love Samantha so much, he’d find it hard to love another, even the woman who would be with him that day, the one who would lean her head on his shoulder and hold his hand.
Flashforwards provide a different texture to the prose, a different flavor. Even if you don’t plan on using flashforwards in your novel, you may want to write a short story or two that features a few prominent jumps in time, just to get practice with it.
There’s much more to say about non-chronological stories, but I think I’ve said enough for now. Next week, we’ll jump back in to the subject.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, make sure you check out my last post. I’m putting up my first YA Fantasy novel, section by section, each Friday. Would love to have you follow along. Until then, good writing.