Timeliness with Timelines

Light_FlashWriting 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.

OR:

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.

12 Comments on Timeliness with Timelines

  1. I’ve never quite thought about time like that…interesting concept. Love your examples…

  2. Nice blog, Aaron! If I recall correctly, Jennifer Egan does a lot of flashforwards in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Thanks for reminding me of this cool, textured technique.

  3. Darryl_Sanderson | April 23, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Reply

    I like this blog entry. I hardly ever think about adding a flashforward and I think I will try to use them. I think if I can get this technique down correctly, it would improve my writing by alot.

  4. I have a lot of flashbacks in my novel, but that’s what happens when you take a story that spans over more than a century and then start in the middle.
    Flashforwards are another matter entirely. I have seriously considered throwing them into a few points of my work to spice things up, but have not yet gotten to a point at which it would be convenient to do so. C’est la vie, though. I suppose I’ll keep practicing in short stories until I’m comfortable enough with the concept to incorporate it into a long-term project.
    Those are some very nice examples, by the way. One of the best ways to master a new technique is to study the master. But that’s why the lot of us took the Creative Fiction Writing Class, isn’t it?

  5. Alyssa Varney | April 25, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Reply

    When I write stories I usually don’t flashback because I don’t really like going back in time and telling you how they met and lived their lives before. I think I will start writing flashbacks and see how my stories will turn out. I also think if I did flashbacks it would improve my story.

  6. Karolina Bibian | April 29, 2012 at 11:16 am | Reply

    I love flash backs in a story. I have not tried it my self since I don’t really know exactly how to do it….but I think I might try it real soon (: My favorite example is the rain one I brings me back to when I was in elementary and I used to have to stay in while it rains!!

  7. John Powderly | April 29, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Reply

    Flashbacks are always really fun to write in my opinion because you can always go back and explain why the character is making certain decisions. Although I’ve never written a flashforward before, mainly because i wouldn’t know how to go about it.

  8. Dustin Garza | April 30, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply

    the flashback about Billy made me feel like i can relate. once in first grade my grandmother died and on that day it rained. the sweet fresh smell of rain always makes me feel like a kid again with no cares in the world but also reminds me of the fun times i had with my grandmother.

  9. alexandria heins | May 1, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply

    I enjoy a well placed flashback but I think nailing the flash forward is even more impressive. I’ve used flashbacks before and its a nice way to quickly give a tidbit that will later impact the character.

  10. Brittany Walters | May 2, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Reply

    Flashbacks always make stories a bit more interesting. However, I don’t enjoy a story that has billions of flashbacks. It’s okay to have a few, but it gets ridiculous if there’s a lot. Especially if it’s a flashback of the main character eating a hamburger or something like that. I read a story like that once. It didn’t even make sense or relate to the story at all. I fthere’s going to be a flashback, it has to be interesting and meaningful. It has to go along with the story.

  11. Whitney Dunn | May 3, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Reply

    Flashbacks are interesting. They really do add a different spin on a story. Writing them is very tricky. It’s a true skill. It gives the reader a different perspective on the character. We all get those flashback moments that make our lives more interesting as well.

  12. Cameron Rohskothen | May 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply

    Flashbacks come down to how you word them, but generally they are not too difficult. Commonly, my main challenge with writing is timing. Sometimes I do not know which scenes to slow down and focus on, and I also have some difficulty sorting out the order of events in my stories.

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