Flashbacks and Other Chronological Complications

Is it confusing to mix up chronology in a work of fiction? Is it best to stick to strict chronological order when following a story’s arc?

The matter of narrative chronology in a work of fiction stirs up a variety of clashing opinions, at least in the novelists’ critique group I frequent. Some say that any deviations from the linear are frivolous and confusing. Others (and I am one of them) think that judicious use of chronological irregularity adds depth and texture to a novel.

It depends on how the narrative is presented. First person confessional is very different from third person omniscient. A disembodied narrator relating an event or sequence of events is quite different from a character remembering events of personal significance. In the latter case, flashbacks allow the writer to imbue events in a character’s past with thoughts and feelings from the narrative present.

(If you found the last sentence confusing, you may wish to stop reading right here).

Case in point: Islands of the Gulf, the middle book of my Herbert West Trilogy. Its principal character, Herbert West a.k.a. Francis Dexter, reminisces about his childhood and young manhood while convalescing from illness on Bellefleur Island in 1933. To remind the reader of that narrative present, I begin most chapters with a few observations about that situation — things that are happening around him as he relaxes on the sofa or deck chair or whatever. One of those observations segues into the past and the narrative resumes where it left off at the end of the previous chapter.

These time-shifts provoked some quibbling, but real dissent arose when I introduced further time-hops within the main narrative, as when my narrator leaves the 1890s of his childhood to relate a small incident from London when he was there during the Great War.

Thinking about this subject brought to mind one of my favourite Stephen King books, Gerald’s Game. Like my novel, it consists in large part of the main character’s memories, relived while she is in a very difficult situation. Her efforts to extricate herself from that situation are interwoven with the memories, and chronological shifts occur frequently. Unlike mine, this book is narrated in third person (but an extremely “close” third person).

For what it’s worth, here are my ideas on flashbacks and chronological mix-ups. First, use them sparingly. I admit to a fondness for this device and have to make myself use it wisely. My fellow novelists are not always wrong when they pounce on it. Flashbacks and memories must be used with a clear purpose in mind, not tossed in frivolously. Second, test rigorously for the confusion factor by asking someone objective and trustworthy to read the entire section in which time shifts occur. It’s important that this reading be as similar as possible to recreational, rather than critical, reading. I’ve noticed that confusion sometimes results when meetings of critique groups are separated by several weeks and members forget important details from material read weeks or months before.

Finally, if in doubt, delete and simplify. Time-hopping in fiction is like a spice or garnish in cooking. Too little is better than too much.