A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about flashbacks in fiction, opining that they are useful but best used sparingly and with specific purposes in mind. Then I began reading a book with helpful chronological flags at the start of some chapters. “The Previous Winter.” “The Present.” “Three Years Earlier.” That got me back to the topic of time shifts.
(Just here I’ll note that I hate labelling chapters to indicate where they are in time. Ideally, time jumps should be signalled clearly within the narrative itself, without the need for little signs saying “You are now in March 2013.” However, I understand that some readers are more easily confused than others and a writer can’t be faulted for helping them out, even at the expense of chronological elegance).
Reading the book with those labels, I was reminded of another reason for flashbacks: a novel opens with the main characters doing something compelling — the proverbial “hook” that draws the reader in. If the book is character- as well as plot-driven, the reader needs to know about the characters’ backgrounds and how they got into the compelling situation in the first place. Obviously it’s not possible to start the book with this stuff, because that will move the “hook” scene beyond the first few pages. Moreover, “backstory” is a dirty word to some. Hence the flashback, to flesh out the characters and give them context once the reader is snared by the drama of the first few pages.
This technique can be formalized if both the narrative present and past feature compelling events. The two story lines can intertwine and reinforce one another, creating a narrative rope to keep the reader firmly tied to the book. Or even if they don’t constitute a storyline of their own, the backstory flashbacks can be used as shots of contrasting mood between chunks of the main story.
I enjoy setting these kinds of parameters and patterns for a work of fiction. Several years ago I wrote a novel in which the chapters alternated between third-person narrator in present tense and first-person past tense. Right now I am trying to get launched on a project alternating chapters featuring the main point-of-view characters (written in third person) with ones in which supporting characters present the fictional world in which the story is set by describing their occupations and professions (in first person). Sadly, I haven’t written enough of this tale as yet to see whether it will work.