Flashing Back (Again)

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.

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.