When I’m editing, I almost always advise fiction clients to keep their narratives in chronological order. There are just very few cases when it makes sense to tell a story out of order. I can only think of a few examples of this working:
- Time-travel stories. Doctor Who can be as nonchronological as it needs to be.
- Framed narratives like To Kill A Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye. There’s a framing sequence, with a first-person narrator telling a story that happened Back Then.
- Flashbacks to show stuff that happened outside the novel’s timeline. If your story starts in the present day, and you have to use a flashback to show something that happened years prior, that’s a valid narrative device. (Don’t listen to those grumps who tell you no flashbacks. You can flash back all you want if you do it well.)
The narrative trick I’m talking to is one I see only in unpublished manuscripts by new writers. I call it jump forward-jump back. It looks like this: Chapters 1-3 take place in chronological order—say, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Then Chapter 4 Scene 1 shows the hero on Thursday night recovering from some disaster that just happened. Scene 2 shows the events Thursday morning leading up to the disaster, and Scene 3 is the actual disaster on Thursday afternoon. Then Chapter 5 is Friday.
What is up with that? Why would you grab a scene out of order and stick it two scenes early?
Is this some fashionable new narrative technique? Do you do this in your writing?
The only published examples I’ve seen that come close are stories in which a scene from the end is plunked at the beginning as a prologue. Which still strikes me as odd, because putting the ending first destroys all potential tension your reader may have about whether the hero’s going to live.
The good news is that while researching this, I learned some new words.
Narratology is the study of narrative structures. I appear to be at the head of a very long, twisty rabbit trail of research.
Fabula is the contents of the story. Syuzhet is the narrative presentation of the story.
Nonchronological narratives are not unheard of, but they’re kind of experimental and disorienting. Famous example: the movie Memento, which features two timelines, one moving forward in time and one stepping backward in time until, at the end of the movie, the two timelines converge. This was done for a strategic reason: the hero has short-term memory loss, so he doesn’t remember things that just happened. And neither do you, because you as a moviegoer haven’t seen them yet.
If you’d like to bend your mind a bit, examine the fabula/syuzhet chart for Memento.
But I never see jump forward-jump back done with that kind of deliberateness. It always seems as if the author thought of the recovery scene first, so he wrote it first, and then instead of bumping his cursor back up to the top of Chapter 4, he just wrote the other stuff afterward. (I’m not picking on any particular writer, here. This is a hypothetical he.)
I feel very strongly that the events of a narrative should be experienced by the reader in the same order the viewpoint character experiences them. That helps replicate the protag’s experience more directly for the reader.
What do you think? Have you seen jump forward-jump back in published books? More importantly, as a reader, do you find it effective? Or does it irritate you as much as it does me?