Should narratives be linear?

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.)
Illustration by ilker • freeimages.com

Illustration by ilker • freeimages.com

The narrative trick I’m talking to is one I see only in unpublished manuscripts by new writers.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?


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

5 comments on “Should narratives be linear?

  1. It must be a new author thing. I seem to recall trying it in a few of my early stories. But the only actual non-linear book I’ve ever read is Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones. The fun thing is, it FEELS linear, and the characters know things are happening out of order. The whole book is a puzzle, with some mind-blowing plot twists.

    But Jones was also a master storyteller. 🙂

    • The characters know things are happening out of order…sounds like a River and Doctor moment…:D But yes, it takes a master to pull that off. I really need to add some of her books to my read list. Not that it needs to be any longer, LOL…

  2. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett starts with the end of the book but pulls out of it at a critical point, so the actual resolution is held in question until it reaches that point again. With that story, the intensely dramatic end acts as a teaser to keep you reading. How did things get to such a dire situation? Does Tiffany Aching break free of the Wintersmith’s cold attention and save the life & livelihood of the village? Very effective.

    With stream of consciousness stories (The Sound and the Fury by Wm. Faulkner comes to mind), the narrative may or may not be linear, but the point of the story is less about the sequence of events than about the impact of events on the characters’ psyches. There’s a back and forth flow as the characters deal with the narrative in their own minds, mirroring how we often think and make associations on a daily basis.

    But stories like those come from authors who’ve mastered basics. What you’re talking about (regarding the unpublished stories) sounds more like the writers trying to come up with an imitative formula without understanding basics or what’s actually going on in well-done stories using non-linear techniques.

  3. The movie Sliding Doors comes to mind.

    I’m dealing with a similar issue in my WIP where chapter x tells it from one character’s pov and the next chapter tells the same time sequence from another character’s pov.
    My wife wasn’t thrilled. I have to rethink it.

    I think the problem you mentioned re new writers may come from a desire to add suspense? Maybe they don’t feel the scene is interesting enough on its own… (so cut it, right?)

    Oh and hey, do you remember the scene in Funny Farm when the wife reads the first draft of Chevvy’s book? Classic new writer including the flashback (and even a flash forward =)

    * sorry if this is a duplicate post. Smart phone? Not so much.

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