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Some stories tell well from beginning to end, all in a neat little line...and some don't.

When can a story be improved by using a different order in the telling?


Off the top of my head, I'd say flashbacks are great when something doesn't make sense out of the context of what is happening now in the story, or when something that happened long ago (before the story's timeline begins) is important to the story.

Also, in a project I'm working on, the story begins at a point where it is very hard to introduce the characters well, so I started at a point after that, then transitioned to a flashback on how they got to that point. It seems to be working out well.

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@neilfein: Nice tag addition, thanks for thinking of it. –  HedgeMage Nov 24 '10 at 4:09
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7 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

What's the most important thing that your readers need to know right way? What's the scene that will drag them into your story? The answers to those questions will tell you what should come first.

It's certainly possible to write a convoluted, insanely complex story, jumping back and forth in time. Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "Start as close to the end as possible", and he was amazingly skilled at writing such a book. Neil Gaiman writes stories nested within other stories, and then you find out you've been in another story all along. There's an entire genre of fiction based on the non-linear narrative, and its called detective fiction.

Can you making it easy for your reader to follow along? If so, there's no reason not to make your story more interesting by using non-linear narrative tools. If you're using them just to add spice to your story, then its going to be obvious that you're trying to pull one over on the reader.

To sum up, it all depends on the story you're telling. What is the absolute core of the story? Use whatever techniques will drive the story forward, including this.

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Just reading that Vonnegut quote out of context, I would say that it's actually a generic quote and not something specific to writing a non-linear narrative. It's akin to "don't use unnecessary exposition," but just said more cleverly. –  StrixVaria Nov 24 '10 at 5:45
    
Good advice. I'd add "Do what your story demands. Even (and especially) if it goes against all the rules you know" –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 14:37
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Perhaps the most common reason to tell a story out of order is to put an exciting scene at the beginning to get the reader interested. Then go back and put in all the exposition to explain how that scene came to happen.

Another reason is if telling the story in order would give away important information to soon. Others have mentioned mystery stories. If you're writing a mystery where the reader is supposed to be trying to figure out who the villain is along with the detective, than of course starting out with the scene where the villain commits the crime could give it all away. Of course many stories have a "mystery" without being mystery stories in the sense of being about a crime, and the same reasoning might apply.

Some stories involve numerous flashbacks as information is progressively revealed.

Any given story might naturally call for non-linear time for any number of reasons. A story about an old man reminiscing about the past would quite naturally involve flashbacks. Perhaps you want to display the chaotic state of the hero's mind. Etc.

As John Smithers says, if you do write a non-linear story, be careful that it is clear what is the present and what is the past. I have occasionally read stories where something was supposed to be a flashback and I didn't realize it, and the story was confusing until I figured it out. This can be done as simply as putting a date at the front of each section or giving clear introductions to the flashbacks, like "Jack thought back to when ..." Remember to also make it clear when the flashback is over, by the way.

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I'm writing my murder/mystery debut novel. It takes place between 1980 and 2005. In 1980 someone gets murdered, and the killer(whoever it is) gets away with it, planting evidence on another character. That is my main plot.

I believe every character should have their own subplot-- Every character is living their ordinary life, when they get pulled into the story. In 2005, certain events happen that bring the original plot back on the surface. The case gets opened back up, when my protagonist looks into what had happened in 1980, and I go back and fourth between the 1980 plot, and the present day plot.

I feel the need to do it this way, so the reader does not get confused. What i do is, if my last chapter was in 2005, and i wanna go back to 1980, is at the top of the new chapter, i put a subtitle.(July 4,1980), and when i go back to 2005, i put the subtitle (September 12,2005).

That way the reader knows exactly where they are, and they can see flashbacks of how the original plot comes together with the present day plot, until the final resolution. They get to see what brought certain characters together, and the reader can eventually connect the dots to the whole story.

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Just be aware, why flashbacks are considered bad: Many people cannot follow them.

Take as example the movie Pulp Fiction. There is a character which is shot during the movie (I do not want to spoil). Later in the movie you see him alive again for an (for me) obvious reason: the movie is now showing a scene which took place later (like a flashback).

I think that Tarantino made that crystal clear. This scene is introduced like a new chapter. Nevertheless there a lot of people who did not get, why this character is now alive again. They could not follow that jump into the past.

So even if you think the readers should be able to follow your flashback, some won't. That does not mean you shouldn't do it. It means, you should be aware, that these readers will close your book and say "Man, what a stupid plot. That sucks!". You cannot satisfy them all.

It also can reduce your chances getting your book published the traditional way (publisher know, that some people do not like flashbacks, i.e. less money for the publisher). It makes things for you a little bit harder, but if you think it's worth it, go for it.

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Obviously if you need to withhold something from the readers, such as the background of a character or past events that have relevance for the plot, you will need to use a flashback. Flashbacks about a character that is not the main focus of the novel can help to reveal motives and help enhance the plot. This is because the reader than can better understand their actions and what drives them, without having a first-person view.

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Call me boring, but, at least for now, I only disobey the chronological order for historical-based interludes. In my current novel, which spans for thousands of years, I need to sometimes describe events that happened a long time in the past, so that I present them as sources or motives for events in the present.

Character introductions is another area when you can benefit from this, but you shouldn't abuse it.

I think that it is very difficult to write a novel which makes often use of multiple time layers. That is because usually, the brain perceives time linearly. It's a technique which is hard to master. But if you only use it sparingly, you should definitely take advantage of your inner time machine ::- D.

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I think you found one of the big uses: Character introductions. There are many books that have a segment along the lines of "As they were riding the train to Lyon, he couldn't help but to look at her and her perfect auburn hair. It was this hair that immediately caught his eye when he first saw her 6 years ago. It was the graduation party at her brothers house..." and from there you're in the middle of a flashback that serves as introduction.

Crime Novels can benefit from this as well. You start with the Police investigating the crime, and then you intermix the story of the Murderer, how he meets his victim, how she disappointed him, how he plots the murder and how it is executed - constantly switching between present (Police) and past (Murder) until the point you merge them (After the murder, the Murderer goes hiding and from here we don't hear his story until the police (who found enough clues in the meantime) find him shortly after).

I don't know if the type out-of-sync telling that is sometimes used in movies for great effect (e.g., Irréversible is told backwards and the ending has a weird impact when watching it after the rest of the later events) works in books as well, but I think that occasional out of sync telling is extremely commonplace.

I don't know a book that's completely avoiding a traditional timeline storytelling though. The Wikipedia Article about Nonlinear narrative contains some examples.

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"the story of the Murderer, how he meets his victim, how she disappointed him" -> laugh @ "she disappointed him". Yeah, die-die-die my darling ::- D. –  Axonn Nov 23 '10 at 23:52
    
@Axonn Well, "rejected" would have been the proper word, but I guess the idea is clear :P –  Michael Stum Nov 24 '10 at 0:05
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