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I'm writing a short story with the following structure:

Scene 1: Deshi and Yuqi are in a mountain searching for an abandoned amusement park (Present)

Scene 2: Deshi talks about how he felt when they first reached the mountain and why they came (Flashback)

Scene 3: Deshi tells the reader about when they first heard about the abandoned amusement park (Flashback)

Scene 4: Deshi and Yuqi are in their tent and this is when Yuqi suggests they go check the abandoned amusement park. (Flashback)

Scene 4: Deshi and Yuqi reach a shrine in the mountain and decide to take a break. (Present)

Scene 5: Deshi tells the reader about how he met Yuqi. (Flashback)

Scene 6: Another anecdote related to Yuqi. (Flashback)

Scene 7: They finally reach the abandoned amusement park. (Present)

So as you can see the main character is relating events in the past without a chronological order.

Is this a common plot structure? Will the reader feel confused because the flashbacks don't follow a chronological order (and are totally unconnected)?

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If it worked for Lost it can work for anybody, trust me. –  Singular1ty Jul 31 '13 at 5:19

4 Answers 4

The important question is not whether it is common, but whether it works for your story. It is certainly not "wrong".

Flashbacks in general are certainly common enough that the technique of itself is not going to confuse readers. I don't think there's any particular expectation that flashbacks must come in order, so that coming out of order would be something bizarre that would confuse readers.

As One Monkey says, one way or another make sure you communicate to the reader what is present and what is a flashback. If when each flashback occurs is important, make sure that's clear. In many cases the relative order of flashbacks doesn't matter. Like it may not matter whether Deshi and Yuqi met before or after Deshi learned about the abandoned park. If it does matter, make it clear. If it doesn't, then don't worry about it.

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There's nothing inherently wrong with having a conceptual sequence rather than a chronological one. The important point is that you have some really clear signposting so the reader doesn't get confused.

In a book you can have little titles telling people when things happened. e.g. Oregon, May 1986 | Portland, Nov 1991 etc.

Some people tend to blank over these though so it's not foolproof. Also you are having people talk to one another about things in the past so it may not work out.

However you can use this limitation to your advantage. Just as real people could be confused about the sequencing so the characters in the story may not get it first time also. For those that are keeping up such dialogue should be snappy to make it 'invisible' e.g.

[Out of flashback in which Professor Quimby first gains sight of the Forbidden Temple]

"That was when I first saw the Forbidden Temple in Q'zuhnchuaat Valley," Professor Quimby explained.

"So was it a surprise, finding this temple in the valley?" Smith asked.

"No, I had suspected, even though I didn't tell the Colonel," Quimby replied. "You see it was the first time in 10 millennia that any man had laid eyes on the Temple, but I had read accounts of it. These stories were passed down as myths from the pictographic writings of an obscure valley tribe. I had studied these legends for my thesis at the Academy nearly a decade previously, although my studies proved somewhat dangerous, even then..."

[Into flashback that takes place a decade previous to the earlier flashback while the professor is still at the Academy]

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No, the reader will not feel confused. I've read a book where the flashbacks don't follow a chronological order. In this book the main character was telling the reader what happened to her with flashbacks. There are some books where the flashbacks are memories of the main character, like the De Overgave, it's in Dutch though. Memories (in books) are not always in a chronological order.

So your structure is good!

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Welcome to Writers. Can you edit this answer to cite some books where you've seen this approach work well? That way people can review those works themselves. Thanks. –  Monica Cellio Aug 4 '13 at 19:41

Flashbacks are pretty common and certainly don't have to be in any particular order. That being said, I think the issue with your story outline is that you're not really using the flashbacks as flashbacks per se. Instead you've just created a frame for your story and then you're going back to tell it.

Frames can be useful and fun but in my opinion they're problematic when they're just used as you're using them, literally only at the beginning and the ending. Contrast this with the movie The Princess Bride, which used a framing technique of its own (granted, the regular story wasn't a series of flashbacks, but the device is otherwise the same). It worked fabulously well, at least to me, but a huge, huge part of that was that they kept coming back to the frame over and over again. At key points in the story Fred Savage would ask Peter Falk some question, or else Falk would skip over some part that he thought was too "kissy kissy", and so on. It wasn't just an excuse to start with the present day and go back, it told a story of its own.

On the other hand, a frame that exists only at the beginning and the end of a story generally doesn't work all that well. Just as your audience is getting used to the situation you've thrust your characters in, you're telling them to forget about all of that and go back a few minutes. And if your story is long enough and you don't keep referencing the frame, your audience might not even remember it at all, and soon it becomes extra baggage.

If I were in your position I would consider one of two things:

  • Tell the story from the second scene and just skip the first one, or
  • Come back to the frame every other scene or every third scene to give the audience an update as to what's going on "right now". This can be especially useful if, as in Princess Bride, one character is relating events to another character, but it can also work in a scene where, for instance, people are in a predicament that at first glance seems dire but, once the story is told, turns out to be pretty handle-able (I'm at a loss to come up with examples of this, although I know I've seen this on TV shows a lot).
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