Time Keeps Twisting

I am in the process of revising my next book in my Crosspointe Series, The Turning Tide. I’m in the middle of a tricky bit. Essentially the problem is time. When I read, I generally don’t like a lot of flashbacks, and so I don’t tend to include them. Also, I tend to write fairly linear stories in terms of time lines. I’ll jump around in points of view so that I can keep the reader in the moment of each person, always moving ahead in a straight line. But I tried something different with The Turning Tide.

In the middle of the book is an Event. It effects all the point of view characters differently and they each have different post-Event experiences. What I orginally did was to follow the first one through a month. Then I went back two weeks for the next character. Then I went back another week for another character, and then back yet another for the last. Each one I followed forward until they were on the same timeline again, one after another.

My editor did not like it. And I could see her point. It could get confusing for a reader, no matter how many signposts I put in. So now I’m revising. But one of the things I liked about goofing with the time line was that I could make revelations in a particular order so that I could draw out suspense and escalate conflict, and I could develop characters differently. For instance, we get a good peek into the aftermath of the Event for one character that will now be lost. And there’s no smooth way to fit it into the new more linear narrative. But I need to show that he’s deeply affected, since he’s the one who precipitated a pretty awful thing and otherwise might appear completely unsympathetic.  Also, I wanted that immediacy of the post-Event. I’m working on making that work by trying to rearrange things appropriately.

But I’m wondering about how writers and readers feel about time. Do you like flashbacks? Do you like spiraling back to see what happened at the same time other events were happening? Do you prefer a linear time line?  Are there any books you can think of where time was effectively handled in a less than linear way?

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  1. 1. Joe Iriarte

    I don’t mind flashbacks at all; in fact, I rather enjoy them, usually. The only time they ever bother me is when there seems to be a deliberate effort on the part of the author to confuse me about the timing. When there’s a total absence of the sort of signposts you mentioned. This tends to happen, when it does, in more “literary” fiction; it’s like the author is showing off or playing a game more than actually, you know, telling a story.

  2. 2. Mark Wise

    I think it depends on the number of POVs you have. If you have numerous POVs then a story with massive flashbacks would read a lot like marching in mud or getting lost in an endless maze. However, if you keep the POVs to a managable level, then flashbacks can take more of a center stage.

  3. 3. Adam Heine

    I don’t mind flashbacks, necessarily. They’re a tool, and can be used well or poorly. Though I admit that when I get to the beginning of a flashback, I have to struggle to keep reading because my mind is still in the main story line and I Want To Know What Happens Next. (But then that struggle also occurs anytime a story shifts POV or moves to another, simultaneous storylines).

    So it depends how you do it, I guess, which isn’t very helpful, I know. Lord of the Rings and Song of Ice and Fire both back up in time to tell various storylines, but it’s easier for them because the different storylines don’t directly affect each other – they don’t converge. Cryptonomicon also has three storylines that it alternates between chapters, two of them are 50+ years in the past, and they do converge in a way. So it worked there too.

  4. 4. glenda larke

    Hmm. I don’t think I would have any problem with the way you describe what you did initially. In fact, it sounds pretty much like what writers do all the time when they have more than one PoV character and all the characters are not in the same place at the same time. Their roads converge, then part, then meet up again.

    I have 4 main PoV characters in my present trilogy, and that’s the way I am dealing with it. I actually signal the reader by the chapter heading. G.R.R. Martin does this too, by naming his PoV character in the chapter heading. By having each PoV character mention or meet up with the same event, the author signals the reader about the time line. I am surprised your editor didn’t like it, especially when the Event was pivotal.

  5. 5. LJCohen

    The Time Traveler’s Wife does this brilliantly. The entire novel is told non-linearly and it was never confusing to me as a reader. If the issue with time is set up and makes sense within the story’s construct, then it feels natural. Best of luck with your revisions.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    My next book has a couple of scenes described twice from two different POVs. I had to go back in time a bit to set up the scenes, but they’re action scenes and, the first time through, each one is a cliffhanger. My editor didn’t mind, but only time will tell (the book’s out in April) whether anyone else likes it or not.

  7. 7. Ben

    Read Catch-22.

    No two scenes even try follow one another, and the book is considered a staple in American literature.

  8. 8. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Joe: yeah, I know what you mean.

    Mark: and that may have been my editor’s problem. Or part of it. Another part was the structure of the flashbacks. Instead of jumping back once and coming forward, it staggered back, possibly drunkenly.

    Adam: I think I’m in the same boat as you. It’s not that I don’t like them per se, but just that as a reader, I want to keep finding out what’s happening next.

    Glenda: I think part of the problem was that I staggered back, where on chapter went back two weeks, the next went back another week with another character, and the next went back another week with two different characters, then I chased each forward. I thought it made perfect sense, but I knew that others might not really think so.

    LJCohen: You’re absolutely right. Course when the reader knows it’s a time travel issue, they might be more forgiving. Maybe?

    Sam: They will love it. Of course. How could they not? You’re brilliant!

    Ben: True, but then Catch-22 is in a class by itself. Right?

  9. 9. James Alan Gardner

    Usually, when people say, “I don’t like X,” it’s because they can think of several badly done examples and few well done ones. The problem is that well done literary techniques are often invisible — they work so well that we don’t notice them.

    Flashbacks certainly fall into this category. A smooth flashback just happens; even if it’s quite long, the reader falls into it effortlessly and goes the distance. A clunky flashback makes you want to tear your hair out at the intrusive artificiality.

    As with exposition, one of the requirements for selling a flashback is making sure that the reader *wants* to know what you’re going to reveal. You don’t just start in on it; you make sure there’s a hook that makes the reader eager to follow where you’re going. Too often (again like exposition), a flashback can make the reader feel as if the “real” story has ground to a halt while the writer wastes time on something peripheral. If the reader feels assured that your flashback is going somewhere important…well, it won’t seem like a flashback, will it?

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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