Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Time: you can ignore it, but you can’t escape it.
With that sobering thought out of the way, let’s examine just what can be done about time in fiction. Just like in the real world, time and chronology will be present in your fiction whether you want them to be or not. You can choose to ignore them and progress simply and quietly from A to B, or you can recognize time’s undeniable power and presence and work to integrate it into your story in interesting and engaging ways.Chronology decides the order in which plot points are revealed to the reader.Click To Tweet
I’m not just talking about madly experimental postmodern works that fragment, subvert, or deny time; there’s also the simple detective story that opens with the murder and works backward, the humble flashback, and the timeline that finds itself slowed through stylistic choices and introspective narration.
But what can time do for you? Why fix what ain’t broke? Well, chronology is the frame your story and its world(s) operate within. As such, chronology affects everything from what the reader sees and knows to the development of your characters. Unconventional chronology can elevate a particular event to near-mythical status, can double down on your story’s dominant themes, and can make your readers distrust their own eyes. Time is an incredibly powerful tool, but as Spider-Man’s uncle once said, with great power must come great responsibility. Let’s dig a little deeper.
Working backward has been a favorite storytelling method among writers of mysteries for centuries, with authors including Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie helping popularize this method in genre fiction. Typically, the actual flow of time doesn’t change; instead, the majority of the book’s plot is simply located in the analysis and recounting of past events.
The benefit of such writing is obvious. A conclusive scene or event is presented, and the fun comes in the reader (and the detective) attempting to work out how that conclusive event was reached. What’s interesting about this method in terms of chronology is that the present tense of the story – i.e. the post-murder investigation – normally takes a back foot to the exploration of a recounted and acknowledged in-plot past tense. By this I mean that unclear histories, stories, and testimonies of fallible characters take center-stage, while the events of the actual, present world are pushed back.
This has the effect of granting the past a certain importance, and the resulting narrative pattern is one that begins in the present, swings back to the past for the majority of the plot, and then finally builds its way back to the present as the facts and realities of the past become clear. This structure allows for the maintenance of tension and the extension of mystery, and helps the reader invest in the story’s stakes.
But some stories go a step further. Texts like Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow adopts reverse chronology entirely; that is, they start from the final scene and work backwards. This is often used to amp up the shock value of a story and to make readers reflect on their actions without the benefit of an informing context.
This is certainly the case in Time’s Arrow where (spoiler alert) the reader follows the book’s protagonist, a somewhat nervous retired doctor, backward from old age, eventually learning that the doctor was a Nazi scientist who took part in the torture of Jews during the Holocaust. This revelation provides every plot point prior to it with a horrific new context that changes the entire story.
A similar method is used in the French film Irréversible, which recounts several brutal acts of violence in reverse order before finally exposing the initial act that sparked the savage spree. The filmmakers’ aim was, among other things, to show how completely the order of events and the flow of time dictates the meanings and judgements we assign to certain acts. That said, I wouldn’t recommend turning to Irréversible for some casual research; Roger Ebert called it ‘a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable.’ Yikes.
Of course, good planning is central to this technique – if you fancy trying reverse chronology yourself, make sure you have everything mapped out. After all, the reader may not know what your characters’ pasts hold, but you do, and you have to make sure that those pasts remain believable and coherent even in present-day/future scenes. Remember: everything has already happened. Your ex-Nazi doctor will be struggling with fear and remorse (hopefully!) even before the reader learns he was a Nazi doctor.If you’re going to use unusual chronology, make sure to plan out the plot in detail.Click To Tweet
Ah, the humble flashback, the overused trope of pretty much every genre of fiction. But don’t let me put you off: done well, flashbacks can be an effective and startling method of providing insight into your characters’ motives, delivering key pieces of information, and fleshing out your world.
- Show your characters in a different light: not half-formed, but different – less mature, perhaps, or deeply stressed by something that, in the story’s present, is no longer worrying them.
- Make sure your readers care about the story’s main conflict and the character whose past you’re exploring. If you haven’t done the legwork in the present, the flashback isn’t going to be worth breaking up and pausing the main plot.
- Make it clear that you’re going back in time. You could change the tense, for example, or format the break differently, or find a way to make the time, date, and setting clear.
- Make sure every line is doing something: communicate vital information about your characters, the world they inhabit, the dominant power dynamics, and the emotional landscape.
- Write an active scene: show, don’t tell.
- Be tempted to bury little references to the present in your flashbacks. This is never worth it – all it does is make the mechanism seem contrived. Your flashback has to stand on its own and cannot be assessed on its relevance to the present.
- Be tempted to water down the past with gimmicks and cliché, and don’t just adapt the story’s present.
You don’t have to explicitly bend time to complicate chronology in your fiction. Many writers instead opt to include multiple timelines or else to blur the ‘actual’ timeline of the book’s events by locating much of the story’s plot and drama in a character’s head.
Take Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The events of this colossal book span a relatively short time – the months following a pawn-broker’s death – and yet years seem to pass in the protagonist’s mind. The reader is essentially dealing with two different timelines that fluctuate depending on the foregrounded perspectives and Raskolnikov’s mental state.
Sometimes he fancied he had been lying there a month; at other times it all seemed part of the same day. But of that – of that he had no recollection, and yet every minute he felt that he had forgotten something he ought to remember.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
This has several effects. Firstly, the reader realizes that Raskolnikov really is having a bad time; his very perception of time and of the world he inhabits is skewed by the sickness brought on by his crime. Additionally, Dostoevsky’s treatment of time – his insistence that Raskolnikov experience it feverishly and painfully – hammers down on the book’s proto-modernist themes: monadism, isolation, guilt, morality, and nihilism. The dual timelines separate the reader from Raskolnikov, who is left alone, his turmoil elevated and observed.
Dual timelines can also be explicit rather than rooted psychologically. An obvious example is Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. In this wildly popular sci-fi/romance, a woman is married to a man who moves sporadically through time, while she occupies a regular linear timeline. The book is a poignant meditation on love, separation, and free will, and its central circular conflict – the question of whether the husband and wife get married because he visited her when she was a child (she has known him her whole life) or because she, meeting him as an adult at a time before he time-traveled back to her childhood and told her they would one day marry, told him they would get married. It’s a bizarre and complex situation that results in a unique story that asks sad, heavy questions, and the book owes its thematic fluency and its central drama to its clever manipulation of dual timelines.
Fragmentation and circles
For every novel that subtly plays with time, there’s one that calls the whole thing off and goes a bit mad. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for example, finds inventive ways to tie six different worlds and six different timelines together. The result is an operatic epic that locates its seemingly unrelated stories around several enduring themes. In this case, the sheer multiplicity of timelines and worlds interacts with the intimate and human stories told within them to create a rich juxtaposition. In short, the book uses the vastness of time and space to frame its central themes as icons of near-transcendent importance.Treating time in an unusual way can direct the reader’s attention to key moments or themes.Click To Tweet
Then there’s Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, where time, itself the central theme of the novel, is used to frame drama and develop characters in intimate and surprising ways. As the book’s title suggests, time is presented as a goon who ends up beating the living daylights out of each of the book’s characters. Structurally, the book reflects the plot: as the characters are beaten, readers are thrown from one story to another without warning or transition, swept up in the drama of the failing characters. Reorientation becomes a near-constant state as readers are forced to get used to the sudden foregrounding of previously minor characters and the shifting settings and time periods of a given chapter. In this way, the structure of the book shapes the reader’s experience of the plot it describes, and the reader is forced to vicariously experience the same turmoil afflicting the book’s time-beaten characters.
The lesson to take from these examples is that time is never toyed with simply for the sake of it. Because time is something that the author always has complete control over, you’re free to do anything with it – but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. When Joseph Heller subverts temporal linearity completely and occasionally cycles back through events he’s already described in Catch-22, he’s not doing it to be quirky – he’s doing it because an absurd exit is the only one possible for the characters facing horrific fates in the absurd world he imagines. When Wilson Harris has his crew drown in one chapter and then wander the jungle a few pages later in The Palace of the Peacock, he’s not denying the linearity of time for no reason: he’s doing it because he considers the concept of linear time an imposition forced upon Central American natives by European colonizers. Now, you don’t need to have reasons as heavy or as academic as these, but if you’re going to do something, know why you’re doing it.
Time is running out
There are all sorts of things you can do with time in your fiction, and I can’t hope to cover them all here. Long before Proust stunned the literary world with his famous madeleine, writers were thinking about how time could be toyed with to better frame plots, develop characters, and foreground themes. More recently, writers of thrillers and detective fiction have used time to cleverly conceal and reveal key moments in their plots, and modernist and postmodernist writers have fragmented their chronologies in innovative, unusual ways so as to reflect our absurd realities.
There’s certainly plenty to think about and to try yourself, so stop taking time and chronology for granted – make them work for you.
What are your favorite books that feature unusual chronologies? Have you tried writing an unusual chronology yourself? Let us know in the comments, or check out Passing Time Is The Secret To Improving Your Story for more great advice on this topic.