Timeline Hopping

Troyzan787

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I am curious about everyone's opinion on jumping around a timeline. For example, what I am currently working on there is the main story thread that takes place in the "present" and several chapters that take place "XYZ Years Ago" to focus on various characters' past.

Some questions that have lingered in my head:

Do you think this makes it hard to keep a timeline conceptualized for a reader?

Are there more clever ways to develop a character?

Should there be some logic to the time jumps? As in, having a group of chapters that go to "10 Years ago" then "5 Years Ago"...etc versus sprinkling them throughout without a specific order
 
Should there be some logic to the time jumps? As in, having a group of chapters that go to "10 Years ago" then "5 Years Ago"...etc versus sprinkling them throughout without a specific order
I think so, and with a narrative device that threads them together, even superficially. That will assist the reader in understanding that Jack was busy buying a pail around the same time Jill was scouting wells.
 
This is a common story-telling structure since ancient times, the literary term is “in medias res.” Shouldn’t be too confusing for readers.
 
Off the top of my head I can think of two novels which might help you as they have extended backstory dropped into the main, present-day, story which takes up the bulk of the book (as opposed to frame stories eg The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss where the present day tale is considerably shorter than the backstory contained within).

The Lies of Locke Lamorna by Scott Lynch, with the use of childhood episodes, but I don't remember if these are chapters long, and I know that I found the beginning very slow, perhaps as a result.

The Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick has alternate chapters which deal with the MC's current difficulties/adventures on the one hand and fill us in on his life story on the other. Again, for my taste too slow moving, and much of what was provided as backstory could have been summed up in a few paragraphs, and it felt that the structure of alternating chapters was given precedence over the demands of the story -- the tail wagging the dog. I can't now recall if the chapters had dates on them, but it was very clear which was which.

Personally, I'd be wary of having a lot of backstory dumped in a number of chapters, but certainly you'd need to have some kind of heading to make it obvious what's happening when. But if you're going the whole hog of having several chapters of eg 10 years ago etc because they're vital to understand the present day story, is there a reason why aren't you starting the novel with them, instead of jumping back in time?

In one of my WiPs I've attempted to solve the backstory problem by having occasional interludes in first person from the main character in which she gives details of her past, in chronological order. These are set between chapters -- being placed in the hope they effectively give explanations for things happening next -- and are clearly marked as different, but there are only 14 of them spread amongst 40+ chapters, and together they only amount to around 4100 words in total, with the longest less than 500 words.
 
Too much backstory is too much exposition, but story told out of time is just story.
In cinema, I think Pulp Fiction is an example of doing it well - the timeline is all over the place, and it’s great.

As long as the reader knows early on that your timeline is changing (for example, chapter headings with dates) you should be fine.
 
Speaking as a reader, I can easily tolerate flashbacks if they are clearly marked as to time, like 5 years earlier or something most of the time. I read several novels by Skylar Ramirez where those flashbacks always seemed to occur just before a revelation of some kind. Each time the story has worked up to a climax of some sort and just as you were about to get it, BANG 10 years earlier. It makes me want to scream, but notably does not make me stop reading his stuff.
 
Another option is to have certain characters that only appear in one time period. It is a character identifier that immediately tells the audience what time period they're in.

Epistolary and/or Bottle narratives do this very well -- as TheJudge mentioned, Name of the Wind is a great example, Sunkiller Chronicles does the same thing, or, if you prefer the original version, I, Claudius. The Epistolary, even more than the bottle, gives the character the ability to directly address the audience and state what is happening and that they are recounting the story.
 
My current thriller starts and finishes in 2030, but I reveal the cause and development of the mystery in regular flashbacks beginning in 2002 and progressing chronologically through the novel. Each chapter, even ones within the same time period, is headed with the date and location. I'm pretty sure this will all be easy to follow for readers, but I'll see how it all hangs together at the end. I've been wracking my brain for a few decades regarding the best wat to tell this story, so my fingers are crossed!

I agree with your concerns about the reader following along. I'm keen to always do that as I don't want readers interrupting the flow by wondering where they are in the story.
 
The virtusoso of the timeline hop has to be Kazuo Ishigiru - he's pretty much built his entire career on the device. Many of his novels are told equally in the past and the present, with flashbacks appearing in any order he feels like. "The Remains of the Day" is mainly in the "past."
 
This is a common story-telling structure since ancient times, the literary term is “in medias res.” Shouldn’t be too confusing for readers.
In medias res refers to starting a story in the middle of it, not flashbacks or sequences in the past after a plot has begun. I'll admit, i wouldn't even know this if it wasn't the device I'm relying on as a hook, lol


To OP, I think what your describing can totally work but can also be seriously jarring if done wrong, or haphazardly. Maybe you could include a short prologue to convey the information if you aren't sure how to go about flashbacks. I don't think it, by itself, makes the timeline hard to understand, but you could make it convoluted if you aren't careful. I think there needs to be internal logic to the flashbacks, but that doesn't mean that they need to be in a particular order or anything. IE, if you go into a flashback chapter with no warning, that could be jarring and awkward, but if say a characters falls asleep and you reveal they are dreaming of a memory that has relevance to the plot at the time, that makes sense. And these are just my opinions, i'm looking forward to reading all the others because I have a similar thing i might need to do to a much smaller extent in my WIP.
 
The virtusoso of the timeline hop has to be Kazuo Ishigiru - he's pretty much built his entire career on the device. Many of his novels are told equally in the past and the present, with flashbacks appearing in any order he feels like. "The Remains of the Day" is mainly in the "past."
The Remains of the Day is a perfect novel--both generally speaking and to highlight moving between timelines with ease and concision.
 

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