Timelines In Writing

So you’re writing a novel where time plays an important part. Maybe your characters only have a few hours or days to handle something. Or maybe you’re jumping back and forth between future and past to try and tell a story in two places at once. Sometimes this means telling parts of a story in flashbacks or flash-forwards (which is a thing now, shush). It works in television—why can’t it work in writing?

The problem with flashbacks in storytelling in general is it removes the reader from the action of now. If you are telling two stories that are intertwined, that’s one thing (as in The Vanishing of Katherine Sullivan by Christina Weaver), but if you are just taking the reader back to a certain point in the life and times of the characters this device must be used carefully because it can often read as a deus ex machina or, even worse, just be an expositionary dump. Neither of those things are your friend, so you need to handle the flow of information carefully.

On the other hand, if you aren’t paying much attention to your timelines you can also make silly errors like starting a scene in the morning and by the end of the fifteen-minute conversation it’s suddenly 3am. I am guilty of having done that more than once because the timeline sort of slips away in my head, and since it’s not important to the plot, I lose track. That kind of thing happens, so make sure when you’re self-editing you look for that kind of thing.

Another type of time faux pas has to do with travel. Is your character going from one place to another? How long should that realistically take? If you’re traveling by horseback going at a comfortable pace for the horse, they can make about 40 miles a day in decent terrain. Much less in harsh terrain. It also depends on the health of the horse, the weather… I could get really technical and boring, but I won’t. However, you do see my point. While most readers (I’m using a lot of italics today) won’t pick up on small things like having a horseback ride take a day or two more or less than it realistically should, make sure you do take into account that kind of information when writing. Particularly, as I said earlier, if time is an important factor in your book.

I currently have a novel in developmental editing that tells a large chunk of a story and then flashes back for a long time before flashing forward again. The problem is, the author wants to avoid giving away the story outside of the flashbacks (for good reason), so they have characters discover information that isn’t shared with the reader until this large flashback sequence happens. This kind of technique and used in this way is jarring to the reader because it drags them out of a story they’re well-established in (the flashback sequence happens halfway through the novel) and thrusts them into another story with new characters that the reader has heard of by name but doesn’t really know. It’s a little disorienting and feels out of place.

My recommendation to this author is to move some of these flashback chapters out of this large section and insert them earlier into the book, providing a dual timeline for the story and thus giving the reader valuable information earlier on and not destroying the reader’s feeling of intimacy with the main character. The key here is to not have time flowing normally and then ratchet it back before hurling it forward again. It becomes confusing.

I’m sorry if this blog entry isn’t the best ever; it’s written while half-awake. I promise, Wednesday’s will be more interesting, but this particular thing was in my head while working.

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