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Nonlinear Narrative

Flashbacks, Flashforwards, and Prologues

Many writing enthusiasts, whether published or not, seem to look down on any break in the chronological narrative flow from inciting incident unerringly to denouement. They blythely declare prologues unnecessary foreplay, flashbacks weak choices for world building, and flashforwards as tension-breaking spoilers. What a tragedy if you listen to them. Here is how to make nonchronological storytelling work for you.

Time Machine
Guy Pearce, here in the 2002 version of “The Time Machine,” also starred in the nonlinear film “Memento.”

Completely nonlinear

There is a more extreme version where there is no absolute point of view. You keep reentering scenes with varying amounts of knowledge of what happened before, and an uncertain knowledge of where a scene may be heading.

When considering the structure of my time travel novel, Time Bump, I became convinced that not only would nonlinear narrative work, it might actually aid in building tension and keeping readers attentive. The idea of the fourth dimension (time) being full of paradoxes is only true when we look at it from a third-dimensional perspective, but that is the language we’re stuck with. I feel like readers get more of a sense of what it means to be unstuck from time’s flow experiencing a nonlinear arrangement of events, since there are in some places, three versions of the same scene from the perspective of my main character, Miguel Carlson, arriving from three different points in time. Timelines change as a result of his actions, so things that hadn’t happened do, and things that had happened don’t anymore. What seems like a tragic end, isn’t any more.

You see the device used to good effect in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and the film “Memento.” The jumping around in time in the former allows readers to better understand what’s happening to Billy Pilgrim. The jumping around in time in the latter helps the audience understand how Leonard tries to track down his wife’s killer, now with no long-term memory; he must cope with his vulnerability to exploitation by tattooing important events on his skin.

Prologues

A prologue most often sets the scene for a story when the inciting incident does not easily allow readers to get a sense of scope of the story. It shows them how this little event may fit into a larger and more important context that would take many chapters to convey sticking to linear exposition.

In some cases, this takes the form of a frame story. A frame story is when you introduce one or more narrators relaying the story to some audience, like the various travelers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

In other cases, it is a scene from after the story is over or long before it began, as when Shakespeare summarizes the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” at the start, and then begs his audience to stay and watch how it unfolds in more detail, a way to build anticipation.

Flashbacks

A common way of filling in context for something surprising that happens in the main timeline is to insert a moment, a scene, or a whole chapter that jumps back to an earlier time. This is especially useful when an event needs a lot of context all at once, as when in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang suddenly encounters the skeleton of his old master. There is no other point to indicate how hard Aang takes the loss, because he didn’t know his race was wiped out until about that moment, and it happened before the start of the story, when Aang was trapped in the ice. A writer could try to convey the depth of feeling by reporting only Aang’s physical and verbal cues, but a flashback gives a much clearer sense of how Master Gyatso was like a father to him.

A flashback has to serve some purpose other than simply providing facts about the world and its history. In the example above, it expands the feeling of grief that is needed to establish the evil of the Fire Nation who exterminated his people.

In my novel The Walking Trees of Bauble, I use brief flashbacks that represent the characters remembering something for a paragraph or two. The one longer flashback shows how the villain’s pattern of behavior could have been predicted from previous encounters, and it deepens the main protagonist’s feeling of guilt and naivete that he missed the clues again. In my novel Cursed and Blessed, I have one flashback chapter that both serves as a memory of a similar circumstance years before, and why he chooses not to make a similar, easy choice this time.

Flashforwards

Flashforwards can seem stagy and artificial if there isn’t a reasonable explanation of why your narrator or point-of-view character can see the future. When Oedipus hears from the oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother, it seems ridiculous both to Oedipus and to the play’s audience, but an expectation is set up, and it sensitizes the audience to signs that the prophecy is coming true, which they might not otherwise notice.

One of the more interesting examples of this technique is explored to great effect in the science fiction of Ted Chiang. His short story “Story of Your Life” (made into a 2016 film titled “Arrival”) includes passages in which the narrator seems to be addressing her daughter, but she doesn’t have a daughter, so at first the scenes seem like fantasies. It is only later that the reader realizes they are flashes of the future.

So any break in the chronological flow of events in a story can work fine, as long as it serves some greater purpose beyond filling in information, such as deepening emotion or setting up expectations.

Writing Sadness

Sorrow is evoked by things not going our way

We all think sadness is easy to spot or portray. Someone’s tear ducts start overflowing and they start whimpering. Well, yes, there is that, but as with fear and anger (see Writing Fear and Writing Anger) there are levels, and it is important to be conversant with all of them, at least in fiction, if not in life.

“Oh well”

Sadness starts as slight disappointment. This could be as basic as posting something and not getting any likes in the first eight hours or receiving your 53rd rejection this year. At this most superficial level, it involves a frown and a furrowed brow that quickly disappear as the person focuses on something else. If you don’t catch it at the exact moment the person realizes it, you can easily miss it.

“Aw geez!”

There is never any clear demarcation between emotions, so a bigger disappointment may make us both sad and angry, but the sad part at this next level just means we have a harder time convincing ourselves that the loss didn’t matter. We become fixated on it. It can involve self-doubt, second guessing, and/or shifting blame. It may take several days to stop returning to this level of disappointment regularly and let it go. Physically, it looks like a mask of concern or consternation on the face and maybe some heavy sighing. No waterworks yet.

“Bummer!”

Two things start to change as the sense of disappointment and unfairness deepens. One is that we start to seek outside validation of our feeling, because it is so pervasive: We want to know if we’re correct in the amount of hurt we feel. Another is that we are strongly motivated to establish a grudge. We may vow to never eat at the restaurant or one remotely like it in the future. We may write someone off as too evil to associate with any more. For this level of sadness to happen, the hope for a different result has to at least have been an expectation we thought would never change, and possibly it could be a cherished fantasy that popped like a balloon. Outward signs are a tendency toward hopelessness punctuating longer stretches of defensiveness or depression. Looks of consternation may remain longer, and in some more emotional people, this may bring them to the verge of tears.

“Oh my god!”

As more people start tearing up, there is no doubt in their minds that something is wrong, it’s justified to be upset, and it’s hard to let go of the hurt. This ranges from silently crying and frowning to full-on weeping, keening, moaning, and whimpering. This can be for life-threatening situations for ourselves or others we care about. It can be at the loss of someone or something dear through death, rejection, or moving away. The sense of overall hopelessness remains longer and becomes more frequent.

“GAAAAAH!”

At some point, someone can get so sad they start hysterically bawling. They are unable to be distracted from their loss. They can’t think straight, and often speak in non sequiturs or half-completed thoughts. Their circumstances seem grossly unfair, and they doubt they can ever feel happy again. They are unlikely to do anything other than focus on their sorrow, including going out, eating, sleeping. Since this level of depression is so debilitating, people have a variety of ways of avoiding it, usually just before it gets this bad. Alcohol, drugs, and dangerous, risky activities seem to be popular choices.

“Make it a double!”

And that is another thing worth noting for characters and other people you bump into: Of all the emotions, sadness is the one most people go to the greatest lengths to avoid. People have different tolerances, and some will resist even the smallest disappointment registering. The avoidance strategies need not be chemical.

People can find a strange and ultimately unsatisfying comfort in believing that they are cursed, or persecuted. They can pretend that the disappointment never mattered, or jump right to some future good outcome the loss or hurt will make possible, even if they’re not sure what it is yet. Many make themselves busy with work and/or a full social calendar. And a precious few achieve enlightenment, and they can see all actions as neutral, and nothing perturbs them. They do exist, but they’re highly uncommon.

 

This brings my short series on portraying emotions in fiction to a close. If you’d like to check out any of the other four essays, click on the Blog menu button above this post and then scroll down past it to the others. If you have comments or questions about any writing topic, feel free to comment or send me a message.

Writing Confusion

Real characters get confused sometimes

decision-making-critical-thinking-thought-choice-mind-confused-person

Too much fiction involves perfect communication. But miscommunication happens all the time, and including confusion in your characters’ dialogue and actions can make them more relatable and believable.

I find there are three main ways one can get confused. You can misread or mishear something, you can encounter a situation in which you might need more information to proceed, or you find yourself with way too many choices.

Sorry, I missed that

Sometimes when I get confused, I only realize it in retrospect. Often, at the time, I think I’m making a perfectly logical statement or observation. Shortly thereafter, I realize that I had read something wrong, missed some detail, or otherwise failed to understand what I was dealing with. I frequently ask a question that someone had already answered for me, but I had skimmed past that detail without noting it. Characters mishearing or misreading something can be an opportunity for humor, an opening to becoming vulnerable, a habitual blindspot, or a way to increase or initiate conflict.

You want me to do WHAT?

Other times I find that two pieces of information don’t match, and then I get confused about which is more correct or more applicable. That usually requires research to clear up. It’s like if somebody gave me two envelopes to deliver to two people, and the same name was on each; I’d have to ask if they had the same name and perhaps if it mattered which one got which. Characters dealing with insufficient information can reveal more about their problem-solving skills or be the target of a subtle ploy to make them look foolish.

Too many choices

The most-well-known case of confusion is when you have too many options, and you don’t know which to choose or pursue. Most choices are like that, so we encounter this type of confusion often: Most choices have both positive and negative consequences, and we evaluate them on the basis of the seriousness or number of disadvantages and the importance to us or the number of benefits. I’m most often facing this when I have large blocks of free time. When I have less free time, the most important thing to do is usually obvious. Some characters may be so laid back, they don’t sweat unstructured time and just pursue whatever strikes their fancy at a particular moment. Some characters always second guess themselves, sometimes to the point of inaction.

Go for epic confusion

Don’t go for the easy choice in inserting confusion. For example, a misheard statement and an immediate correction accomplishes almost nothing:

“I can’t see you right now.”

“Oh my god! Are you going blind?”

“No, I mean, I can’t spend time with you right now. Don’t be so dramatic!”

Let the confusion last longer. Imagine a character acting on incorrect information for several chapters. Put two characters together who are both confused, and use the clarification process to subtly introduce more world building. Confusion is also a great device for helping your reader to feel superior without judging your confused characters too harshly.

 

This essay is part of a short series of blog entries I’m writing on portraying emotions in fiction. You might also want to read Writing Fear, Writing Love, and Writing Anger, and check back next week for “Writing Sadness.”

Writing Fear

Know the differences between 7 levels of fear

panic

You don’t have to be a horror writer to be concerned with fictional characters feeling fear. Characters in all genres have moments where they are frightened, terrified, or panicking, and each stage of intensity has its fairly distinct signs:

Paranoia

When there is no obvious threat, someone can be afraid something bad will happen because the situation reminds them in some superficial ways of a previous situation where they encountered danger. For example, if you have arachnophobia, and you once saw a spider in someone else’s laundry room, you may be extra cautious near washing machines. Or you may eschew Ethiopian restaurants simply because you had a really bad date at one once. A paranoid person will be tense and intently scanning for vindication of their bias.

Spooked

One step past being paranoid, one can become spooked. Something may eventually confirm for a paranoid person that they are heading toward something scary. For example, you may fear going into deserted houses, and you may get spooked when a piece of plaster suddenly breaks loose from the ceiling and lands inches in front of you with a loud crash. You are unlikely to remind yourself that old, abandoned buildings may have water damage that starts to weaken the plaster, and your footfalls were enough vibration to detach it. You are more likely to freak out at the coincidence. A spooked person has already been on edge, and any variety of sudden occurrences could get them shaking or screaming as if they had encountered real danger when they have not.

Afraid

This next level of fear comes after a credible threat. Instead of ungrounded paranoia, you have been personally or generally threatened, and you are afraid that someone or something is going to carry through on that threat and hurt you. For example, you might feel fear walking, or even driving, near a place where you know you might meet someone with a vendetta against you. The fear can also be based on your membership in a class of people who have been threatened because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or some other identification. A person afraid is more likely to feel active stress: Increased cardiovascular response, sweating, shaking, tunnel vision, lack of appetite, muscle tension.

Apprehension

Here we get into verifiable danger, but we are just cautious in response, because the danger is not great. There may be some stress response that mimics being afraid, but it is somewhat subdued. For example, you may not fear for your life. You may just fear getting wet (it starts to rain and you have no umbrella). You may just fear embarrassment (you must present research you didn’t do). An apprehensive person may show the initial signs of fear, but she or he may already be on the path to dealing with the fear (calming oneself, distracting oneself, etc.).

Fright

When the danger is more physically harmful, we can get a more pronounced reaction in our bodies. The stress responses can now escalate to fight or flight, getting ready to escape or defend. For example, if you are asked to jump across a gap others have achieved, you may feel fright that you will be the exceptional one to fail and fall into the gap to serious injury or death. A person in a fright will back away or stay frozen in place while deciding what to do. Tears and spasms are not unusual at this level of fear.

Terror

The conditions for feeling terror most often involve a known threat being carried out. You were afraid your enemy would show up, and there she is, brandishing an axe. You felt that guy was kind of creepy, and now he’s locked you in the room with him. You are surrounded by a gang who all seem to be holding deadly weapons. Water is filling a room you can’t escape, and you are floating mere inches from the ceiling. This is the level that most horror stories and movies want to get you to: You can’t think logically. You are totally reactive.

Panic

The transition from terror to all-out panic can be quick or it can take up to a few minutes, depending on how quickly the danger evolves. In a panic, critical thought is out the window, and the idea of defending or compromising is gone. The objective of panic is to escape. Even if there is no place safer to escape to, there is likely for the panicking person to at least start moving, trying to find a way out. Physical coordination may falter (why you often see people stumble when panicking), ability to communicate may wither or disappear entirely, and access to knowledge may be cut off (why people make dumb mistakes when panicking). Think of a panicking character like a trapped animal, who might gnaw off a limb to save its life.

So when you’re writing characters facing fear, be clear about whether the threat is real, whether the situation is really dangerous or not, and what physical and emotional evidence you can give to show how afraid they are.

 

This is part three of a series of posts on writing about certain emotions. Check out “Writing Anger” and “Writing Love” from previous weeks, and check back next week to read about “Writing Confusion.”

Writing Love

couple sleeping

Nobody falls in love the same way

A few tropes tend to dominate when we imagine characters falling in love. Someone makes a sacrifice for the other person, which makes them fall in love with that person. Someone just treats the other person kindly or carries through on a long-standing promise. What they all have in common is the lowering of our defenses when someone protects, defends, or honors us.

It can, of course, be more convoluted than that. Someone with low self-esteem could fall for someone who compliments them a lot. Someone searching for some evidence that a self-centered person can love crumples in relief when observing the other caring for an animal, projecting that some day, that same fawning devotion will be directed toward them.

The illusion of constancy

Feelings of love are not constant. They depend on us feeling hopeful and safe, even in some cases when we have nothing specific to hope for and are negotiating dangerous situations. Love can be sidelined when we are angry or confused. The flush of romantic love recedes, but often a grudging compassion remains–a memory of being cared for.

Love scares a lot of people–often at the same time they desire it. Allowing another person into your life is always disruptive. To make room for them, you have to pay less attention to other people you care about. You have to give up parts of your schedule that you also enjoy. You may end up spending more money or traveling a lot more than usual. It can sometimes even become an overwhelming existential fear that you are losing who you are the more you hang around that person. That tension between wanting and fearing love can make some people act erratically, or at least inconsistently.

False love

And sadly, love can often feel like an obligation–something we’re supposed to feel because of the circumstances. Have your characters been living with the same person for three years? Is one of them pregnant? Sometimes the pressure to approximate love comes after a few months of dating. We say to ourselves, “I should be feeling something now,” and then go through the motions we think loving people would, like vacationing together, meeting each other’s parents, living together, or getting engaged.

Once, when I was working as a ghost writer, I was abducted and imprisoned by one of my clients. (He was insisting I wasn’t working hard enough and had to stand over my shoulder. I know.) But he and his wife had a really inspiring ritual they performed every morning upon waking: They affirmed for each other that they still loved each other and wanted to remain together.

What IS love?

And that, I think boils down the glue that love becomes in a society of so many different people with different agendas: We love someone who seems committed to our well being. It is the reason we love our families. It is why we love long-time friends. We can depend that they will always have our backs, no matter how bad things get.

So when you write about characters falling in love, whether you write specifically for the romance market or just include it in your character development and plot complications, consider (at least initially) characters falling in love for the wrong reasons, questioning whether they’re still in love when they feel bad in the other person’s presence, and more easily feeling love for more than just one person. It will ring truer to real life.

 

This is the second installment in my short series of essays on portraying different emotions. Check out last week’s “Writing Anger” and check back again next week for “Writing Fear.”