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.
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.
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.
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 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.