Reader Nick wrote in to ask how to handle a narrative that shifts forwards and/or backwards:
"In the latest issue [of the newsletter] you refer to Sophie Hannah's 'Kind Of Cruel' (which I haven't read), and allude to how the author handles jumps in time of several
years. Is there, I wonder, a 'gold standard' for effortlessly handling the shifting forwards or backwards of a book's narrative? I have been advised that simply slapping a dateline at the beginning of a chapter or section (eg: Barcelona, July 1896) takes care of everything."
I get the impression that Nick suspects that "slapping a dateline at the beginning of a chapter or section" does not take care of everything ...
and I'm inclined to agree with him.
If your fiction is doing anything other than moving progressively forward from earlier events to later events, you need to be very clear (with yourself) about why you're choosing to move around in time, and why information is being presented in the order in which you've chosen.
Often, your key reason will be to present a more interesting and engaging story.
With thrillers, for instance, it's reasonably common to begin at a moment of high drama or crisis, then pull things back to "six months earlier" or "a year ago" and show us how everything got to that point.
With more literary works, you'll often find time jumps used to tell a story that spans a long period in a central character's life (as with Pip in Great Expectations), or even a story that covers several generations of the same
Some different techniques you can use are to:
- Add a dateline at the start of each chapter or section where the time has shifted, as Nick has been advised to do. For instance, "London, November 1894" or "6th October 2005".
- Use a different font or other visual style for different sections. For instance, in Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies, the "present" sections for the majority of
the book take the form of very brief witness statements, whereas the bulk of the novel (the "past", leading up to the events narrated at a distance on the first pace) is written as conventional narrative.
- Use a different tense for different sections. Present-day can be narrated in present-tense ("I go to the cupboard...") and events in the novel's past in past-tense ("I went to the cupboard...")
- Bridge a large time gap with some sort of connecting
thread. For instance, you might have two scenes set in the same location, years apart, or a particular phrase, thought or line of dialogue being repeated.
- Use as many jumps as you need, but no more. If you're telling a story that involves your main character at the ages of 15, 18 and 25, that's fine – but don't chuck in a section about them at 22 that's completely irrelevant to the story.
- Separate the novel into two or more
parts: this can help readers deal with a large time leap, as it provides a clear split.
- Have an opening and closing "frame" to your novel: this is the present-day, with the main narrative taking place in the past (sometimes in the form of a story told by the narrator – e.g. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye).
The main danger with large leaps in time is that your reader loses interest. This can be because they're effectively
having to engage with a whole new character: they were reading all about a sweet 8-year-old and suddenly that child is a tearaway teenager, with half the supporting cast now gone. It can also be because there's too much disconnect between the times being covered.
Ultimately, as with almost anything in writing, it's up to you to decide what works for your novel. If the story you want to tell requires you to move between two time periods, that's fine. Just make sure the
movements are deliberate and carefully handled, so you don't lose your reader along the way.