Recently, I’ve reviewed two novels that played with time in their storyline for Just Read It, the YouTube book review program I co-host with author Susan Stoner. (Click) Personally, when plots mix episodes from the past with those of the present, exchanging them one after the other like the disk in a Frisbee game, I want to scream. What drives a novel forward isn’t structural gamesmanship, but the reader’s curiosity. He or she wants to know what happens to the characters and why.
Playing with time isn’t avant-garde as some might suppose. It’s been done for hundreds of years and in the most mundane formats. What, after all, is a detective story but, as John Crawley describes so beautifully in his essay, the saga of a sleuth moving forward in time to solve a mystery arising from the past. (“A Ring-Formed World,” by John Crowley, Harper’s, November 2015, pg. 5.) Sometimes a story begins at the end and works backward to explain how events brought the characters the present moment, but what keeps the reader turning pages is his or her desire to discover how the course of events brought the central character to the present moment. (Ibid pg 6)
To be honest, there is no real time in fiction. Centuries can pass in a single sentence. A novel is an illusion of time passing. Even so, it should conform to the constructs of our mind. For the reader, time flows linearly and in one direction: forward. That understanding is the basis of our belief in cause and effect and curiosity is the stepchild. Presumably, if we know the cause, we will understand the effect. Flipping the reader back and forth in time may not make him or her dizzy but it can produce a lack of focus. As a general rule, I’d argue disruptions in time impede rather than answer a novel’s overwhelming question: Why did the work end as it did?.
Some artists will argue that juggling time is the only way to tell the story. He or she might be right. On the other hand, he or she might be lazy. Constructing a linear plot that mixes past and present requires great effort, but it can be done, as Josephine Tey accomplished it in The Daughter of Time.
When I was a teacher, I’d often hear a student complain, “I know what I mean, but I can’t write it.” My reply was, “You can’t write it because you don’t know what you mean.” I want to speak in a similar vein to writers who juggle time too freely. You’re confused. Get your thoughts in order.