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How do you deal with going back and forth in time?
Lucy Silag - Book Country Director
Posted: Friday, May 29, 2015 11:54 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359

A lot of the WIPs I have been reading on Book Country have a structure where the narration goes back and forth in time, so that one story is happening in the recent pass or present, and another story is unfolding in the further past. I love this, but now that I am trying it myself (sort of), I find that it is much much harder than it looks!


Any tips? How do you structure? And how do you keep track of that structure?

Posted: Friday, May 29, 2015 4:34 PM
Joined: 6/25/2013
Posts: 55

I'm doing alternating chapters with clear chronological indications in the chapter headings. I like chapter titles, so there are still those, and in addition, the modern chapters read "Late June, Present day" and the past is labelled by month and year (1884). I want an equivalent number of chapters because this is a reincarnation story of two souls, which ends up being four people, in past and present existences. So there's a parallel existence (sort of) going on, and so the need for symmetry in this case made alternating chapters my best bet. I suppose in some cases, a structure would require uneven portions of time in one chronology or the other. That's my two cents (or should I say, "four"?)
Rachel Anne Marks
Posted: Wednesday, June 3, 2015 2:06 PM
Joined: 1/23/2012
Posts: 36

That does sound hard to do well! I have a past storyline in my debut, but I tell it through the MC's dreams. Whenever he sleeps he dreams a memory of his mother, just a moment. But each little snapshot leads to the unveiling of more backstory as the reader needs to understand the MC better. I basically use mine for character and world development, but it's just sparring. I'm not a huge fan of flashbacks, but I think they're tough to not pepper in the text. And as a writer who is a HUGE fan of backstory, I find myself needing to use them more than I like…lol. Maybe I need to cool it on the complex backstory.

--edited by Rachel Anne Marks on 6/3/2015, 2:08 PM--

Lucy Basey
Posted: Monday, June 8, 2015 6:42 AM
Joined: 4/23/2015
Posts: 38

Hi Lucy,


I've had a break from writing, it's all been a bit chaotic over the last few weeks, but I'm back to working on my main two projects. I'm doing this with a chic lit I'm working on. So far I've only done this with the use of a flash back. My main character has something trigger her memory and the flashback is sort of sectioned off on its own, in the middle of the chapter. I didn't want to italicise a whole section like I've seen before (but it does work) I wanted to experiment with a different style. There will only be three flashback scenes in the entire book so I'm hoping to prevent it from being too jarring to the reader. I'll have to let you know how it goes though, I've never done anything like this before.

For a really good example of visiting different times in a story, have a look at One Day by David Nicholls if you haven't already. Some people found his technique difficult to keep up with but I fell in love with the story and his technique, I really got the feeling that I knew his characters inside and out because I knew their history more intimately than I would have if he had kept the story focussed on one time of their lives. Hope that helps

Amanda Kimberley
Posted: Monday, June 29, 2015 4:51 PM
Joined: 11/30/2011
Posts: 69

I'm with RCGravelle on this-- at least while writing the first draft because it helps me to see everything. Breaking up the two is easier if they are in separate chapters. Sometimes when I edit I find a chapter can be drawn out-- other times the flow makes more sense if the character is recalling something and I add it in that way.
Posted: Thursday, July 2, 2015 8:19 AM
Joined: 10/7/2013
Posts: 65

I think adding a date (and perhaps a location) before the start of the section helps transition the reader's mind.
Posted: Wednesday, July 8, 2015 9:23 PM
Joined: 7/8/2015
Posts: 3

Hey Lucy,


My thought is this - The flashback is a story. If you type out the entire flash back, you'll learn a few things:


  • How long the flashback story is
  • What's relevant
  • You can label and identify parts that can be told in dialogue, exposition, in a dream, a memory, thought
  • You can get a feel for how to scatter it throughout the novel
  • You can rework it immensely - shorten, lengthen, omit
  • Refer actions of today to those in the past
  • Use it as a prologue
For the most part, my flashbacks relate to the recent past, or are quick references that are conducive to the immediate scene and which I answer - if need be - later (ideally) in an active/present scene.  


Although it was difficult at first, I started cutting out all flashback unless it purposely moved my story forward. I view my flashbacks as characters, or vital components of my story, so I put them to work. I'm not fond of "shooting the breeze" type conversations, so when I use a flashback, it's promoting something like conflict, obstacle, and fear, for example. 




Andy Getch
Posted: Saturday, July 18, 2015 4:18 PM
Joined: 6/15/2015
Posts: 16

My story flows in present (at the time) tense from 2008 to now. I track it by the then present time references and tying into historical events when possible. Any looks back, memories, narration about the past is in past tense. I have thought about jumbling it up a bit and putting some of the pre-2008 stories in present tense..

--edited by Andy Getch on 7/18/2015, 4:20 PM--

Posted: Thursday, July 23, 2015 2:16 PM
Joined: 11/13/2012
Posts: 13

I did this in the last two books of the Night Fever Serial! You're right, it was difficult. I tried to do it without headings (ie Present Day, Three Weeks Earlier) but it became too risky. I think the key is in the transitions. At the end of each chapter, I tried to set it up for a flashback. For instance, the last line of chapter one in book 3 is "As it turned out, a hell of a lot could change in three weeks." And then Chapter Two has the heading "Three weeks earlier."

I think it's worth considering to write as though you don't have those "Present Day" headings and without leading the actual text with "Three weeks later,..," or "After a couple days,..." etc. Then you're kind of forced to be creative. Whatever you do, make the transitions very clear. If I have a flashback within a chapter and it's not too long, I put it in italics.

Lucy Silag - Book Country Director
Posted: Thursday, July 23, 2015 2:18 PM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359

Ah, yes! @Jessica--this is a great tip! I might try this in my next draft. Right now I feel like the book really needs the transitions to be more on the nose.
Peter Carlyle
Posted: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 5:50 AM
Joined: 8/20/2015
Posts: 19

What about a different typeface? Or simply a date or year at the beginning of the section?
Posted: Wednesday, February 10, 2016 11:31 AM
Joined: 1/31/2016
Posts: 30

The Eather

Time Lord Angus and his gold Mule SM Ray hike forward in time in the grey formless place that is the Eather.

The story continues until.

     One Day

Just as xyz is happening.

Two appear, Time Lord Angus and his Mule.

Time Lord Angus     "No!" (drops to his knees)


Regards, Dravid Mills.


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