When Authors Experiment with Time

I like it when authors get creative–whether it’s with format or time. When done well, it can really heighten tension to jump outside a linear story.

And yet, sometimes it goes wrong. A while ago, I had a rather frustrating reading experience, and I’ve since read a couple of other books with non-linear timelines that provide a nice foil to the book that frustrated me, so I decided to share it here.

So, here’s the setup. I read a book that alternated two viewpoints jumping back and forth in time. It wasn’t my favorite book, but I liked the author’s other series, so I picked up the sequel as soon as it was available. The problem was, I didn’t remember everything that had happened in the first book, so when the main character started talking about something that had already happened, I thought it was referring to something I didn’t remember from the first book. (I could have really used an online summary!) Anyway, it turned out that MC No. 1 wasn’t talking about something I should have known about after all. It was just something the author was planning to uncover from MC No. 2’s viewpoint later in the story.

Maybe if that story had still been fresh in my mind, it wouldn’t have been an issue, but with the distance, I was left feeling confused for much of the book, like I’d missed something. I’m not sure how the author could have avoided this. For her and everyone else who worked on the series, the events would have been a clear progression. But for someone who’d only read the first book once and it was a while ago, it didn’t work. I think it was a problem specific to it being a sequel, and I’m kind of sad about it.

Ok, but on to a more positive note. Here’s a book that I think handled a non-linear timeline well in a sequel–THE UNBOUND by Victoria Schwab. Now, this one is different, as it only has one viewpoint, so Ms. Schwab wasn’t juggling quite as much. She handles the past by referencing a past event the reader hasn’t yet seen and then flashing back to it immediately after. As a result, no questions are left unanswered, and it’s always clear that it isn’t something you’re supposed to remember from the previous book. So much clearer!

And I also have an example of a book with two viewpoints jumping backward and forward in time–SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY by Julie Murphy. Interestingly, with this one, I felt less like I was going through the journey with the characters and more like the author was directing what information I could know, but that was ok. There’s a constant tension between knowing what has already happened and what’s going to happen now, and yet I didn’t feel confused. Once again, I think much of the confusion with that sequel stemmed from the fact that I kept thinking I was supposed to remember something from the first book rather than the format itself.

And since I just read it, I’ll throw in another non-linear book for good measure. In WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart, the main character is struggling to remember an incident that happened two years earlier. She returns to the scene of the incident and the memories begin to return in bits and pieces, so the story jumps around quite a bit. The non-linear timeline works in this story because she is trying to unravel the mystery within her own mind to answer the question: What happened two summers ago? Ms. Lockhart masterfully unwinds the story for the reader, unlocking the clues as the character herself discovers them. While there are twists in the story, the reader never feels tricked because the character herself doesn’t know what’s happening either. That is a fine line to walk, and she walks it well.

So, what other books have you read that use a non-linear format and do it well? Do you ever feel tricked by it? Confused? Impressed?

Responses to “When Authors Experiment with Time”

  1. Becky

    One that comes to mind is Code Name Verity. Most of the story is told through the eyes of a girl who’s been captured by the enemy and she’s writing everything down for them. She goes back and forth between what’s happening now (how she’s being treated as a prisoner, etc) and everything that led up to her being captured. It was a little confusing for me in the beginning, but overall it was a very effective storytelling method.

    • Michelle I. Mason

      Oh yes, that’s a good one, too! It’s been a while since I read it. I’d forgotten about the time aspect as what stuck out to me most was the unreliable narrator. There are very few instances where an author can get away with that kind of twist. That particular situation was one of them!


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