As a writer, you are the master of the timeline of your novel. You can go backwards and forwards in time on a sentence, paragraph, and chapter level. But should you?
For any novel to be satisfying, there must be some degree of tension. Tension is created by anticipating what comes next. A sense of propulsion helps to keep that tension building. So here’s the important part: going backwards in time reduces the sense of propulsion, which, in turn, reduces the sense of tension.
On a Sentence Level
Let’s start small with the sentence level. Some writers make a regular habit of flipping the order of their sentences. For many, this may seem like a stylistic choice. Here are some examples of sentences in backwards linear order:
- Anne jumped when there was a loud sound from the hallway.
- Jake ducked under a missile as he dodged his way across the battlefield.
- Bailey cried after reading the note.
All of these sentences are in backwards linear order, meaning that what happened first is described last. This backwards order reduces tension and that sense of propulsion I was talking about in the intro, which is bad. In general, unless you have a very good reason to convey information backwards (perhaps only truly helpful during attempts at comedy), you are much better off using linear order.
Here are the same sentences rewritten in linear order:
- There was a loud sound from the hallway, and Anne jumped.
- Jake dodged his way across the battlefield, ducking under a missile.
- Bailey read the note and cried.
Obviously these sentences could be improved in other ways: broken up into two sentences for even more tension, showing a bit more of the experience, etc. But regardless, an average quality linear sentence packs a stronger punch (more tension and propulsion) than even a high-quality backwards sentence.
On a Paragraph Level
When it comes to paragraphs, some writers tend to do a strange sort of backwards and forwards dance through time. Here’s an example:
Ben teased Jenny and she ran all the way home. Her legs pumped harder than ever before. Her feet slapped against the sidewalk. She reached the front door and threw it open. After a long run she reached the house and crumpled inside the door.
The issue with this paragraph may not be blatantly obvious at first, but when you look at how readers interpret this paragraph, it becomes clear that there’s a problem. The first sentence indicates that Jenny ran all the way home, so in the reader’s mind, she’s home. But then wait! In the next sentence she’s running again, so we’ve jumped back to before she got home. She makes it to the front door – hooray, she’s home! But wait! The next sentence goes back to her running again.
Though the writer’s intent is obvious, the reader still has the experience of bouncing around in time. This is because they are trying to visualize the events in their mind. In this paragraph, the writer is making that visualization pretty difficult.
It also takes the reader out of the experience of following alongside the character. Read more about that in the next section.
On a Chapter Level
Within a chapter, many writers have a tendency to jump backwards in time – sometimes for sentences, and sometimes for paragraphs or even pages. For example:
Anne sat on the windowsill, tears streaming down her face. She clutched a letter in her hands, a letter that the mailman had delivered an hour before. She had sat down quietly in her favorite chair to read it, expecting an invitation or a birthday card, but what it was instead was terrible. Her hands shook and her tears dropped onto the paper. Harry was breaking up with her.
Sections like this take the reader out of the moment and chuck them into the past. Instead of letting the reader experience the events alongside the character, the reader is being forced to experience things on a different timeline. This creates distance and (you guessed it) a reduction in tension and that sense of propulsion.
Why not just start this chapter with Anne receiving the letter? The same events will play out, but the reader will have a substantially increased sense of tension and propulsion.
If you are faced with something that must be explained from the past (usually because it occurred before the events of the novel), the key to maintaining tension and propulsion is to keep it brief. Learn some techniques for doing so here.
The Bottom Line
If you can convey it in linear order, then do it! When editing, watch out for places where you’ve flipped your sentences backwards, where you’ve done a backwards and forwards time dance in your paragraphs, or where you’ve started your chapter too late and have to backtrack.
Keep your novel in linear order and you will maximize tension and that sense of propulsion that keeps readers turning pages.
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