Going back and forth in time

Flashbacks force the story to appear as
we want without changing the facts.
This is not a post about time travels, don’t worry. The moving back and forth in time I’m referring to is related to the way a story is narrated, i.e. to the use of flashbacks (or flash-forwards).
There are many way you can develop the timeline of your story. While in your mind the facts are probably in the correct chronological order, this may not be the best way to show them to the reader. Actually what makes a story interesting is not just the plot itself, but most of all the way it is narrated. It can happen that stories with a very simple plot become extremely intriguing, if the facts are not showed in a plain order. On the other hands you can have a long, complex plot, which may turn out boring, if the events are simply narrated as they happen one after one.

Flashbacks are a very powerful tool for writers who want to take control on the way their readers get to learn about the story facts. They become just like pieces of a puzzle. At the beginning you have some information, which seems unrelated to each other, just like different sections of a puzzle. Then, at some point, you find a kind of bridge between two sections and toward the end all pieces perfectly match giving you the whole picture of the story. I find this to be a very entertaining way to get to experience a story, both for the reader and for the writer.

There isn’t only a way to weave the different timelines in a plot, but the most common one occurs when you have two of them (present and past time) and there are alternated chapter by chapter or scene by scene. At the beginning they seem really different, until the reader spot the first connection.
As I said in my previous post, I’m currently reading “Fallen Dragon” by Peter F. Hamilton (I’m almost done with it). This is an excellent example of this use of flashbacks. Hamilton alternates chapter set in the present time with others which are referred to the past.
In the first one (present), Lawrence, the protagonist, is busy in a very difficult asset realization campaign (a kind of piracy) in a planet called Thallspring. The second one (past), instead, shows the reader how he got there, starting when he was just a kid. Both timelines have the same space and value in the stories, there isn’t one which is less important or includes less action. Both of them give us important information until, in the end (I suppose), they merge to the conclusion of the story.
I’ve seen something like that also in the Void Trilogy of Hamilton, and I tend to think he likes very much using flashbacks this way. While thinking back at the story itself, I must admit that if it were been told in a more linear way (we are talking about an 800-page story), it wouldn’t be so much appealing. That’s because most events from the past are actually quite isolated self-concluding episodes, which would get the reader to a halt at the end of them. On the contrary, putting them as a pause in the exciting action of the present time give them more value, because from time to time they offer new clues, which helps the understanding of the main plot. At the same time they increase the expectation about what would happen next.

But there are other ways to use flashbacks. Actually I found myself thinking about Hamilton’s books, when I realize that the reason I like them so much is that a love to use a very similar trick in my own novels.
They are not as long and complicated, scenes are much faster than in his books, but all the same I like to start the story in media res and keep at least two timelines. But I go further, because I’m less equilibrated in showing past and present; I actually tend to be a bit more chaotic (but not too much) for making things even more fun.
Though there is a main timeline, I like to get back to different points of the past based on the event itself, which is narrated, instead of its position in time, using a way of showing a story that reminds me the way memory works, i.e. by associations. I find this kind of approach a bit less constructed and a bit more natural. What I yearn for is to take the reader by their hand and fly with them in the story as smoothly as possible, letting the few interruptions be put in very strategic points of the plot, those which cinema calls plot points, thus allowing them to be emphasised.

Anyway, whatever the way they are used, jumps in time are a great way to forcing a story to appear as we want without changing the events of which it is made of.

And what’s your opinion about the use of flashbacks? How often do you use them in your writing? How do you like them in the books you read?