Novels With or Without Flashbacks

When it comes to literature, there are many contrasts -- including "literary" novels vs. mass-market ones, long-ago classics vs. modern fiction and chronological novels vs. non-chronological ones.

The last is the subject of this post.

Jumping back and forth in time, of course, is a hallmark of some modern fiction. I haven't found many pre-20th-century novels with frequent flashbacks, but more recent literature is full of them. To name just a few books: John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany (which I just read), Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Don DeLillo's Underworld, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things.

Meanwhile, the classics of many years ago tend to mostly take chronological approaches. Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Jack London's The Call of the Wild, L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Mary Shelley's The Last Man, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, etc., etc. Even Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which both include informational chapters not directly related to the plot or characters, are essentially chronological.

Modern books can also be chronological or mostly chronological -- Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, James Clavell's Shogun, Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog, John Grisham's The Client and many others.

I like both chronological and non-chronological novels, and see advantages to each.

Frequent flashbacks can make a book more difficult to read as the author fractures the story line in nonlinear fashion. Just as you're getting absorbed -- boom -- you're back or forward a few decades. But if the author is good, those time leaps can be intriguing. You're frequently rather than gradually seeing characters at different points of their lives -- with often-poignant old age or middle age juxtaposed against more-hopeful youth. And, while the general fate of a protagonist might be known near the start of a non-chronological novel, it's still fascinating to eventually learn the specifics of how that fate is reached.

In the wonderful A Prayer for Owen Meany, for instance, we realize early on that something bad will happen to the amazing title character, but don't know exactly how that will play out. And John Irving increases the interest by offering many 1980s scenes featuring Owen's friend John Wainwright along with the more frequent 1950s and 1960s flashbacks. Among other things, Irving draws parallels between the U.S. government's wrongdoing during the Vietnam War and the later Iran-contra debacle.

The advantages of the chronological approach are obvious. Nothing interrupts or confuses the flow of the story line, and the tension builds slowly and methodically. Readers have no idea what will ultimately happen (unless they've heard about the ending from a friend or other source), so the element of total surprise is there.

In The Age of Innocence, for instance, wondering if the mostly conventional Newland Archer and the unconventional Ellen Olenska will become a couple is a major reason why that Edith Wharton novel is so absorbing.

Of course, time-travel novels can be both chronological and time-jumping, but that's a whole other discussion. :-)

What are your favorite chronological and non-chronological novels? Do you like one approach better than the other? If so, why?


In his part-humorous Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir, Dave Astor recalls 25 years of covering cartoonists, columnists and others such as Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Ann Landers, "Dear Abby," Hillary Clinton and Coretta Scott King. Contact Dave at if you'd like to buy an inscribed copy of the book, which includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover blurbs by Arianna Huffington and Gary Larson ("The Far Side").