Is it acceptable for a writer to jump back in time for a whole chapter?

I don't mean a flashback, I mean more like, for example, chapter 5 happening in 25/06/2014 and then the next (Chapter 6) happening in 24/06/2014? I would be using this to explain how certain thing came to pass, example, army 1 is fighting army 2 and currently losing, and then all of the sudden army 3 arrives and saves the day, but noone knows how or why army 3 arrived, so in the next chapter I go back in time to explain how army 3 got there.

And sometimes I would go even further back, example, chapter 7 being in 26/06/2014 and then chapter 8 in 12/09/1932, because something happened in 1932 that is now going to affect events in 2014 heavily.

Would this be an acceptable thing to do? And if the books kept jumping in time every chapter (of course stating the date at the beggining) Would it still be acceptable?

  • If the only hint I have as a reader is a date at the beginning of the chapter, I will be totally lost -- especially if change happens a lot. Relative times (e.g. "The Day Before", "One Year Prior"), are much easier to follow. Such statements shouldn't be everything, imo... I need to have some feeling of the transition having happened in the writing itself. These types of changes happen all the time in writing. Jun 26, 2014 at 2:32
  • Asking if something is "acceptable" is pretty opinion-based. I think it would be better if you asked how to convey that -- if telling a story out of order like this is your goal (and yes, I've seen it), how can you make that easy for the reader? Jul 3, 2014 at 3:05

4 Answers 4


Nonlinear narratives are a particular favorite of mine. Yes, it's possible to do this, but it can be tricky to set things up so they're not confusing to the reader. But if you have a good reason to present things to the reader out of order, it can be a very powerful way to set up a book.

You'll have to do some work to make sure the reader is oriented. Putting a date at the beginning of a chapter is a start, but lots of clues in the story itself would also help.

Nonlinear techniques allow you to present information to the reader exactly when they need it. They also let you start a story in the most interesting part of the tale, and pace it however you want.

One of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction, and that film succeeds in great part to its use of these devices. We get a great view of the characters due to the order in which we encounter them. The film goes so far as to have a character die, then we see him again (but we know he's doomed). Yet it's never confusing, because the story is very clear. The script is available online, you may want to spend some time reading it. (It's also a hell of a page-turner.)

  • 1
    Ursula K. LeGuin used non-contiguous/non-linear narrative effectively in The Dispossessed which alternated between planets. I feel her Always Coming Home ('The story fills less than a third of the book, with the rest being a mixture of Kesh cultural lore (including poetry, prose of various kinds, mythos, rituals, and recipes), essays on Kesh culture, and the musings of the narrator, "Pandora".') was her best work in terms of literature (even though I did not like it).
    – user5232
    Jun 26, 2014 at 3:39

Jumping around in time is the sort of narrative technique that you need a very compelling reason to include. It requires more work of the reader and so it also needs to provide commensurate reward. Assuming you're writing a story that's more or less plot-driven, that means you're not including literary devices solely for their own aesthetic value.

Which means time-skips should only be used to control the flow of information. It's also advisable, although not strictly necessary, to restrict the switches to different groups of characters in different locations. An example: in chapter one you follow events in a besieged city, and in chapter two you switch to showing events leading up to the siege, but from the point of view of the attacking army, camped some miles away. This will usually help with clarity and make it easier for readers to follow.

Of course, the bottom line is, you can use any device you want as often as you want. The real question is, is the benefit worth the expense?


I like that and do that in my writings. But many people say it is not good to break the chronology of a story, it would disturb the flow.

I am currently writing a fantasy novel and would like to start it directly from the part action is made, and then, in the next chapter, tell how things happened. I think what you're willing to do is flashback. This can also create confusion.

Check this link for managing flashbacks: http://www.pete-walker.com/13StepsManageFlashbacks.htm.

The answer to your question is—yes, it is acceptable. But think before doing. Try to avoid them as much as you can.

Hope this helps!


As long as you very clearly indicate the date at the beginning of each chapter, so the reader isn't lost, sure, go for it.

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