Time Is On My Side

Oh, time. How are we supposed to think about you? Are you linear with a firm past, present, and future? Or are you cyclical, repeating yourself occasionally?


This past weekend, I watched another great episode of Breaking Bad, which is in its fifth (and, lamentably, final) season. Every time I watch a new episode, I try to pinpoint exactly what it is that I love so much about the show. It grips me in a way that few other programs can, and the usual analysis of acting, character development, plot progression, and more can yield potent reasons for why it’s such a fantastic show.

However, I realized that one of the many reasons why I enjoy the show so much is how it handles time.

Most shows provide a very linear progression to their plots. You meet the characters, find out their motivations and goals, and watch them try to achieve those goals. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but events are pretty straightforward. Sure, there are some flashback sequences, but for the most part, things progress linearly towards a climax sometime in the future.

Not so with Breaking Bad.

Walter White, Breaking Bad, Final Season

Each season begins or at some point includes a glimpse into the future:  a scene introduces us to an event that won’t take place until the middle or end of the current season. A season might open with destroyed objects—burned toys for instance—and as the season progresses, we try to figure out what exactly happened: why are those items destroyed? Was there an explosion? Was someone killed? Maybe a major character?

It creates a unique kind of tension because you know that something bad will happen, but you don’t know when, how, or why. Everything you see on the show is framed by that one event: is THAT person going to cause the explosion or whatever destroyed those objects? Is THIS why they decided to go there? You just don’t know!

It’s a storytelling technique that has absolutely captivated me, and I find myself testing it out in my own writing. It’s a tease, a “hey, this is going to happen, but you don’t know why, and whatever conclusions you come up with now are going to be challenged as you read/watch more!”

But I’ve also read many books on writing that frown upon these kinds of techniques. Flashbacks and scenes set in the future take readers out of the present action, they say, and thus have the potential to bore and/or disorient readers who want to know what’s happening right now.

Well, if you’ve been following my blog for a bit, you already know how I feel about some of these “rules.”

But what do you think? How do you enjoy time in books and movies? Do you enjoy flashbacks and scenes in the future, or do you prefer linear storytelling?


5 comments on “Time Is On My Side

  1. I think if you can write it clearly and its important to how you want to tell the story than DO IT. I love to try and figure things out before they happen. Like a literary treasure hunt. I remember when my favorite thing about Half Blood prince was putting together the pieces that Snape was in Potions with Lily. The lil clue about the Fish bowl and Professor Slughorn. LOVE IT. Rules – smules!

  2. Excellent question. I definitely do like non-linear visual storytelling. And you’re right on, Breaking Bad does this well. BB has also gradually gotten more stylistic, you notice that too?? (Think the last episode with the scene where Walt and Jr. are revving engines in driveway). But for written stroytelling…hmmm, this is harder. Sure, I do like it. I really enjoy stream of consciousness writing (introduced to this with Vagina Wolf’s To The Lighthouse). I feel that any time I say that “a writer should never” I come across a writer who does and it’s fab. No rules, man

    • I did notice the more stylistic scenes in BB. The driveway scene was awesome! The dubstep music playing in the background was such a good touch.

      Incidentally, this episode was directed by the same guy who did the “Fly” episode last season. Remember that one? Walter freaks out because there’s a fly in the lab. That was also a stylistic episode.

  3. I’ve started off my first two novels with something similar to Breaking Bad’s future glimpse . . . I got the idea from a book I read (title! can’t remember the title!) that started with the main character hiding in a warehouse while a guy she used to date hunted her. But Breaking Bad does it way, way better than I do.

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