In Robert Newton Peck’s useful and straightforward Secrets of Successful Fiction, one of the chapters is called (something like) “Stay In The Phone Booth With The Gorilla”.
“Bob was making a phone call when suddenly a giant 400 lb. gorilla barged his way in, fangs bared, hot breath on Bob’s face….
It reminded Bob of his times at the sea, when his mother would put zinc oxide on his nose and the hot breeze would blow his hair…
Which of course had been badly butchered by crazy aunt Amelia, who had flunked out of Beauty School and gone completely mad…
Madness ran in the family, and–”
To belabor the obvious: You’ve put the reader in the phone booth with the gorilla, have the decency to tell him what happens.
In modern cinema, the violation of this rule seems to come in two forms. One is the Peter Jackson violation, where it takes an hour to get to the freakin’ gorilla in the first place, when your movie is supposed to be about a freakin’ gorilla.
However, the more common form these days is the time shift. Remember Memento? That clever and suspenseful story that’s told entirely backward? That was great, wasn’t it?
Once. And it’s already been made.
If you can get motion sickness from time shifting, that might partly explain my nausea over La Vie En Rose, where at some point they seem to completely abandon linear time and the constraints it tries to place on them.
In Atonement, we get this bouncing about in time which has one legitimate use: To show the same scene from two different angles. (Rashomon it ain’t, but this is legitimate. We need to see how the 13-year-old sees it versus how it actually was.) After that, let the story play out in sequence. Don’t show us a scene, then flip back six months earlier, than go forward three weeks, then branch off into an alternate reality.
Just don’t. OK, you can do a flashback at the end to clarify.
You can, Saving Private Ryan style, bookend your movie so that the whole thing is a flashback, though a lot of people felt that was hack sentimentalism. You can, to a limited degree, do an Awake style flashback, where you’ve presented the seeming end of the story at the beginning to get a twist at the end–but that’s really hack, and you better not be relying on that to carry your film. (Remember The Sixth Sense? Good movie, eh? Even Shyamalan can’t pull another rabbit like that out of his hat.)
Time shifting is generally another way to not stay in the phone booth with the gorilla, or a confession that your story, told in linear fashion, just isn’t very interesting. The audience will not be fooled. It may be confused however.