The vast majority of stories are told in chronological order. As the characters wait to see what the future will have in store for them, so too are we readers (or watchers, or listeners) held in suspense as events unfold one by one. Even some stories that do not go in chronological order—say because the characters are going back in time—have the same setup; we are “following” the characters, and something's new and exciting for them if, and only if, it is for us.
A few weeks ago I blogged about the use of flashbacks in The Way of Kings and Frameshift, expressing my frustrations with some authors' use of non-linear chronology. In both cases, giving events out of order seems like it's trying to “artificially” create dramatic tension where there would otherwise be a more boring plot. Brandon Sanderson takes 800 pages from a first-chapter battle scene to explain what actually happened there, and Robert Sawyer begins with a science-fictiony “hook” before throwing readers into the horrors of the Nazi regime.
But there's a flip side to non-linear storytelling. If a bad use of it is to artificially induce tension by not giving away what happens early on, it is that much more impressive to, in the first pages, give away the end of a story that will be told mostly in flashbacks—and then go on to create a genuinely suspenseful, plot-twisting, compelling narrative anyway!
I have read such a book: Mal Peet's 2005 YA novel, Keeper. It won't be a spoiler for me to tell you that on pages one and two we learn that the main character, “El Gato” (“The Cat”) has just led his soccer team to a World Cup triumph. This flies in the face of sports-story narration; many sports stories lead up to a big game that the protagonist wins (admittedly perhaps not suspenseful to those schooled in convention) or lose (which might actually come as a surprise). In either case, revealing the outcome beforehand like that is a big departure from the norm.
Gato is being interviewed by a journalist, Paul Faustino, but the interview sections comprise only a small fraction of the book. It's mostly Gato's first-person recollections of his childhood and youth, eventually building towards that final game, and it's set both on the soccer field and deep within the forests of South America. And it's in the latter that the book really reveals itself to be not an average sports story; as has been praised so often on this blog, it's a wonderful example of how the “realistic” and fantastic can blur so closely that neither we, nor all the characters, can be sure which is which.
So trying to find out what's “real” in the story provides plenty of suspense for us readers, quite aside from the fortunes of Gato's national team. And they, too, provide their own excitement; even though we know who's going to win the final, the way things play out still manages to be somewhat of a pleasant surprise. Once the interview catches up to real time in Faustino's office, the book has more or less run its course—but there's one more plot twist still to be revealed, no easy feat in a book whose arguable climax is summarized at the top of page two.
However, that final “twist” did come off as too abrupt to be completely successful. There's somewhat of a “oh, by the way, did you happen to know that...?” where the answer, at least for the reader, is “no, no we didn't, and if we had it would have significantly colored the last several hundred pages.” Peet's next two novels actually move away from this abruptness. His second book, Tamar (non-sports related and non-fantastic) has a final twist that I thought succeeded in being not too predictable but not too out-of-the-blue. But if there's supposed to be a twist in The Penalty (a sequel to Keeper), it came off as too explicitly foreshadowed and heavy-handed.
In spite of this, Keeper is still a good example of how effective non-linear narration can be. By letting us know from the start that this is not our average sports plot, it instead invites us into a story that's memorable, bittersweet, and even—somehow—surprising.