Chronology in the Written Narrative

Fire_brick_apartment_228584_lDoesn't that title just sound wonderfully intellectual and literary?  Well, you know me better than that.  I'm fumbling along trying to figure this writing game out just like you and if I get too high falutin you guys will let me know.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Tyranny of Chronology in terms of the writing process.  Like, do you write your scenes in order or write whatever scene suits your fancy on a given day?  But the kind of chronology I'm talking about today is the actual order of your book.  (By the way, I'm still allowing myself to write whatever comes up, not following a strict chronology as usual and it is very freeing.)

What brought this all up is a book I'm reading.  Alas, I can't tell you about it.  I'm reading it for a review that will appear here April 19th and it's part of a big campaign so I have to be quiet until then or they will come after my first-born child.  And I like her, so mum's the word.

But what I can talk about is the fact that the book is written in a fractured chronology, ie, it doesn't proceed from one event and follow a linear timeframe.  Instead, it jumps around.  It is so well done that you always, always, know where you are, however. Which is the key in a fractured chronology story.  If you lose the thread, you lose the reader.

Chronology is important even within a chapter.  Sometimes I read student work that jumps around so much my head is whipping about like I'm watching a tennis match.  Then, instead of getting engrossed in the story I'm doing math in my head to figure out where I am.  This can be the result of putting in flashbacks.  To control it, keep them brief, and always have a clear transition into and out of the flashback.  Or it can come when using one of my favorite techniques–starting a chapter far into the scene and then harking back to what's come before with a paragraph of narrative.  Same advice holds here, just be really clear with transitions.

I found myself wondering how the author of the book I'm reading accomplished his fractured chronology.  I suspect he wrote each storyline first and then jumbled them up.  Although, come to think of it, I once wrote a short story that had a fractured chronology and I just wrote each scene as it came to me.  So I'm not sure.  I've written on this blog about the Two Nows Structure, which is slightly different and easier to control, because it confines itself to two clear story lines.

A fractured structure is worth looking at for the power it can bring to the narrative.  It creates a sort of dreamlike quality in which you feel as if you are in the character's head.  Because our minds don't think in linear chronology.  At least mine doesn't. 

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Experiment with chronology in your work.  Take a short story, cut up the through lines and rearrange them.  What happens?  How does the new chronology affect the story?

What do you think?  Do you write in linear or fractured chronologies? If the latter, what's your process for achieving it?

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Photograph by slonecker

4 Responses to Chronology in the Written Narrative

  1. Zan Marie 04/02/2012 at 05:48 #

    Yikes! Fractured storylines are good reads when very well done, but, you’re right, it’s easy to lose the reader. I’ve been one of them. ; )

  2. Charlotte Dixon 04/02/2012 at 06:25 #

    I suspect they probably require a good editor to make certain there’s clarity as well. Thanks, as always, for dropping by, Zan Marie.

  3. Don 04/02/2012 at 14:38 #

    Chronology is a lot of extra work, but it’s absolutely vital, but that extra work can make the biggest difference even in the smallest areas. I’ve found that a mixed up chronology can make an otherwise brilliant plot make the author look a lot less professional.

  4. Charlotte Dixon 04/02/2012 at 16:44 #

    Well said, Don.

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