Plot and Structure: Chronological vs. Non-Chronological Structure

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Ask the Author: Mia Northrop via aarongansky.com – I’d like to include some real speeches spoken by politicians in my novel, but edit them for length and paraphrase some of the repetitive parts. What are my responsibilities in declaring that the speeches are not fictitious?

Aaron: A challenging question to be sure. A quick disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know much about publishing law. My first reaction to this is that you’re free to do it so long as you cite your source. You can do that via a footnote, though many readers feel footnotes break the fictive dream. You can also put it in an afterward or a forward, some additional section that is not part of the fiction. I would also note where readers can find the full, unedited speeches. Be sure to mention that you edited them for length. So long as you’re honest with your readers, I think you’re fine. Of course, I’d still run this past my publisher to see what he or she thinks.

Al: I can’t give legal advice but I do know that using material like songs, poems, prose, and speeches can be dangerous unless you’re certain that it’s in the public domain. Small amounts of of longer material can be used under the fair-use principle but it can only be a small percentage of the whole. That’s why using poems or song lyrics in books is touchy. It is easy to cross the line. When you sign a contract with a publisher there will be a clause requiring you to secure the written rights to use the material and usually you’ll be the one paying for it. If the speech you’re quoting is included in a compilation of speeches, then you might be breaking a second copyright license. In nonfiction, you can quote excerpts if properly cited. I advise avoiding anything more than a line or two of a speech, and I wouldn’t quote any poem or lyrics (short compositions) unless it’s in the public domain.

FIRSTS IN FICTION

PLOT AND STRUCTURE: Chronological vs. Non-Chronological Structure

  • What is Chronological structure? Simply put, it is the arrangement of events in the order in which they happen on a timeline. This is a straightforward beginning, middle, end set-up. Examples are all over. Most of what we read and watch is chronological in order.
    • Lord of the Rings
    • Star Wars (episodes 4, 5, 6)
    • Misery by Stephen King
    • No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
    • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • When writing in Chronological structure, be sure to do the following:
    • Make the order of events (the passage of time) clear.
    • Establish your setting and be sure it’s consistent.
    • Look for inconsistencies (In one book, I had a character’s sword break, and then later he’s fighting with a whole sword. Oops!) This is called continuity and it’s a big deal in TV and movies. In books, it will stop a reader dead in his/her tracks.
  • Non-Chronological Structure refers to stories that are not told as a time based sequence of events. These stories play with time for a particular reason. If you’re writing non-chronologically, be sure you’re doing it for a reason (not just because it’s cool). If you want to try it out just to stretch yourself as a writer, great! Otherwise, default to chronological order.
    • Story trumps everything. If there’s a reason to be nonsequential then fine, but remember that you’re adding an additional burden on the reader to keep things in order.
  • Some non-chronological strategies
    • Flashbacks–the popular way to reveal backstory at the appropriate time. This is when you jump back in time and show the event (rather than simply telling about it in the present moment).
    • Flashforward–when you jump ahead and show an event that will later take place. This is more than simple fortune-telling. This is going forward in time and telling the event (In the story of a child, a flashforward may begin, “As an adult, Marcus would spend much of his time courting blondes…”). THIS IS NOT FORESHADOWING. Foreshadowing is simply HINTING at what might happen later (our characters find a massive footprint in the woods and know they’re on Bigfoot’s trail, etc.)
      • I did this with THE FOG, one of the Harbingers Series books. I begin at the penultimate plot point with Tank standing of the edge of a 50 foot tall building and about to leap off. I set this up as a prologue and returned to it in Act III.
      • The effect of this approach can be useful. The reader knows that he/she is seeing something they will see again. If it’s interesting enough, they will race through the story to see what happens.
  • Types of Non-Chronological Structures:
    • Climax, Beginning, middle, end. (Fried Green Tomatoes, Thelma and Louise)
      • Here, you begin at the moment just before the crisis. You do not actually show the climax, because then the reader has no reason to move forward. Think of T and L. We see them in a tough place, caught between the edge of a cliff and about a dozen police cruisers. They’re thinking of just driving off the edge. What has got them to this point? We’re curious. Then, the movie jumps back to the beginning to tell of their adventure. When we return to the climax, we’re now familiar with how they got here, and we see their final solution to the problem.
        • This has become popular with episodic television.
        • In a sense, this is what a movie trailer is.
      • Imagine beginning the Lord of the Rings with Frodo ready to drop the ring in the fires of Mordor. DO NOT SHOW HIM DROP IT OR KEEP IT. Allow the moment of indecision to pique the reader’s interest.
      • DO NOT USE THIS AS A GIMMICK. If your beginning is slow, that might be why you’re tempted to do this. I say find a better, chronological opening. However, this technique can be useful when done properly.
    • Backward (Currents, Memento)
      • These stories begin at the end, then move backward in time. (Think of the alphabet backward).
      • Currents begins with a man drinking scotch alone on the porch. Something’s wrong. We get to see the horrible tragedy in reverse step-by-step (Each paragraph begins with “Before that…”). The final line, “Before that, it was a simple summer day,” leaves the reader with an ironic unease.
      • Our minds like things in chronological order, and we will often assemble the pieces in proper order after reading a story like that, which means the story is able to live on beyond its pages.
    • Parallel flashbacks (or flashforwards) (Lost, The old TV show Kung Fu.)
      • Here, you tell two stories chronologically. One is in the present, the other in the past. As they move forward together, one informs the other.
        • I call this DNA structure: two strands wrapped around a single axis. A Ship Possessed I had two stories separated by sixty years. Two stories, one McGuffin.
      • In Lost, we see the character on the island, and back at home. When they’re back at home, something happens to them. That event, when it’s revealed, informs a decision they make on the island that doesn’t seem to make sense without the flashback.
      • They did the same thing with flashforwards.
    • Time-jumping (“WaterWalkers,” many other stories in Corpus Christi, The Prophet from Jupiter, Slaughterhouse Five)
      • These stories move fluidly through time, bouncing between present action, flashbacks, and often, flashforwards.
      • These must be handled delicately. The time must clearly be established each time (“When he was eleven,” or, “The summer he got sick,”).
      • Usually, these scenes are connected in some way (by character, by event, by epiphany, etc.) They inform the other scenes around them so the reader more fully understands the whole character.
      • “Prophet” is perhaps the most disjointed, but is a very intriguing read (content warning).
      • “Waterwalkers” ends in the past, on a happy, hopeful note, so that we’re led to believe the present conflict will resolve happily.
      • “Slaughterhouse Five” jumps around to reinforce the senselessness of war.
  • Time-travel stories, strangely, are always chronological, because chronology is perceived from the character’s POV.

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