Last week I talked about flashbacks and flashforwards. I also promised that I’d speak more about non-chronological stories (and novels). While there are a variety of ways to organize the events in your story (much of them discussed in my forth-coming book from Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, Write to be Heard, co-authored with Diane Sherlock), some work better than others. I’ll give you a quick sampling of options that you have as well as a few benefits and potential drawbacks of each. For each example, lets assume that the following timeline exists, with each letter representing a scene.
A B C D E F G H I J K L M
This structure describes movies, films, novels, and the like that begin near the end, let’s say scene L. Then, the work moves back to the beginning, A, and moves forward chronologically to show how the characters arrived at point L. Think of Thelma and Louise, or if the Lord of the Rings had started with Frodo standing over the fires of Mordor. It’s important, with this structure, not to begin with M. If we see the ultimate end of the progression of the plot, the rest becomes irrelevant. If Frodo drops the ring, we don’t need to know what happens before hand. Starting at the climax is a good way to create intrigue. But if you start at the end, your reader will feel like the rest of the story was a superfluous redundancy (see Star Wars episodes I, II, and III).
This structure is seldom used, but can be rather fun. Generally, it revolves around a centralized event, lets say G, that drastically affects both the past and the future. Maybe it’s a decision, or some sort of cataclysmic event. Regardless, we may see the tension in the “past” scenes, and a different, new tension in the “future” scenes. Let’s use Premonition as an example. The story revolves around a woman "who is unstuck in time” (if I may borrow the phrase from the great Kurt Vonnegut). Her husband’s death is the central event, and she “moves” through time, revolving around the day of his death. The films ultimate end is the death of the husband, but it happens in such a way that it gives us a sense of what may happen in the future. If G is the central event, events in a story like this might look more like this:
F, H, E, I, D, J, C, K, B, L, A, M, G.
A, M, B, L, C, K, D, J, E, I, F, H, G.
A, H, B, I, C, J, D, K, E, L, F, M, G.
THE PAST RESOLVES THE FUTURE:
One of my favorite authors, Bret Anthony Johnston (a brilliant man and an exceedingly astute teacher), wrote a collection of short stories called Corpus Christi. Most of the stories are non-chronological, and seem to be related primarily to relational scenes. The first story, though, Waterwalkers, is especially poignant. It revolves around a marriage that failed because of the death of the couple’s son. The movement of the story, however, is the possible rebuilding of that marriage. While the tension is still thick, the action of the story moves chronologically. In some ways, it’s a reflective story revolving around the death of the son. But it ends in the past. The resolve is rather open—we don’t know if the couple will reconcile for sure or not—but the final scene takes place in the past, with the son and the husband and the wife, all happy, before his death changed everything. This ultimately happy scene gives us hope for a future that may be filled with a happiness, though we understand they will never be happy in the same way again.
THE BACKWARD STORY:
People like to point to Memento on this one, a backward movie. The movie follows a man with short-term memory loss, who leaves himself notes and trinkets and other various “mementos” to remind him of the previous day’s happenings. Problem is, he seldom remembers what they mean. I like Currents, a flash fiction by Hannah Bottamy. In that, a family finds a drowned Pilipino boy. Each paragraph moves back in time slightly and tells what happened immediately before the preceding paragraph. What’s great about this structure, which would look like this: M L K J I H G F E D C B A, is that it forces us as readers to reassemble the events in order. It’s a great way to make the events of the story live on beyond the final page of text (or final scene of the film).
I could go on, but I won’t, because you’re in a hurry. But I’ll leave you with these final words: if you choose to write a non-chronological story, make sure you have a reason. Don’t simply write non-chronologically for the sake of being “cool” or “hip” or “breaking the rules.” Those types of gimmicks leave a bad taste in the mouth of the readers. Whichever chronological structure you choose should reflect the primary plot. It should serve to create mystery, or resolve mystery, add tension or resolve it. When done well, readers will appreciate your efforts.
And, as always, good writing.