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The Order of Things
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
July 5, 2012
The sequence of events for your story has several dimensions. One aspect of this means the order of what happens to your characters. But it also means deciding upon the order in which you tell everything to your readers. These are not always the same thing.
We can call one type of order the "author's absolute time" within the story. Certain events happen on Monday; other events happen on Tuesday. But the reader does not necessarily experience the story events in this order, for the story may not be told that way. Events which occur on Monday may appear after Tuesday's events in the novel. We'll call this second type of order the "reader's relative time." (If someone knows better terms for these concepts, please let me know.)
There are many examples of stories not told in chronological order. A novel may open with a frame story which is set at the "absolute time" end of the story. For example, in our novel, Jocasta: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus, we start with a prologue in which Jocasta's unnatural marriage to her son has been discovered. One of their daughters wants to understand how such a thing could happen -- and the rest of the novel answers that question, jumping back forty years in absolute time and then continuing in chronological order. It is only when we reach the end of the book that we catch up with the absolute time of the prologue.
Let's review some different ways in which you can order the events of your story.
The most straightforward sequence of your writing is to show what happens chronologically, or the "absolute time" of the story. This means that if the sun rises at seven and John breakfasts at eight, your reader will read about the sunrise before she reads about John's breakfast.
Perhaps it's important for you to change the sequence of these events. It's rather awkward (though not impossible, at least in fiction) to change the time of the sunrise, so if you want to show the reader John breakfasting before you show the reader the sunrise, one solution is to make John get up and eat earlier. This means changing the absolute sequence of the events in your story.
Another solution is to start with John eating breakfast at eight, but then to have him remember the sunrise that happened at seven. This is called a flashback and is changing the reader's relative time. Writers use flashbacks all the time, but they can confuse your readers. If you're considering having John flash back to the sunrise that happened only an hour before breakfast, well, then, you'd better have good artistic reasons for doing so. In other words, something significant to the story should be associated with the sunrise. Otherwise, keep it in chronological order, or simply ignore the sunrise -- or even ignore John's breakfast.
Following a Character
Perhaps you are writing about a couple of characters, Mary and John, who will meet on page 200. You may want to follow the life of Mary for the first 100 pages, up to the point where she is about to open that door and find John. And then, just as she glimpses him in the waiting room, you stop the story, back up and show the readers John's life up to that point.
This is not strictly chronological, because the readers first experience Mary's life during the previous decade, and then experience the life of John during the previous decade. However, this type of organization may help your readers become really close to Mary, and then later develop a bond to John. So this approach can deepen your readers' reading experience.
Perspective of a Character
If you are working with a limited, intimate point of view (POV) -- and I hope to cover POV in other columns -- in which the reader only experiences what your protagonist experiences, then your readers will also experience something when the protagonist experiences it.
For example, perhaps Mary cheats on John shortly after they are married. John doesn't learn about it until forty years later, when she's dying. For John the pain is fresh and new, as he's wondering if his children are really his children and if his whole life is a lie. In the reader's relative time -- and in John's -- the affair just happened, even though in absolute time Mary cheated on John occurred four decades earlier.
(Editor's note: A good example of this occurs in the second and third books of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which the story follows the events happening to one character for a period of time, then switch to the events that have happened to another character in that same period.)
Perhaps you are writing historical fiction in which many different types of things are happening -- for example, World War II. Even though the building of concentration camps and the fighting of naval battles may occur in overlapping periods of time, you may choose to concentrate on one and tell about it for a while before moving to the other. This will help your readers understand your story.
We've reviewed a few different ways you can order scenes and chapters. There are many different options, and that no single way is "right" all the time. So it is up to you, the author, to decide how to order the events in both author absolute and reader relative time. But how do you go about it?
These decisions are very artistic and subjective, but in making them myself I apply a few guiding principles:
Which sequence will best please the reader? I try to minimize reader confusion and maximize reader satisfaction. I will cover these goals in other columns, so I won't expound more on them here.
Which sequence is logical? I like to have things make sense, so I don't play around with the time of the sunrise. In my own case, I'm also following certain Greek myths, so I attempt to be consistent with the myths and archaeological findings. Sometimes I can't reconcile events completely -- the myths and the archaeology may contradict each other -- and I return to the principle of doing my best to entertain the reader.
As writers we have to make two decisions with respect to order: the order of how the events happen in the story (author absolute) and the order in which we tell them (reader relative). These decisions have a huge impact on your story.
A version of this article appeared at the Coffeehouse for Writer's Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.