Story Structure: Chronological and Non-chronological

How you tell a story in time can make a big difference in its effectiveness. Chronological timelines are the the most common, but non-chronological structures can also work very well when done with careful planning and attention to detail.

Chronological Structure

The story is told largely in chronological order, meaning events are told in the order they occur. Brief flashbacks or flashforwards may be included, but they are not the main storytelling device.

This is the most common story structure used and the easiest for readers to understand. It is important to make sure the order of events and passage of time is clear to the reader. You can achieve this by establish the setting/time in the first few chapters to orient the reader, and then staying consistent throughout the book. This is especially important in anything not set in a current time period. If there is a flash forward or backward, give clear indication of the time change, either through exposition or noting the time change.

During editing, check for inconsistencies, such as injuries, broken items, or people coming or leaving and ensure there are proper healing time, things broken stay broken or get fixed, the people involved doesn’t change without being mentioned to the reader, etc. It’s easy to forget little details and have someone using a whole item that was broken in an earlier chapter, or forgetting an injury should hinder movement or ability, or forgetting about a character who existed in the background of a scene.

Non-Chronological Structures

Past prologue: This type of structure details an important event that happened in the past and has effected the current situation. This is commonly used when there is too much backstory detail to work into a present conversation without info dumping. The reader is given all the pertinent information in a past prologue to orient them in the current time when the story begins.

Future prologue: This type of structure details a tension-filled or dramatic future event meant to capture readers’ attention. It is most commonly used to show an unlikely or startling endpoint of a character or story, then reverts back to the present to show what led to the unexpected event. This should not be used simply for shock value to attract a reader’s attention. It should be important and relevant information the reader needs to know when beginning the story.

Alternating timelines: With this structure, past/present or present/future timelines alternate between different characters or the same character in different time periods. This is often used to show a comparison of experiences or times, or to brings two timelines to an eventual intersection.

Circular timelines: In this type of structure, the story ends where it began. It is used to create a sense of departure from and return to the original structure. Characters still undergo transformation and are affected by events.

Flashbacks: A flashback breaks from the current story to tell of an event that happened in the past, as a complete scene. It can be located anywhere in the story. It is used when more details are needed than what can be conveyed through a recap or explanation, or when the reader needs to “experience” the moment to full understand it. Flashbacks should be used minimally to avoid distraction and breaking the story flow.

Parallel timelines: This is used to tell two stories chronologically in different time periods. Both move forward together and inform the other. This is often used to compare two periods of time and how characters experience those time periods. There should be a link between them that sheds light on one or both storylines.

Time jumping: This is when a character moves through time, either forward or backward, or a combination of both. Scenes are connected in some way and inform the other scenes. Outside of an actual time-traveling storyline, this can be used to show changes in a character, situation, place, etc. in different time periods.