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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.

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Using non-chronological story structure elements effectively

Focused on story structure, I was recently discussing tactics other than the usual chronological structure with some other writers. It was an interesting discussion of not only how to use these, but some general thoughts on these devices.

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Past prologue:

This is a device detailing an important event that happened in the past and has effected the current situation.

This is one of the most common non-chronological devices used in fiction, and the first one that comes to mind for me is the first chapter of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” It’s not listed as a prologue, but it happens ten years prior to the next chapter, so it’s really a prologue.

This gives the reader enough information about the situation to get them interested, but it doesn’t infodump everything the reader needs to know to dive into chapter two. It only gives enough background to let the reader know something strange and interesting, and quite dangerous, is about to happen.

Past prologues can be overused and can end up being very tell-y and not show-y enough. Use them with caution and with purpose!

Future prologue:

This device details a tension-filled or dramatic future event meant to capture readers’ attention.

One of the writers in the discussion mentioned that she doesn’t like future prologues because she finds them very jarring as a reader. She felt a prologue should naturally be something that happens before the main story. Another writer mentioned these have been very popular lately and are beginning to feel overused and a bit annoying.

Laini Taylor’s “Strange the Dreamer” was mentioned as a good example of a future prologue because it reads, at first, as if it’s a past prologue. As the reader continues on, they realize that isn’t the case and this realization causes more worry and tension for the reader.

Alternating timelines:

When using this device, past/present or present/future timelines alternate between different characters or the same character in different time periods.

“As Long As Love Lasts” by Jea Hawkins was mentioned as a good example of alternating timelines. The story shows a relationship on the edge of collapse then alternates to the story of an aunt and how a relationship ended for her. The house connects the two storylines, and the aunt’s story helps to inform the reader about the couple’s failing marriage.

Flashbacks:

Flashbacks break from the current story to tell of an event that happened in the past as a complete scene.

Slaughter’s “The Good Daughter” was mentioned as a good example of flashbacks. The timeline flashes back to an event from the two sisters’ childhoods, then later flashes back to the same scene and telling it from the other sister’s perspective. This allowed for more detail and seeing the event from multiple perspectives.

Parallel timelines:

This type of timeline device tells two stories chronologically in different time periods. Both move forward together and inform the other.

I recently read Amy Harmon’s “What the Wind Knows” and loved how she handled the timeline changes. It wasn’t a traditional parallel timeline, but at the same time it was. Without giving away too much, I really enjoyed how multiple timelines were in play simultaneously and they all came together at the end really beautifully without any confusion or lingering questions.

Time jumping:

This is when a character moves through different time periods. Scenes are connected in some way and inform the other scenes.

“The Kept Woman” by Karin Slaughter was mentioned as a good example of a time-jumping story line. The first half of the book investigates a crime, and just when the reader thinks they’re beginning to put all the pieces together, the timeline jumps to before the crime and progresses forward through the events from a different perspective.