In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the King tells the White Rabbit, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
The vast majority of writers and storytellers before and since have followed that advice. Sometimes—maybe most of the time—it makes sense to follow a strict linear progression and tell a story chronologically.
But not always.
Sometimes, it’s more fun for a writer—and more engaging for the reader—to mix things up a bit. There are lots of ways to do it. Simple things, like a prologue or epilogue. A flashback, or flash forward. An interruption by a letter or document or artifact or other insertion from another time or place. Those are fairly easy for the reader to handle, and can add interest to a written work.
There are, however, more inventive ways to violate chronology.
The Meadow by James Galvin is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’ve read it over and over again. The book covers a century, but its passages—like short chapters—are arranged at random, so you read about something that happened a week ago, turn the page and read something from eighty years ago, turn the page and read about something that happened twenty years ago. And so on, throughout the book. The technique, in Galvin’s skilled hands, is riveting. William Faulkner also rearranges time to great effect.
On a more banal level, I once wrote a short story in which present-day events that unfold chronologically are interlaced with a story from the past that unfolds in reverse—it begins with the end and ends with the beginning. It was a Finalist for a Western Writers of America Spur Award.
I’ve tried other ways of playing with time with varying degrees of success. I think such techniques, if well done, invite the reader to participate and become part of the story. What could be more fun?
The point is, chronology is fine—but you don’t have to be restricted by the clock or the calendar.
Reminder: To learn more lies—and truths—about writing, come to the Write Here in Ephraim Writers Conference, April 22-23.