Tackling the timeline: Chronological organization
Chronological, time jumping, flashbacks, foreshadowing . . . All of these are ways to use time in your story’s progression. Over the next several weeks, I’ll go over each of them individually. But, first, I’ll review the main time chunk found in most books—present time.
Some books (To Kill a Mockingbird is an example) are in the past tense throughout because the narrator is telling the reader about a past event. Some books (like the book of Revelation in the Bible or The Black Box, a short story by Jennifer Egan) are actually written in the future tense. I don’t recommend writing in this tense; however, if you can pull it off, please hire me as your editor because I want to add the book to my collection. I’ll even give it its own shelf.
Anyway, I’m talking about present time whether your story is written in past tense (Gary ran down the street, waving a left hand at the group as he passed by.); present tense (Simon pats his sister on the head, grinning when she glares up at him and slaps his wrist away.); or even future tense (I would later ask the man why he was following me, and only then would I get to see his face). Present time, in this post, is simply the primary time period your book is discussing. Keep that in mind, because within these posts, we’ll talk about leaving that time to introduce a scene that might have happened in the past or will happen in the future. Or, maybe we’re just jumping to the next day because the rest of the night isn’t worth writing out.
Chronological writing sequence
Many books are written chronologically, which means every event happens after the preceding one. This is most common because it makes the most sense. If you run into someone, you have a reaction. If you wake up, you have a day to start. We’re living chronologically, so we know how to write this. This, of course, is why I’m writing about it first.
So, what’s the most important thing about writing things chronologically? There are different ways to do so. Sometimes, every day needs elaboration, so the sequence is minute-by-minute. In other books, days can pass or even years that the reader never gets to read because it’s not worth writing or the next interesting thing happens a time gap later. Some writers mistake this ability as an opportunity for a prologue/chapter one transition. Yes, this is why a prologue would be necessary, but if the prologue is necessary, it should probably be a chapter. Prologues aren’t always read, no matter how much a writer says “Well, they should.” That’s a topic for another time.
Transitions available in chronological writing sequences:
- time jumps
Remember those? It’s okay, we’ll go into more detail about them in individual posts, but right now, we’ll discuss incorporating them in a chronological writing sequence.
- No matter what, you need to transition from one place to the other. If you are using a flashback in your day-by-day outline, it needs a purpose and fuel. It needs an excuse to exist. Flashbacks are typically memories, so to transition from your present time, you’ll need a trigger: a familiar sight/sound, a demand for that memory, a question, reminiscence. What requires that memory? After that, it’s up to you to word it correctly. I could show you a few examples, but I don’t want to influence your writing because there are infinite ways to do this. Read a few short stories or pull out a book from your shelf or on your e-reader. I can almost guarantee you’ll find a flashback or two. It also depends on the trigger to your flashback. It can be sudden in something like a familiar sight or gradual in something like reminiscence.
- What about foreshadowing? Usually, you’ll see this in a symbolic object, person, location, action, etc. But, foreshadowing can be a change in your writing tense, too, if it’s aggressive foreshadowing. Here’s a quick example: Your main character meets a seer. That’s an easy example. The seer will tell your character their future, so you can expect he/she/it to change tenses when they speak and the event to not have happened yet. You’ll go from past simple to future tense or present tense to future tense. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing. If it’s not dialogue, words like will and shall change to would. Again, another post for elaboration.
- Time jumping, simply put is just what it sounds like. You’re jumping from one moment to the other. This can be two things: It can be its own writing style or it can be a moment in a chronological time sequence. Right now, it’s the latter. If you want to skip the evening and pick back up in the morning, it could be as simple as a paragraph break, a little more prominent with a break (asterisk in between paragraphs or some kind of symbol to note the strong time break), or it can be the beginning of a completely new chapter. It depends on the pattern in your book. If you have tons of time jumps like this, starting a new chapter might be unwise unless you want a bunch of short chapters. If you do it once, just skipping to the next paragraph might be confusing because your readers don’t expect it. Make sense?So, what about bigger time jumps. Days? Months? Years? Don’t do it! Kidding. There’s nothing wrong with it. But how do you transition to something like that? It’s easier than you think, but it’s not the same as the examples above. I advise against simple paragraph breaks. I strongly advise against it. It’s confusing and immediately unearned. Something about new chapters tells the reader anything can happen, so that usually helps. If you use titles for chapters, providing the time period skipped could be your easy answer. Another way to transition might be within the final sentences of your last chapter. If a kid is going on a trip after she graduates from high school, something like “The next four years would be torture, but I planned on making them go by as fast as I could.” If the book is all about this trip, high school might not matter so there you go. No one wants to return to high school, anyway. Next chapter, here’s the trip! Your transition could be in the first paragraph of that chapter, and I don’t mean “Ten years later . . .” Once you say this, you’re going from a narrator to a character in one sentence. If you have a narrator, this might work. If not, don’t try to use the easy way out. Use a cue to identify the time that passed. Use something that happened in a previous chapter or something that was meant to happen that readers already knew about. You can even summarize time if it’s easy to summarize. Many books do this with weeks and months.
Those are the most common time changes found in chronological stories, but they’re only momentary. The time jump is always moving forward, meaning you’re still working chronologically. The other two are in a moment, and they go back to the present time and continue from there. A book can span a short or long timeline. It’s up to you and the story. Will it cover one day? A week? Months? Years? It’s up to you, and you don’t have to use an entire day. But, if it’s chronological, you have to keep in mind any transition to another time has to have a purpose. If all you’re doing is passing time in a doctor’s waiting room, skip it. Don’t make us wait, too, with a memory that doesn’t matter. It’s all about the book. You’ll know if the memory helps your character or hurts the story.