Has anyone ever changed up the chronology of a story during the revision process because it was too fractured or didn't tell the story properly?
I'm not real sure how the chronology of my story will end up. I have lots of background story that's not really exciting, but (hopefully) interesting and essential to it.
The options I have are to go with what I have beginning the story in "present time" and doing large flashbacks (almost entire chapters) to show each character. Or, to do it more linear and just progress through the 3-5 year period of the characters.
Has anyone had a "bad" story and made it "good" by simply changing the order in which the events are laid out for the reader?
The only example I can think of where the chronology made a difference is in cinema - a movie called Memento. It was played in reverse chronological order because the guy had short-term memory loss, so you saw it through his eyes. I would have been in incredibly boring movie if it was played in normal order (the DVD actually lets you do this).
The first thing that came to my mind is to question whether all the back story is actually necessary. As writers, we are in danger of falling in love with our characters and stories, feeling the urge to explain everything about them, their past, their psychology. But readers I think can grasp situations and 'get' characters very quickly. Then back story become boring. Chapters of back story, if not integrated, seems rather ambitious.
Chronology makes a difference with _every_ story. The fact that most stories follow a straight time line is significant in and of itself--they're written this way because it works and it's the most efficient and effective way to tell their story.
Having said that, I'm drawing a blank on stories that tinker with chronology. Many first-person narratives do so, largely because they are a story being told in retrospect--hence the flashbacks _are_ the story. In particular I'm thinking of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meaney. Irving swims through time, selecting scenes anywhere from his early childhood to young adult hood, and his present time 20 years later. While the story follows a time line, it's loose.
Extensive flashbacks will only confuse your reader, IMO. If your background is that important, add a prologue (perhaps). Better yet, have someone remember something from the past and explain it to someone younger or less experienced *because he needs to know it*!! Just because this background stuff is important to YOU doesn't mean the reader cares about it. They just care about what's happening now, not the entire history of the race, planet or culture. If something happening *now* is BECAUSE of something historical, then that historical thing can be mentioned somehow, but briefly - otherwise, you just pull the story off-track.
Sorry I can't think of any examples at the moment, but I've read stories that had info-dumps in the middle of telling a good story. In most cases, I just put them down and didn't read any more because the thread of the story was gone - by the time the author returned to it, I no longer cared what happened.
In my last novel, I picked a specific calendar year (1947, actually, slopping a little into the end of 1946 at the start), and tried to stick with that. So far it only occupies about a month and a half of that. I've never tried it like that before, but I've come to admire a number of works that have and wanted to try it myself.
But there are a lot of things that don't work in the hundred thousand words of unfinished rough draft that I've got...I know I'll have to move things around, but as yet I haven't started.
Chronology examples. In the written world, The Lord of the Rings inevitably comes to mind. Tolkien went to great pains to link the actions of several different narrative viewpoints and threads together in one great timeline...and also moved and changed it around several times when it didn't work out.
In the movies...well, I can only remember "High Noon," which, I'm told, plays out in real time. I've watched it, but haven't timed it myself. (There's the TV series "24," with, I gather, the same trick over the space of a day, but I haven't watched any of it myself other than short bits when flipping through channels...)
Since I'm a swooper, part of editing for me is making the time line work out. In a first draft I had a character get pregnant and have the baby in under 6 months. Since it's fantasy, I could get away with it but I needed to make sure I set the groundwork that gestation is shorter than ours and/or alter the time line. I changed the time line.
I also find that on edit, a lot of backhistory that is written up front is mostly clearing my throat. What I mean by that is the important parts of the backstory get worked into the rest of the text. The few items that get left behind, I then work into the text on edit and (usually) can delete between 50-80 pages of back history. Was it critical for me to write? Yup. Does it need to be in the story? Yup. Does it need to be in the story the way I originally wrote it? No.
I also had a problem (after too many edits for this still to exist, but such is life) that the MC finds BIG clue but not big enough to charge the bad guy with treason, then spends a month and only finds little clue, but still has to charge the bad guy with treason in an attempt to avoid a war. When I switched it: it became; Little clue, not enough to charge bad guy with treason, BIG clue, closer call on the treason charge but still not overwhelming evidence, treason charge. It made more sense and the story flowed better after the rewrite.
"24" has VERY FULL "hours"!!! If Jack Bauer lived very many days like that per year, he'd be a nut case - although he isn't far from that a lot of the time. And there are no meals, no potty breaks, no rest at all, and he's usually badly wounded yet still running around shooting at people or blowing things up. But yeah, the shows each show one hour per episode, in chronological order for one day (which totals up to 24 hours for the year - a longer series than any other, where the maximum number of shows is normally 22).
My hubby loves "24" - hence my knowledge. I got tired of it after the first few shows.
Thanks for the great comments. I'm learning a lot on here.
One more question regarding this topic...
In a typical story that plays out chronologically, you have a couple or few characters whose POV is told from chapter to chapter or perhaps from paragraph to paragraph. This is accepted because of the way the time flows.
What if (and this is what I was trying for my story) you still have a couple or few characters, but one of them is in the past. So, instead of the various scenes progressing chronologically, the ones with Eddie (my character) occur "three years ago", but they are interwoven with the story just as if it was another character in a different geographic location.
Aside from the reference to "three years ago", the part should not be that disruptive, should it? If the scenes are written properly (good dialogue, good action, etc.) is it still too much of a disconnect for readers simply because it's three years ago?
My goal was to tell his story beginning three years ago and eventually it comes to the present day and merges with the main story. I can't think of any examples of movies or stories that have done that (not implying that I'm the first to do it).
My feeling is that this could work. However, I think you have to make the reader care about the here and now first, and ensure the reader is well grounded before you go traipsing off to three years ago. It might help if it were evident that the two are going to be entwined at some point. It doesn't have to be explicit--just a hint or something.
Thinking back to the piece I read on ForwardMotion, I believe this was one of my main beefs. The action in the first chapter, which was pretty intense, comes to a screeching halt with the "three years ago" start of chapter 2. My first thought was, why the heck am I reading this now? I think if you spent a little more time with the main action, the "present", this would work better. Then the reader would be more ready to follow you on a jaunt to the past.
[This message has been edited by annepin (edited January 03, 2008).]
I would think it would have to be very clear to the reader that the "3 years ago" part explained or affected the "here and now" part somehow. If, for example, the "3 years ago" part eplained some mystery in the "here and now" part, that could certainly work.
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quote:Thinking back to the piece I read on ForwardMotion, I believe this was one of my main beefs. The action in the first chapter, which was pretty intense, comes to a screeching halt with the "three years ago" start of chapter 2.
That's what I'm trying to fix after I finish everything. I've just been writing the various parts and I'll assemble them into order when I finish.
If the "three years ago" segment was happening in present time, would it still be as distracting? I'm trying to understand if it was just too much of an info dump that slowed the story or was it simply the fact that it was "three years ago"? I can understand the former being a big problem. I'm not clear whether or not the jump back to the past is the main problem. Or is it the combination of the two?
I'm not sure what you mean about the three years ago happening "in present time." Do you mean by using just the past tense (she did, he said) instead of the pluperfect (she had done, he had said)?
Even if it's written in the perfect tense, and it was presented to the readers as in parallel or equivalent time to the rest of the story, you're still forcing the reader to make a leap. You're still asking the reader to stop being immersed in the "now" of the story and make the mental stretch to think about a different chronology.
The same thing would happen if you stopped the beginning story arc to introduce another character in another scene, even it if were happening contemporaneously. You're still making a massive break in the story flow. Since you're also asking the reader to mentally step back three years, it's that much harder and more disorienting. Now the reader has to keep track of the hit man and the guy getting killed and the covert ops, as well as events three years ago in a research facility.
Does this make sense? In short, I think if you're breaking the action, for any reason, it can be a problem. You start off telling one story. The reader wants to follow that story. If you interject it with another story, even if its well written and deeply involving, you risk disorienting the reader, who thinks, hey, what about so and so? Not to say it can't be done--I'm just saying I think you have to time your breaks so it doesn't completely dislodge your reader.
quote:I think if you're breaking the action, for any reason, it can be a problem. You start off telling one story. The reader wants to follow that story. If you interject it with another story, even if its well written and deeply involving, you risk disorienting the reader, who thinks, hey, what about so and so?
OK - I see what you're saying now. What I meant by "if the 'three years ago' was taking place in the present" was, for the same of arguement, imagine that part of the story was just another scene with different characters that actually was happening at the same time. I was trying to determine if the problem was simply because it was labelled "three years ago" or if it was because I was introducing new characters in the middle of a bunch of action.
I think I understand now that it's the disruption caused by both injecting something into a not-yet-well-established character base and plot AND forcing the reader to track two different timelines.
How do you know if an "odd" technique like a splintered chronology works? Do you just give different versions of the story to different people to read and get their feedback? Different versions to the same person?
This has unfortunately stalled my writing. I don't really want to proceed until I determine how to best sequence the scenes, but if I spend too much time trying to figure it out, then I won't even get the story done.
quote:How do you know if an "odd" technique like a splintered chronology works?
Sadly, there's no sure way to do this. I think one just has to use one's instinct, and hone that instinct by reading other people's stuff. Getting critiques is part of it and can definitely help. And "what works" is subjective.
quote:This has unfortunately stalled my writing. I don't really want to proceed until I determine how to best sequence the scenes, but if I spend too much time trying to figure it out, then I won't even get the story done.
Yeah, I think finishing should be your priority. A couple of my writing books recommended writing the first draft chronologically, regardless of whatever form it was going to take later. Obviously, this would require a lot of time in rewriting and reworking your draft.
I think the main thing with you piece was a matter of pacing. I don't think you gave enough time with the main action for the reader to get established, so it was difficult to follow a trip to the past. If you stayed with the "present" action for another chapter or two, it might work better, imo. I've got a POV and location switch in my novel, and that's how I plan to handle it.