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    Don’t Be a Slave to Time – Nonlinear Narrative

    In The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews sings, “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” That may be good advice for the Von Trapp Family children, but a writer might want to think twice about it.

    Many writers tell stories in a perfectly chronological sequence. This happened. Then that happened. Then the next thing happened. This method of telling a story is called linear narrative. Events are presented in the exact sequence in which they occurred. That’s a very effective way to tell some stories.

    Sometimes, however, the drama of a story can be heightened by breaking out of strict chronology and employing a nonlinear narrative. I Am Born might have been a fine title for the opening chapter of Dickens’ David Copperfield, but few contemporary readers of fiction or nonfiction will cut an author the slack to begin a book that way. Your book must engage its reader in the first page or two. To do that you need to begin with a dramatic scene. That may mean starting your story at its chronological end or in the middle to begin on the high note you are seeking.

    Novelist Joyce Carol Oates began her 1992 book Black Water, modeled on the car crash at Chappaquiddick involving Senator Ted Kennedy and a young woman not his wife, with an automobile crashing into dark swampy water. The senator, as he is referred to in the book, escapes and the young woman does not. All of the action of the book is handled through flashbacks interspersed with the young woman’s thoughts as she drowns.

    Altering the chronological sequence of events can create a frame for your story by placing those events in a context that will help the reader understand them. F. Scott Fitzgerald began The Great Gatsby, with the novel’s hero already dead and narrator Nick Carraway reflecting on events which will be presented later to conclude that “Gatsby turned out all right at the end.” The novel then flashes back to those events and reaches its climax when Gatsby is killed at the books conclusion. Nick’s reflection following the description of death provides the other interpretive element framing the story’s action

    Nonfiction writers can employ the same manipulation of chronology to make their stories more dramatic. David McCullough begins his Pulitzer Prize winning biography John Adams with the future president on the road from his home in Braintree Massachusetts to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. We learn about Adams’ background and why he had been chosen to attend the congress in flashbacks to his earlier life. Cheryl Strayed, author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, begins her story with the moment, 38 days into a three month solo hike along the high mountain peaks from the Mexican border to the Columbia River, when her one of her hiking boots tumbles away from her and down a mountain side. What brought her there and the consequences of her decision to undertake the hike in the first place are dealt with in flashbacks.

    So when you structure your own book feel free to alter the chronology in any way that will help you heighten the story’s drama. Your reader will thank you for it.


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    Reader Comments (2)

    You make a very good point. I find it easy to lose interest in a chronlological account. The question I have to ask is, "What is driving the story?" Recently I read A Good Man by Mark Shriver and found it very engaging. The author has a long section in the beginning highlighting the values of his father Sergeant Shriver, and he paints the character of his father. Using this model as a guide, I am attempting to write an account of my grandparents and the values they passed on to us twenty-some first cousins. It is challenging because of course I had much less contact with them than with my own parents, yet I am hopeful that it will work.

    Aug 24, 2012 at 5:43PM | Unregistered CommenterLinda Gilmore

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you, Linda. Steven Covey's advice to begin with the end in mind is important for writers. Recognize what is the important point you want to make and then, as Nancy says, "move it up" to the beginning of the book or chapter to engage your reader. Good luck with your account of your grandparents!

    Aug 25, 2012 at 1:36PM | Registered CommenterNan Barnes

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