Of all the skills required to write a great novel, effective management of timing and sequence is one of the most difficult to master. In this article, I will offer some insights on how to write a book that flows naturally as the plot unfolds.
Have you ever found yourself completely lost when halfway through a book or movie? Chances are that you are not the only reader/viewer who felt that way. The story may have made sense to the author as they know the whole story, but the mismanagement of time, timing, and sequence can create confusion. Whether your story is set in the past, present, future, or some combination thereof, it must maintain a logical flow.
Timing and Sequence
Natural Flow of Time
Most novels are written using the natural passage of time. The simplest method for sequencing, this approach takes the reader on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day journey to the climax.
Typically, we start with an extraordinary or unusual event in the life of the protagonist that will eventually lead to the conclusion which could take place in days, months, or years after the initial incident. The popular television series 24 was able to tell a compelling story in a single day though they did often leave cliffhangers. Some stories span an entire lifetime and others skip forward from century to century. All of these, however, are following the natural flow of time.
In this method, flashbacks are allowed through thoughts or dreams, but you cannot jump around in time. Your protagonist can tell a friend about his childhood or reminisce about the past, but he cannot go back to relive it. However, you can skip forward to the future provided you do not go back. For example, if the extraordinary event that starts the story took place during the protagonist’s childhood, you could start the next chapter years later when the impact really begins to show.
Another option is to tell your story from climax to origin. If properly executed, this method can produce an amazing read. Consider the phenomenal movie Memento.
Reverse order is self-explanatory; you start at the end and progress back in time to the beginning. As a dystopian thriller author, I can imagine writing a story that begins with my protagonist finding herself alone in the world, struggling with whether or not to go on living a solitary existence. In this scenario, we will say it took 48 days for the rest of humanity to perish. Stepping back day-by-day with each chapter, I could slowly reveal what brought about the devastation. Was it a pandemic, alien attack, zombie apocalypse? Not knowing the answer is what will keep the readers turning the pages.
Often, reverse order novels end with returning to the present. In my scenario, the readers will want to know if she decides to end her life or continue on as the sole person on Earth.
In this method, the author uses the natural flow of time from the perspectives of several different characters. Vantage Point and Crash are two great movies that illustrate this concept.
Typically, the book starts with a climactic event – a terrorist attack in Vantage Point and a vehicle accident in Crash. From there, we jump back in time to the hours or days leading up to the event from each character’s perspective. Think of each chapter as “three days earlier.”
Using the perspective method of sequencing, you can easily develop multiple characters. Is the character inherently good or evil? Was she an innocent victim or a conspirator? Do we want him to survive the ordeal or see justice served?
As with reverse order, most of these stories return to the climactic beginning at the end in order to provide resolution.
By far, this is the most difficult method of sequencing to employ. In traversing time, the author leads us back and forth through the past, present, and future. Timeless and Back to the Future are two good examples.
Most often, we think of these as time travel stories, but they don’t have to be. For instance, we could write a book about an immortal vampire. While the first few chapters might be present day, we could write the next several as taking place 500 years ago when he was first bitten. The final chapters might be 500 years into the future. While that wouldn’t constitute a time travel novel, it does traverse time.
Time travel adds another element of complexity (and potential reader confusion) in the alteration of timelines. If something different takes place in the past, then it will have a ripple effect on the future.
Lastly, I’ll briefly mention the concept of alternative time. This method can be used in depicting an alternative history or an entirely fictitious scenario. It’s a Wonderful Life is a good example of the latter.
I’m calling this one a concept instead of a method for sequencing because it can be written using any of the sequencing methods listed above. For example, It’s a Wonderful Life follows the natural flow of time method. Although we go back in time to see an alternative reality where the protagonist had never been born, the story itself is playing out moment by moment as Clarence guides him through the visions.
Alternative histories are becoming very popular. Authors who can creatively reinterpret past events are gaining a wide audience.
Now that we’ve talked about some methods for handling sequence, I will offer some suggestions:
1. Sketch it before you write it!
Before you type the first word of your manuscript, ask yourself these questions: When does it take place? Which method of sequencing would work best? How long does it last?
2. Guide the reader along.
When it comes to sequencing, don’t keep your readers guessing. Make sure they clearly understand where they are at in time. You can accomplish this by using informative section headers (Day 19) or descriptive starts (Twenty years later…).
When traversing time, be very clear. Use dates. For example: “2022 became a thing of the past when she stepped through the door into 2689.”
3. Keep it logical.
Don’t jump back and forth in time if it doesn’t make sense. We are accustomed to the natural flow of time, so write with that in mind. When you diverge from the norm, do it in a way that the reader can understand and follow. Explain the rationale behind the abnormal sequencing.
4. Avoid over-telling your story.
While you may initially think a few chapters about your protagonist’s youth is helpful in providing the foundation, it may be too much. Consider using flashbacks in thoughts, dreams, or conversations. If that doesn’t feel like enough, add in a few references to get your point across without having to spell it out over an entire chapter. For example, I could write an entire chapter about the abuse a young woman suffered as a child, or I could simply say something like: “After the abuse she had endured as a child, she had little tolerance for aggressive men.”
5. Stick to the plot.
Whatever sequencing method you are using, make sure you stick to the plot. For example, if you are using the natural flow of time method, don’t feel the need to describe the details of every single day up to the climax. If days pass without event, then skip them to get to the good stuff. There is no shame in saying, “six months later.”
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