Avoid violating chronology when plotting story

Unless you’re a deft writer or have one incredible editor, resist the urge to shift back and forth in time from scene to scene. Instead, tell the story as it unfolds chronologically. That is, present the events in the sequence that they would occur.

Usually violating chronology confuses readers. That’s because each time frame in a story contains its own milieu. For example, a story set in 1979 probably will have characters talking about or affected by gas shortages, inflation and the Equal Rights Amendment while very few people at all use computers in their workplace, and no one has a cell phone. In contrast, a story set in 1999 probably will have characters talking about or affected by gas below a dollar in price, low unemployment, and the need for universal health care; a majority of workers use computers in their workplace, and many have cell phones or at least pagers. If you constantly shift between these two time frame, readers may begin to wonder why the characters don’t use their cell phone to get out of a jam in the 1979 scene or how they’re able to easily obtain gas to drive wherever they like in the 1999 scene because keeping track of what year the story is occurring can be difficult.

This doesn’t mean that such a story can’t work. Many good novels violate chronology. But if you’re going to risk that, doing so should make the story more dramatic or help clarify a character or theme.

Of course, sometimes we need to add a scene that occurs in our story’s timeline before some of those we’ve written. Rather than restructure the story, we might include it as a flashback or relate it as exposition in conversation between two people.

Keep flashbacks to a minimum, however. What makes the flashback powerful is that it is a special, powerful moment that unveils significant information about the character. Utilize flashbacks too many times, and the moments cease to be special; the reader might even wonder why those flashbacks weren’t simply organized chronologically.

Resist exposition as well. A quick phrase or even sentence in dialogue is passable, but avoid writing a long passage in which a character reiterates a past event as if he were a news anchor or someone reading aloud from an encyclopedia.

On a more line-by-line level of writing, present details in scenes as they occur chronologically. When not doing so, you’re using a rear-view mirror description, in which an object is described only after it’s been part of the action. For example, He slid into the cave hole that his foot had just felt. This type of writing allows the reader to see the setting only after the character has interacted with it – in short, it’s like looking at a landscape through a rear-view mirror.