Did You Muck Up The Timeline? On Purpose?

Placing scenes out of chronological order can be done for several reasons. Perhaps your character time travels, perhaps memories return, a flashback is needed (it happens), or maybe, your muse is Insane. Whatever the reasons, it still has to make a fluid, balanced read. Every scene must serve a purpose, and must push the story forward. Everyone with me so far?

I like things in order, who doesn't? Chaos just gives me a headache. So, here's a visual-- We'll pretend each scene is a crate. Sometimes, they're long, sometimes they're tiny. All are important.

When I build a book, I pile one crate on top of the other. But sometimes, I create a smaller crate, then several bigger ones, and my awkward tower topples. What then?

Time might be irrelevant in these cases, it's the shape of the crates that need order. Make sense?

I got thinking about this when I wrote Breaking Cupid. It was in chronological order in about my twentieth draft. It had all the elements it needed;
1.the search for each other (small crate)
2.the romance (long crate)
3.she goes missing (tiny crate)
4.he saves her. (huge crate)
Simple. Yet, every time I read it, it was out of balance. Too much romance at the start and too much action at the end. It drove me nuts, yup summoned Insane. The timeline wasn't working for me, and it was the actual order of things. Finally, the entire book toppled into the trashcan.
I liked it there.
My muse, Insane, did not. "Fix this you idiot."
The problem was that huge crate at the end. I needed to start the story there.
Okay. Now what?
What kind of idiot starts the story at the end?
Well, since I'm normally the idiot who will try anything once, and Insane wouldn't shut up about it, I did it.
I saved everything and rewrote it for fun. If I didn't like it, at least I tried. And, who would know but me, Insane, and now you?
I loved it, and it took very little work, since I had all the crates built.
Now it reads; he's off to save her, but doesn't know why she's missing. (the huge crate) The memories return as he searches... some, moments too late. (all the other crates are piled in it neatly, and come out, one at a time).
I didn't even use flashbacks, only magic.

Ah balance.

Since then, I wrote three more stories that break the timeline. I'm not sure how it happened. They're still in revision stages, so things might change, but I actually wrote them that way.

Why for the love of all things written would I do that?
  • My two MCs experienced the same things on different days. So I was dealing with the same problem just on two different days. (Same stack of crates, different towers.)
  • Some demon is erasing his memories, and she has to figure how, why, when, and the triggers. She tells her story, he tells his, different times, same solution. (One big crate, just had to dig in it for all the tiny ones.)
  • She soul swaps with past lives. (Just a heap of crates all messed up.) Fun.
You getting a visual yet? Still with me or has Insane shoved me in one of my crates?

There's just a kinda magic at play that makes me tingly inside.
 I've reread them several times, even put them in chronological order to make sure I didn't miss anything, and I have to say, I like them that way. It works for me, for now, we'll see where the revisions take me. 
And guess what?
It's my fantasy, I can write it any way I want.

As a reader, does it annoy you to read things out of sequence? Do you break the timeline when you write and for what reasons? What tricks do you use to keep your readers from getting lost? Give me something to think about.


E.C. Smith said...

Hi Tanya! I'm a fellow crusader visiting again. I wanted to let you know you've been given the Stylish Blogger Award! Come by my blog ecsmithramblings.blogspot.com/ and check out the details.


Loralie Hall said...

I love your crate analogy - it's so appropriate. I'm all about telling a story out of order when needed, and I love reading one when it's well written, too. All of the stories you're describing sound fantastic.

Linda Gray said...

I never mind reading things out of sequence as long as a) there's a good reason for it and b) it's not too jarring. Sometimes something from the past just doesn't work well as part of the character's motivation until something else happens that triggers the memory of it. If you put it in early, it's just boring. Or, parallel developments just can't be on the same page with each other and ONE of them has to come first. I don't write fantasy and, sadly, can't use magic, but I'm loving playing with timelines this way. Thanks for a great, though-provoking post.

Richard said...

As well as I can remember, the only time I've written scenes out of order is by using flash backs.

Michael Offutt said...

I write in chronological order. However, I've seen movies that Quentin Tarrantino did that handled the juxtaposition of time very well. I dunno if that's my personal style though.

Cherie Reich said...

I wanted to say hi to a fellow crusader. :)

I typically write chronologically sometimes. In my most recent NaNo book, it has chronological order with past things splashed into it. As long as you can tell what is present and what is past, I have no problem reading it. Now, when it's not clear, that's when it becomes a headache.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Sometimes flashbacks are vital to a story. Your crate analogy is dead-on. I scatter flashbacks throughout my fable, THE BEAR WITH TWO SHADOWS. Have a great today, Roland

Dan said...

Hello, fellow Crusader!

I don't think there's anything wrong with writing out of order. It can and a new layer of interest or intrigue not available in a strictly chronological story.

In fact, my current WIP starts with what would be Act Three in a strict a-b-c narrative, then unfolds to explain how the MC got there.


Adina West said...

Hi from a fellow Crusader!

I think the main thing you've highlighted above is that presenting a story non-chronologically is okay if there's a good reason for it. Personally I don't do this too much but it can be done (particularly with a first person narrator reflecting back on a story they're telling you) and it does work.

Good luck! (to both you and Insane)

Anonymous said...

I usually write in chronological order, but then I usually write in just one POV and have found myself breaking both those rules on my current WIP. I don't mind what order someone writes in as long as I can make sense of what is happening and where the story is going in general.

By the way, I'm a fellow Crusader - I look forward to getting to know you and your writing :D

Deborah Burns said...

Loving the crates! Thanks for the analogy. It's given me some "aha!" moments for my current WIP. As far as chronological order... I have no strong feelings one way or the other. It all boils down to... Does it work? If so, awesome! If not, rewrite. I love that you are constantly trying new things! Can I borrow some of that fearless mojo?

P.S. So glad you like my writer badge. ;)

E.J. Wesley said...

Hi Tanya! Fellow Crusader here ...

There are a ton of compelling reasons to switch stuff up. One of my favorite stories is The Time Traveler's Wife, and she does such a wonderful job of jumping around, yet keeping you grounded via the characters.

Can't wait to read more of your thoughts!


Anonymous said...

Huh, interesting. I'll try to remember that with the WIP I'm revising.

See you around the Crusade!

Charlie said...

Interesting post. Time lines in my book jump around and confuse the reader, but it makes sense.

Being that you asked, allow me to explain.
The first 11 chapters begin in the near future with two women that may or not be terrorists. I want the reader to wonder, then NYC blows up! --Boom!
Chapter 12 begins 750 years in the future during a history lecture. One of the women is a student in that class. They were time travelers. The time line is mostly linear-perfect, even though the MC has yet to go back and experience the first 11 chapters.
Most readers comment that it made perfect sense after they read the entire book.

In my warped mind, it makes sense.

Margo Berendsen said...

I think writing out of sequence is a powerful tool if done well, sorry I wish I could give you some advice but I haven't looked into it the actual techniques. But now I realize it is something worth studying more! Time Traveler's Wife was one of the best books I've read like that.

Fellow crusader - thanks for visiting me! I'm a new follower.