I want to speak with you about a small and prudent matter, about where in time to begin a story that you’re writing.
An axle on which every story in the world turns is time. Time must be managed, like a flock of sheep, or it will run away from you.
The story is complicated. It’s a long story that goes back a long way. You agonize over where to begin it, how to tell it. In what order should your material go?
Should you start at the end and tell the story all the way back to the beginning? Should you start someplace in the middle? Should you spiral, meander, coil, stack, weave? Should you flash back? Should you imbed a flashback within a flashback?
Oh my gosh, we love backstory. “Let me explain how I got here.” Should you start in one place and then reverse into some backstory?
Where in Time to Begin a Story?
The order that is most understandable to a reader and to a writer is chronological.
We writers, of course, want to do fancy pirouettes and leaps, so we jump back and forth and up and down, exhibiting our gymnastic abilities. We do a handstand in the bow of a boat.
If you want to be understood, if you’re writing to make a difference, if you want a narrative that hits the reader in the gut because it’s constructed the way we all think, consider simplifying and following chronological order. At least at first.
There are actually, however, two chronological orders.
- One is the bona fide order of events.
- The other is the private chronological order of your protagonist (which can be you) coming to understand.
When you are writing a story chronologically, start with a single point farther back in time and move toward another, more-recent point in time. You can write in whatever verb tense you want but remember that everything that happens before your starting moment is in the past and should be treated as such, and everything that happens after your final moment is in the future and should be treated accordingly.
About Chronological Order
Simple, I know, but you wouldn’t believe how many people get this bassackwards.
A hint—if backstory is absolutely necessary, drop it in slowly. Stay in the scene but dole out small pieces of the backstory, in the same way you don’t flood a reader with description. You mete that out.
When I turned in my first draft of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, I guess it was all over the place time-wise. My editor, Emilie Buchwald, had me go through the book and put a date on everything that had happened: 1962, 1969, 1970. Then I had to rearrange the. entire. thing. into chronological order. She said, “Start when you were born and end when you left Georgia.” That made for a better book.
Sketch your story out for yourself, horizontally. Your opening scene comes first. Name that point in time. Name what’s next, and next. Skip some space and name the scene where you are ending. You are starting with a strange perfume on a shirt and ending with turning a key to a new home in Hawaii. You are starting with a cancer diagnosis and ending with a moment in the garden at sunset. You are starting with getting fired from the old job and ending with picking up The New York Times and seeing your name on the bestseller list.
You get the picture.
Where to begin? At the beginning. The true beginning. The point where everything that came before is extraneous. But everything that came after is life and death.