Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The art of chronology

I'm currently reading, as my library literature choice (i.e., the book I read in the bathroom), The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.  Good book, if a little strange at times, in large part because it takes a truly unique view of gods and their relationship with mortals.  While the book I'm writing adopts a fairly standard view, at least till the end, on what makes a god, Jemisin's work is different. 

Her style, though, is what takes a little getting used to.  She's jumpy, for lack of a better word.  I kinda like it, and it's pretty fresh, but it's not typical.  She leaps from one plot segment nimbly to another.  She also makes use of an interesting device, one that only works in the first person narrative voice, which is where the narrator says, "Wait.  Something happened before that," (a real quote from her book) and I, the Gentle Reader, go with it. 

It's really kind of strange at first.  I'm used to reading and hearing stories that are in order.  First, Jack and Jill went up the hill.  Later, Jack fell down and did the whole crown-breaking thing.  Finally, Jill proved that not all women learn from men's mistakes.  It's told in order as it happened.  If I were to tell you that Jill fell down the hill after Jack, then later when I said, "Oh, by the way, they climbed up the hill first," you'd think I'd gone daft, right? 

We expect plots to be in a particular sequence in part from the basic definition of the word. says a plot is "The sequence of incidents or events in a narrative."  See?  Sequence. says a plot is "a secret plan or scheme to accomplish some purpose, especially a hostile, unlawful, or evil purpose," a definition that has nothing to do with the literary use of the word, but it's fun to relate anyway.  Bedford St. Martin's Interactive Fiction Tutorial ( says "Plot refers to the series of events that give a story its meaning and effect." 

It's true that none of that really says it has to be chronologically sequenced.  Going down a bit farther on the page, in fact, at Bedford St. Martin's virtuaLit, you find that "In some stories, the author structures the entire plot chronologically, with the first event followed by the second, third, and so on, like beads on a string. However, many other stories are told with flashback techniques in which plot events from earlier times interrupt the story's "current" events."  What's entertaining about how Jemisin does it is that there doesn't seem to be a big word "FLASHBACK" watermarked on the page.  I'm sure you've read the stereotypically bad way to write this, yes?  When the main character goes through a major situation and then sits down and becomes pensive, the author's point of view narrowing down till it focuses inside the main character's head, and then you see glimpses of Young Johnny through the prose and think sarcastically to yourself, "Hey, I didn't see that flashback coming, nosirree!" 

What's important about this is that I'm going to do it myself.  I hadn't thought of having a flashback, as my mind usually works in a linear fashion and I've been seeing, and telling, the story in exactly that way.  But many people have told me my prologue didn't work, and I agree, so I'll probably move it to a flashback scene later.  My trick is going to be doing it in as fresh and interesting a manner as Jemisin did, instead of figuratively putting the words "FLASHBACK" on Crystal's forehead. 

Word Count: 67,163

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