Story Plots and Chronology
All story plots are chronological. They begin with Event A, at a particular point in time, and finish one day or one year or one decade later with Event Z.
The decision you face, when plotting a novel, is whether to present the events in chronological order.
Beginning Plots In Medias Res
One common way in which the natural running order of a plot in a story is altered is to begin it In Medias Res (or "in the middle of things).
Logically, plots in stories should begin like this:
- Introduce the leading character living in their ordinary world.
- And then something happens, upsetting this status quo and furnishing the character with a goal that they must achieve if they want their life to be stable again.
Beginning plots "in the middle of things" involves starting with the "something happening" and then backtracking to show the way things were before the action kicked in.
And the purpose of this, of course, is to hook the readers with a gripping plot line.
This technique, incidentally, can be used at any point in a novel. Anywhere that you have a scene that is taking its time to get going - because you have a lot of "scene setting" to do first - simply:
- Start the scene at an exciting part.
- Pause the action to explain how these events came to be.
- Pick up the chronology again and let the events play out to a conclusion.
Why would you want to? Because occasionally a scene will come along which takes its time to get started and therefore threatens to bore the readers. You can solve this easily by beginning the scene in medias res.
Here is an outline of a typical scene in the middle of a novel:
- A woman arrives at her ex-husband's house to ask him for money.
- Standing on the doorstep, she almost changes her mind. But she musters her courage and rings the bell.
- After the smalltalk, she asks for the cash. The husband wants to know what's in it for him.
- The woman agrees to go to bed with him.
- Afterwards, the husband rolls off her and says, "That was great, honey, but you're never getting another penny from me."
Begin this scene in medias res and it might look like this:
- The woman is having sex with her ex-husband. You don't have to describe the sex itself in detail, but perhaps the woman looking out of the window to keep her mind off how much this man repulses her.
- She then thinks something like, "If she had known it would come to this, would she have come here at all this morning?"
- And this can lead into a dramatized flashback, starting with her arriving at her ex-husband's house to ask for money.
- Continue with the chronology up to the point where she agrees to sleep with him.
- Then return to the "here and now" by having her think, "Yes, she would have come here. She needed the money."
- The husband rolls off her and says, "That was great, honey, but you're never getting another penny from me."
You probably won't want to begin every scene in your novel in medias res.
Sticking to the chronology is, by and large, the best way to tell a story - in terms of not confusing the readers. Though that is a suggestion, not a rule.
There is nothing stopping you, if you believe you could pull it off, from presenting the events of your story in any damn order you choose.
Quentin Tarantino did precisely that in Pulp Fiction - and I believe that film did okay.
Other Ways to Shake Up Story Plots
When deciding on the "running order" of plots, you are limited only by your imagination.
Here are just some of the many possibilities...
- You can begin the novel somewhere near the end - at the point when the character is at rock bottom, say. The bulk of the novel would then effectively be a giant flashback, showing how things got to be this way. Then you would rejoin the chronology at rock bottom again and continue from there. (The movie It's a Wonderful Life follows this format.)
- You can write a dual-timeframe story. Stories usually concentrate on one period, with any backstory being presented in the form of exposition or a dramatized flashback. But if you have a significant amount of material from the past, you can write two plots - one happening in the present and the other in the past - and weave them together (perhaps in the form of alternate chapters for each of the novel's plots).
- You can present a plot in reverse chronological order, beginning with the ending and finishing back at the start. The story could begin with a wife shooting her husband, for example, and her motive could be gradually revealed by moving backwards in time to the initial triggering point for the murder. This would be a brave choice, but the movie Memento uses it to great effect.
Beware, though, of doing any of these things just for the sake of doing them.
If you believe you can tell an entire novel in strict chronological order, with nothing out of place, then do so. There is a lot to be said for not confusing the readers.
If you need to make a few small tweaks to the running order, to ensure that the readers are hooked (particularly in the opening pages), fine. Just make it 100% clear when the narrative is moving back in time...and when it rejoins the present.
If you plan to do something more drastic, make sure you are doing so for a good reason - namely, that it enables you to tell a better story.
Never forget that story plots are merely the delivery devices for entertaining fiction. They should never become the entertainment itself.