Catching up with the weekly “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast on NPR, I listened to the latest episode today. In the midst of a discussion about the recent “Liz & Dick” and other biographical movies, Glen Weldon made the comment that “Chronology is not Narrative” and how it is a feature of bad student writing. Ouch.
Painful but true, it does address an issue I faced — am still facing — with writing my own fiction. The backdrop to writing a story must include some sort of timeline, but the telling of the story might benefit from revealing details in something other than chronological order. Can a writer write the story or the plot before working out the timeline? I’ve encountered a few scenes which feel like they could have some enjoyable dramatic tension and end with a reveal, but the content of what is said or revealed will depend upon where in the timeline the scene will occur. It’s the “who knows what when” question, which applies to the characters as much as the audience.
The urge to let the details unfold chronologically comes from a literal adherence to that old “show, don’t tell” rule, plus a fear of exposition. When I reach a point in my narrative when a character might have some interesting bit of backstory to reveal, I hesitate to have them simply tell someone what happened. Can the retelling of a memory be as good as showing that scene from the past unfolding in real-time? Then, after fleshing out a memory with action, it is tempting to take that scene and move it to an earlier part of the book, into its chronological context. While this might give my character more substance up front, I lose my dramatic reveal.
I should already be familiar with the creative use of withholding a character’s backstory in service of building out a narrative. I was a rabid fan of the television show LOST. Famous for their use of flashbacks in its earliest episodes, through six seasons of flash-forwards and flash-sideways, LOST writers created stories which compelled me to go back and rewatch for their many layers of meaning. (It also turned me into a raging spoiler-phobe, because I wanted to enjoy the surface reading of an episode on my initial pass without being tainted by knowledge of the twist at the end first. I can enjoy endless repeat viewings with that insight later, but I can go in blind only once.)
Instead of working on my outline today, now I want to watch more television. For research purposes, of course. Thanks, NPR.