Writers Talk About Writing
Move Your Writing Forward with Chronology
In our first writing class every September, I tell my students to print in their notebooks, big capital letters, please, that to tell a story, a writer must:
GET A PERSON IN A PLACE
I use the opening of Of Mice and Men to make the point. "A few miles south of Soledad," Steinbeck begins, "the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside band and runs deep and green." That's his place, a river bend in California's Salinas valley sixty miles south of San Francisco, painted in loving detail:
On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the bush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of 'coons.
Now his person:
For the moment the place was lifeless, and then two men emerged from the path and came into the opening by the green pool.
Steinbeck sets the stage, humans enter, the story begins.
Yet I have not enough stressed — you may be sure I will from now on — a story's third necessary ingredient:
GET A PERSON IN A PLACE AT A TIME
Looking back, I note how Steinbeck sets his time. It's "the evening of a hot day," just before sunset. He gives no precise time of year, but the "deep" carpet of "crisp sycamore leaves" suggests late summer or fall. The "state highway" suggests the modern era; the "tramps" and their campfire "jungle-up" suggest the Depression of the 1930s.
Writers treat time in countless ways, setting their stories in any era, real or imaginary, covering a day or a century, flashing us back and flashing us forward. Essayists zoom anywhere in time they need to make their point. Trollope and many novelists follow several story lines at once; when one line gets ahead of the rest, they go back in time to help the slowpokes catch up. George Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote a wonderful play, Merrily We Roll Along, that begins at the end and works its way back to the beginning.
All treatments of time are legal, and any that help us tell our story are worth using. Yet I like best forward-moving chronology, certainly for biography and history, but also for fiction, memoir, and any writing that hopes to be plainly and quickly understood by readers around the world.
Telling your story so its events follow clock and calendar offers many advantages. Chronology gives a story a neutral framework, one that life, not the writer, imposes on his or her material. Chronology helps us define cause and effect; effects cannot happen before their causes. Chronology straightens zigzag sentences. We can write, and people will understand:
John rang the doorbell after he walked up the path from where he had parked his car.
— but they will understand this much more quickly:
John parked his car, walked up the path, and rang the doorbell.
Most important, chronology accords with how we live. No one can jump back to Monday from Tuesday; no one can get to September without sweating through August. We're all stuck with Macbeth's "petty pace from day to day"; we might as well get used to it.
The fact that we all live chronologically gives writers a firm basis for imagining and constructing their stories. When trying to figure out what a character would do next, a writer may safely assume that the character lives day-by-day quavering in doubt before an unknown future, just as the writer lives and as his or her readers live. Capturing the uncertainty of moment-to-moment existence creates a pleasurable suspense that readers recognize from their own lives, that pulls them page-turningly along into the story. "Now what? Now what? Now what?" — that's the question we all always face. If we can keep that fact firmly in mind, we open a window into the souls of those we write about, whether they be history's Abraham Lincoln or fiction's Bill and Betty.
Keeping our writing strictly chronological isn't easy because our memories of the past, our present daily life, and our hopes for the future often blur our sense of time. We remember a sunny summer at the beach as a golden era in our lives without recalling each day in order. We make a day's plans — "I'll drive to New Haven, have dinner, and then go on to New Hampshire' — without thinking how many separate steps and decisions lie between us and bed that night. We think, "At 65, I'll retire to Florida, it'll be heavenly," forgetting that seniors in Sarasota live in tick-tock earth time just like dashing twenty-somethings in Manhattan.
Yet stripping away fuzzy, unfocused chronology and laying bare the nitty-gritty of time's second-by-second advance can create scenes of excruciating intensity. Think of George Eliot's Adam Bede knocking out Arthur Donnithorne with a single blow, then hoping against hope that he is not dead:
...the time seemed long to Adam. Good God! had the blow been too much for him? ... There was no sign of life: the eyes and teeth were set. The horror that rushed over Adam completely mastered him, and forced upon its own belief. He could feel nothing but that death was in Arthur's face, and that he was helpless before it. He made not a single movement, but knelt like an image of despair gazing at an image of death.
Or Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov hidden behind the landlady's door:
At last when the unknown was mounting to the fourth floor, [Raskolnikov] suddenly started, and succeeded in slipping neatly and quickly back into the flat and closing the door behind him. Then he took the hook and softly, noiselessly, fixed it in the catch. Instinct helped him. When he had done this, he crouched holding his breath, by the door. The unknown visitor was by now also at the door. They were now standing opposite one another, as he had just before been standing with the old woman, when the door divided them and he was listening.
Chronology need not always be so exact, and writers often smooth its rough edges with timeworn phrases like "Another year rolled away," or "Spring turned into summer." Yet these examples tell a stark truth of time that underlies our cozy generalities. We move ever onward into the future just as Huck Finn moves ever onward into the territory ahead; where we land, nobody knows. If we can fashion our writing to fit the curves and wrinkles of time, we may hope to weave our words into the warp and woof of life.