How to Manipulate Chronology to Build Character

15 Mar
Chinelo Okparanta's novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Chronology is something most writers and readers take for granted. Time moves forward, and so does narrative. There are exceptions, of course. Memory isn’t constrained by the inexorable march of time. It can leap backward at will, or against it—and can even get stuck in the past. But we understand memory to be unusual, unlike the rest of our lives, which move forward. This fact highlights the extraordinary achievement of fictions that move differently. Charles Baxter’s novel First Light, for example, starts at the end and moves toward the beginning. And Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine takes place completely within the time required to ride an escalator. Most writers will never attempt such ambitious structures. But it can be useful to try them in miniature.

An  example of this kind of chronological experiment can be found in Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

Then novel is set in Nigeria during its civil war in the late 1960s. It begins with a Star Wars-like summary:

But in 1967, the war barged in and installed itself all over the place. By 1968, the whole of Ojoto had begun pulsing with the ruckus of armored cars and shelling machines, bomber planes and their loud engines sending shock waves through our ears.

By 1968, our men had begun slinging guns across their shoulders and carrying axes and machetes, blades glistening in the sun; and out on the streets, every hour or two in the afternoons and evenings, their chanting could be heard, loud voices pouring out like libations from their mouths: “Biafra, win the war!”

It was that same year, 1968 — the second year of the war — that Mama sent me off.

If this was Star Wars, the story would proceed from that moment—the narrator’s mother sending her away. The novel would zoom in on the narrator leaving her home, and a scene would begin. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the novel reverses its chronology:

There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off. Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of Mama’s sending me off without also telling of Papa’s refusal to go to the bunker.

Then, the passage reverses what it’s just done:

Without his refusal, the sending away might never have occurred, and if the sending away had not occurred, then I might never have met Amina.

Finally, we learn why this zig-zag in chronology matters:

If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.

At this point, the novel really begins—but it does so before the mother sends the narrator away:

So, the story begins even before the story, on June 23, 1968. Ubosi chi ji ehihe jie: the day night fell in the afternoon, as the saying goes. Or as Mama sometimes puts it, the day that night overtook day: the day that Papa took his leave from us.

The novel eventually returns to the moment when the narrator’s mother sends her away, but it takes about 40 pages. So what does this brief reversal of chronology achieve?

There are probably two answers. First, it lets the novel convey some essential information (when, where, what). That information is interesting (war stories have and always will hold our attention), but it’s also general, and as a result it could be a difficult place to begin building an idiosyncratic character. Writing about wars and other societal conflicts can be a bit like wheeling a sofa sleeper down a set of stairs with a hand truck—there’s considerable risk of getting rolled over and flattened. So, rather than beginning the novel with a character who is a kind of refugee (a status that can have a flattening effect), the novel goes back in time to a point when she was simply a character, creating space to give her and the rest of her family a set of developed, complex personalities.

The war is coming, of course, and the narrator will be sent away, but when she is, we’ll have a better appreciation for what it means.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s jump back in time, using Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta as a model:

  1. Decide what information a reader requires to begin the story. This is usually some version of Who, When, Where, and What: the basic elements of setting and situation. Star Wars famously summed up this information at the beginning of each film in the series. Most novels do something similar: showing the place in general (country, state, city, geography) and in particular (this street, house, room). It’s a bit like the wide-panning shots at the start of many films. Write a simple passage that conveys this information, especially the big What. For Okparanta, it’s the war. What is the big conflict (divorce, death, moving) at the heart of your story?
  2. Step the reader back in time. Okparanta does this methodically: “There is no way to tell the story of what happened with ____(1) without first telling the story of _____(2)” and “Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of ____(2) without also telling of ____(3).” The first blank is something that will happen eventually in the story. The next blanks are all points that lead up to that first one. Try using these phrases to step your story back in time from its eventual end point.
  3. Explain why these points matter. Okparanta’s narrator says a version of this: “If ___ hadn’t happened, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.” You can use this construction to start with. Make it clear that the story hinges upon a particular moment.
  4. Start the story. Again, here’s Okparanta’s narrator: “So, the story begins even before the story, on ____.” She zooms in on a particular moment, a good moment to begin showing and developing the characters. We know where everything is headed, and so the story can take its time (to some extent) in making us care about the people involved. Find a moment for your story to do this, a moment with the big conflict in the background but without the extreme urgency of points further into the story, a moment when the characters can be themselves and not pawns in a conflict.

The goal is to present essential information about setting and situation and also carve out space to create and develop character.

Good luck.

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2 Responses to “How to Manipulate Chronology to Build Character”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Chinelo Okparanta | Read to Write Stories - March 17, 2016

    […] To read an exercise on manipulating chronology in order to create character, click here. […]

  2. 10 Exercises for Creating Characters | Read to Write Stories - January 3, 2017

    […] An  example of this kind of chronological experiment can be found in Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees. You can find an exercise based on it here. […]

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