Tag Archives: chronology

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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An Interview with Steve Adams

17 Sep
Steve Adams has won multiple awards for his writing, most recently a Pushcart Prize for his memoir, "Touch."

Steve Adams is a writing coach has won multiple awards for his stories, plays, and essays, most recently a Pushcart Prize for his memoir, “Touch.”

Steve Adams lives in Austin, Texas, where he is a writing coach. His memoir, “Touch,” appeared in The Pushcart Prize XXXVIII. He also has been published in Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, The Pinch and Notre Dame Magazine. His plays and musicals have been produced in New York City.

To read Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over” and an exercise on directing the reader’s gaze, click here.

In this interview, Adams discusses writing for an imagined audience, shifting POV without knowing it, and circumventing chronology.

Michael Noll

You make an interesting nod to the reader at the beginning of the second paragraph: “People who have issues with hunting do not understand hunting as I experienced it.” Did this line always exist in the essay, or were you anticipating something about the particular audience for this particular magazine—that readers might have issues with hunting?


Steve Adams

I did not write this essay for that particular magazine, but wrote it, as I do most of my pieces, because a story or essay idea came to me. Afterward I try to find a home for it. That particular line was for my imagined audience while writing it. I’m a liberal, but I’m also a liberal from Texas with a hunting background, and posts from friends on Facebook and elsewhere in social media are not always forgiving or understanding toward hunters. I have a paranoid vision of a reader out there who’s screaming “Bambi killer!” at me. And though I happen to be one, I haven’t hunted since I was a teenager. So I placed that line there to try to buy time from that reader, to establish the possibility that there might be more going on with hunting, at least under proper conditions, than just slaying animals.

The original concept, before I even knew an essay would come from it, occurred in a random conversation at a party in 2002 when I was finishing up my MFA at The New School. I’d developed a reputation for being a guy who produced pages (whether good or bad) regularly, and classmates began asking me for advice along those lines. Writing’s tough for everyone, but I had no idea of the degree that a lot of otherwise gifted writers struggle to simply get words to the page. I’m a writing coach now, and I realize The New School is where I began coaching writers. Anyway, this friend and I were talking in 2002—I specifically remember we were standing a door frame leading to a living room—and somehow via the conversation (thanks, Rebecca!) we discovered that I wasn’t just a natural at producing pages, but that I’d had perhaps the best training possible for such work, and at a very formative age. It was a huge “Aha!” moment for me. Then maybe three years ago I came across the crazy/stupid/wonderful German word “sitzfleisch,” which describes the same capacity, namely being able to keep your butt (or your sit-flesh) in a chair and see a project through to completion.

Michael Noll

You also make a cool chronological move: telling the history of your experience with hunting from first grade to age 14 and, then, shifting back in time (“But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to age 5.”) This seems like a move that many writers could borrow since chronology can be such a trap. We get caught in it and can’t escape, which limits our ability to make sense of events (a process that tends to be circular, not straightforward). How did you find this strategy? Purposefully or through happy accident?

Steve Adams

Good point regarding chronology. I worked with those sentences quite a bit trying to get the passage to feel “right.” First I listed a brief sequence of events, then circled back through expanding on them, and then told the reader I wanted to stop and go back and explore the larger meaning, the larger story they tell. I didn’t decide on that technique beforehand, but tried to follow what the essay seemed to want at the time, which is what I always do if I can. By the circling, as you noted, I think I was instinctively trying to circumvent being locked into strict chronology. I wanted the reader to pull up at that moment, to look back and instead of seeing those moments as separate and linear, to see them as a whole. I also wanted the reader to stop and consider what it might mean that as a child I carried a lethal firearm beside my father and knew full well it was lethal, as well as that if I did something really stupid I could accidentally take his life. He gave me an enormous responsibility by putting a gun in my hands, but also a staggering trust. The gesture carries immense personal weight for me.

Michael Noll

Steve Adams' essay, "Waiting Till the Wait Is Over," is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.

Steve Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over,” is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.

I love your shifts in perspective. For example, you start one paragraph like this: “Picture me beside him, our feet hanging off the platform’s edge.” And the very next paragraph starts this way: “Here is how you manage your presence on the deer blind.” This is the sort of thing that would seem to be forbidden by workshop teachers, but it’s really effective in drawing in the reader. Do you have a particular strategy for switching POV?

Steve Adams

I don’t have a particular strategy so much. And frankly, I wasn’t even aware I’d done that until you brought it up. But I went over that passage a lot, and again, in a focused creative state trying to make it “right.” And I just made that move and worked with it, much as a painter might intuitively decide their painting needs more yellow in the upper right hand corner, and without analyzing why (“why” doesn’t matter as much as “what”), does the work of adding it in. I was keenly aware of how the words sounded. But looking back and putting on my analytical goggles, I think part of my attempt was to break up the narrative flow. Like in the passage above where I break up chronology, I wanted to get the reader to slow down and consider not just the facts of this child’s experience (freezing, feet going to sleep, nose running, unable to move except in the smallest and smoothest of increments), but the fact that this particular child raised in this particular tradition wouldn’t even think twice about such discomforts, thereby (hopefully) causing the reader to frame them and that unit of thought as a whole unto itself that would connect to the discipline of writing.

Michael Noll

The essay is about the writing process, which is surprising given that it’s published in a general-interest magazine, not one aimed solely at writers. Is that why the writing aspect of it doesn’t appear until the end? Were you trying to draw the reader in with hunting and then make the connection with writing after the reader has bought into the story you’re telling?

Steve Adams

Notre Dame Magazine is an interesting hybrid sort of magazine. It’s general interest and focuses a lot on work from Notre Dame alums, but also has a section toward the back called Crosscurrents devoted to more personal essays. They’ve racked up a number of “notable” mentions from the Best American Essay series, and I know of one essay that was published in the series in 2013. My essay went in their magazine almost as-is. I’ve just placed a second piece with them so clearly we’ve got a sympatico relationship happening. They don’t shy from a piece that has a spiritual or ethical component (and not just Christian), and there’s definitely a strain of spiritualism through my essay and the next essay they took.

More than anything with this piece I just wanted to find a way to connect hunting, once I realized the impact it had on my life, with the discipline of writing. By my way of thinking, done right, both are spiritual disciplines. Both demand patience and endurance and usually a degree of hardship before you experience a shift in perspective. And I believe my instinct with this piece was to establish hunting as such a discipline first and foremost, then take a quick dip into meditation, and finally do that swoop into writing at the end, hopefully bringing it all together in a single gesture.

September 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Frame Chronology

25 Aug
Will Boast's memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

When we sit down to write about our real lives, it’s easy to fall into the chronology trap. We write, “This happened and then this and then this.” The essay or memoir becomes, simply, one thing after another. This structure might sound logical; after all, isn’t that how our lives happen, one thing after another? Not really. At any moment, the complicated machines that are our worlds contain many moving pieces, some we see and some we don’t. But we only think about a few of them at a time, and it’s not always the pieces right in front of our faces. We tell stories to ourselves about our lives and histories, and those stories help structure our sense of what is happening to us and around us. When writing these stories down, chronology can actually be the enemy of good writing. What we need is a way to frame it, just as we do in real life.

An example of a memoir that frame chronology really well is Will Boast’s Epilogue. An excerpt was published at VQR Online, and you can read it now.

How the Memoir Works

The begins with the death of Boast’s father. His mother and only brother have recently died as well. These deaths create a natural occasion for thinking about the past—what else is a eulogy but a summing up of the chronology of a life? So, Boast begins with summary: “On the morning of the day he died…” and tells us how his father died. What makes the passage interesting from a craft point-of-view is that it’s not simply a list of his father’s actions and whereabouts. Instead, those actions are filtered through a lens: “My father was never one to complain.” Then, in the passage that follows, the moments of his father’s last day are connected to that statement about his personality and character:

On the morning of the day he died, an ulcer he’d suffered from for years, and left untreated, ruptured and began to bleed. Two days later I met with the town coroner. He told me the end had been painless, that, as his life leached away, my father would only have felt increasingly weak and light-​headed. The coroner, trying to make me feel better, was lying. By any other account, when an ulcer perforates and blood, bile, bacteria, and partially digested food begin to spill into the abdominal cavity, you feel as if a knife has just been buried in your guts. You might faint. You might vomit blood or something that looks like coffee grounds—​blood oxidized black by stomach acid. Or your body shuts down completely, total collapse its only remaining response to the shock and agony.

But my father, on the day he died, carried his burning, pleading stomach with him on his morning commute and worked his usual day at the plant, seven in the morning till seven at night.

As a result, a coroner’s report tells us about not just the cause of death but also something about the man who died. The chronology is given a purpose: tell what happened and pose a question. What kind of man doesn’t complain, even when in physical agony? Questions like that are the basis for story.

Boast fills the memoir with paragraphs that begin with thesis-like sentences. Here’s another: “Growing up, I thought he was unbreakable.” What follows is a paragraph containing details that convey unbreakability:

“On the coldest Wisconsin winter days, he went out gloveless and hatless, his face and fingers gone angry red in the frigid, prickling wind. Never bothered him. Freeze him, burn him, cut him, kiss him—​he wouldn’t even flinch.”

But the statement also sets the stage for a fairly straightforward chronology of his father’s childhood through his teen year—a necessity for any kind of accounting of a life. Most accountings, however, lead only to one thing: adulthood and, finally, death. But in Boast’s telling, the account of his father’s life leads to a point:

“The point of the story, I understood, was not that winners could suffer through and losers could not. The point was that showing your pain was a choice, and the choice not to show it required only an exercise of will. How joyous to laugh and play on in the face of pain!

By making a point, rather than just telling what happened, the prose is freed from the chronology trap. It gains the freedom to slow down, to stay in a moment and show it in great detail—creating pockets of chronology within the larger story. It can also skip over details that might seem important to a basic timeline but that don’t meaningfully contribute to the point. The writing can move back and forth in time because each paragraph or passage suggests the story (the point) of what we’re reading. The result is a memoir that is so much richer than the chronology behind it—even when those events are, as with Epilogue, stunning.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s give meaning to chronology using Epilogue by Will Boast as a model:

  1. Decide what thing you want to tell. Regardless of whether the writing is fiction or nonfiction, we often approach scenes or passages with one detail in mind, a fact or anecdote or description that shines brightly in our imaginations. Of course, to get it onto the page, we need some reason. It can’t sit there all alone. So we create a home for it, which usually involves chronology of some sort. For now, though, set that chronology or story aside. What’s the detail?
  2. Consider why the detail stands out? Some details are so weird or wild that they justify their own presence, though this is rarer than you might think. (Jim Varney, he of Ernest P. Worrell fame, made a movie about a man with a hand that stuck off the top his head. You’d think that’d be weird enough to sustain an audience’s interest. But you’d be wrong, as Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam makes amply clear.) Instead of relying on shock, think about meaning. Why does the detail remain with you? What does it say about the people involved? Did they react to or treat the detail the same as everyone would? Did they think about it in a way that was particular to their community or group or individual personalities? This is where meaning is found.
  3. Write a sentence that suggests or directly states this meaning. It doesn’t need to be grand or philosophical. It can be simple and straightforward: “My father was never one to complain.” That sentence tell us how to think about the details that follow. For your sentence, pick one that tells the reader how to think about the details or chronology that you’re about to write.
  4. Write the chronology toward a point. What happened? What is the sequence of events around this detail? As you write it, think about where you’re headed. Not every passage will end with a sentence that begins “The point of this story is…” but every passage generally ought to end with such clarity. If the point is confusion (I didn’t know what to think), then that confusion should be clear. It’s this sense of direction that makes chronology a story and not just a list of events.

Good luck.

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