The Chicken or the Egg?

Life builds on itself.  We are today the result – the end product – of all the things we have done and all that has happened to us along the way.  If chronology has played such a big part in who we are, should it play an equally major role in our writing?

Well, that depends on what it is we’re writing.

“What is past is prologue”.  This phrase, taken from William Shakespeare’s Tempest, is engraved on the National Archives building in Washington as a statement that what happened before sets the context for what follows. And for most books on historical events, chronology is important, because the exact order in which events occurred helps us understand the cause and the effect of those events.  Chronology enables us to step back and view the “big picture” – how modern day occurrences have evolved, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, from what went on long before.

Many business stories, too, are inherently sequential. One thing happens, then another, then another. Economists, analysts, scholars tend to study what came before to better understand what may come next. In a book we just edited on the history of the stock market, for example, the writer points out how the Federal Reserve kept the “Great Recession of 2008” from turning into a depression by drawing lessons from the what happened in 1929.

Because they involve the comprehensive telling of life stories, biographies and autobiographies usually adhere closely to timelines in recounting the events in their subjects’ lives.

Memoirs, however, are permitted greater creative freedom because they are thematic – emotionally chronological. Rather than tell a complete history of a life, memoirists choose what the story is they want to tell and then choose the moments in their lives that will enhance the telling.  They thus have much the same freedom novelists have in the way they use chronology.  They can recount events as they happen, making us wonder how this is all going to turn out, or start with something dramatic that happens in the present and make us wonder how this came about… or begin with a series of contemporary events and flash back to the past at intervals, filling in the background that way.

And for novelists, the use of chronology is free choice – they can do as they please. Three recent best sellers show just how freely novelists take advantage of that choice. In A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler sets almost two thirds of her family chronicle in the present before shifting back half a century, then back several more decades and finally returning to the present. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See builds suspense even as he offers glimpses of what’s to come, moving between the early years of World War Two and its final days. Then there’s Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which begins with the outbreak of an influenza pandemic that kills nearly everyone on earth. The rest of the story alternates between future and past, moving ahead 15 years to the aftermath of the outbreak while also flashing back to the world as it was before civilization was almost completely destroyed.

For these and other contemporary novelists, defying the conventions of chronology is not only permitted; it’s part of how they put an original stamp on their stories, deepening the meaning and heightening the drama.