Some stories and dramas are unavoidably chronological. Could you imagine a soap opera that kept taking you back a few years and then even further? It would become very confusing, especially as a point the point of a soap opera is that we almost live someone else’s lives and so, they have to be like our own experiences and those are by nature chronological.
Non-chronological stories are very common in books, movies, and series these days. There has been a prevalence of time travel themes for many years, and this makes it unavoidable. However, a story does not have to involve time travel to keep darting back and forth over a period.
When people are positive about my novels, they often include the term ‘time travel’, although it’s an illusion - without giving too much away, it is something else.
And for both those who hate what I write, and those who absolutely love it, I will always say the same thing: I wanted to write what I wanted to write and in the way I wanted to write it. Sounds a bit selfish, doesn’t it? But at first, I was certainly doing this for myself and had no intention of trying to enforce it on the unsuspecting world.
I started my first story almost at the end I suppose. And then, after that, I wanted to tell of an event that happened somewhere in the middle. Writing like this came naturally to me and as my books have dates as titles, i.e., the first one is called ‘1541’, I thought this would be okay, especially as all the scenes within the book are indeed in 1541. I have no doubt that for some people, this may have caused some confusion and I do know people who hate having to follow stories in this manner.
I haven’t got a clue why I enjoy writing in this way. It is just how the story appears to me, and I really enjoyed the idea of being in one place and then taking the reader somewhere completely different.
Because of the scale of Game of Thrones, you inevitably had to be taken from one story to the next and then to another before you arrived back at the first setting. A lot of it is still quite chronological, but the more characters and settings you have, there is no choice but to do this.
After writing four books in my series, I wrote an early biography of one of the most loved characters. ‘Young Silas’ starts when he was born and tells his tale up to when he’s around 20 years old. I have already heard ‘It’s your best yet’ and ‘It’s so easy to read’ many times. I can’t help wondering if much of that has to do with the fact that it is indeed chronological. This happens, then that happens, then something else happens (honestly, it’s not that dull).
This left me with something of a quandary because I don’t want to write in that way, just because it seems easy, but I would agree. I probably enjoy reading ‘Young Silas’ better than anything else I have written.
Is there a Golden rule about this? Not really. Over a lifetime I have taught all the rules for painting, music, IT, acting, and more, but I tell my students that once they have mastered them, they should go beyond the rules. You will not come up with something new if you work to a formula or a set of restrictions.
My advice would be to write what is comfortable for you. Eventually your characters and stories will write themselves in your head, they will come to life. Write about things you know and care about and the rest will come.
If you are unsure, try both approaches. Do some short story or book planning and see how you feel about the way in which you tell the story.
And if you decide to write chronologically, you will at least avoid the many living room variations of the conversation below once your novel becomes a movie…
‘Who is he then?’
‘It’s the same bloke.’
‘The one who’s been investigating.’
‘But he’s nearly 50 years old.’
‘Oh no, no, this is when he’s younger.’
‘How did he get younger?’
‘it’s telling us his story. It’s gone back in time.’
‘When? it never told me!’
‘Well, it is.’
‘Are you sure?’