End at the Beginning, Begin at the End (That’s Right, You Heard Me)
By Giancarlo Riccobon
Whoa, time out. You can’t just mess around with your story’s timeline. The only way to tell a story is in chronological order, right?
Wrong. Sure, chronological order is fine and dandy, and most stories don’t need anything else. But the possibilities are endless if you don’t limit yourself to chronological order. You can dive right into the action of the story, or have your character reflect on their backstory, or spoil the story’s ending. If you want, you can even have two parallel narratives running side by side. Here are some of the coolest things you can achieve by throwing chronological order out the window.
Plunge Into the Conflict
The first benefit to breaking from chronological order is that you can plunge right into the conflict. This ought to be a no-brainer. There’s no sense describing your character rolling out of bed and brushing his teeth if the excitement doesn’t happen until he opens the cereal cupboard and finds a tax auditor crouched inside.
A story is supposed to filter out anything that isn’t important. So, if you’re writing a flash fiction piece about a soldier named Trevor, then chances are you don’t need to include him opening his draft letter or boarding the plane to Vietnam if those are only setup. You can fill those in later, if needed. Instead, you might begin on a note like this:
Trevor was always worried about getting caught in friendly fire. It sounded so inconsequential, the phrase friendly fire. Like just two buddies messing around with their nerf guns. Nothing to worry about, just friendly fire.
He became so paranoid about friendly fire that he took a neon green sweatband from home and sharpied the words Team USA on it in huge block letters. Trevor wore it everywhere, even to the latrines, until the lieutenant confiscated his sweatband and said that with that shade of green, he’d give away his whole unit’s position.
This example wastes no words getting to the heart of Trevor’s issue. Trevor’s obsession with friendly fire will most likely intrigue readers, because they can tell there’s more to this irrational fear. They’ll need to keep reading to find out why Trevor is behaving so strangely.
Suppose your hero was bitten by a radioactive echidna, and readers need to know this in order to understand the plot point involving echidna eggs. But when you put the hero’s origin story at the beginning, you just put your readers to sleep. How do you include that origin story, while still diving right into the action?
It’s simple -- backstory.
But backstory is a writerly power that comes with a writerly responsibility -- you should use it only when it’s story-relevant. Readers won’t sit through a ten-page flashback unless it’s telling them something that they desperately want to know. In fact, a flashback doesn’t need to be ten pages. Sometimes it’s even possible to give readers a whole flashback in a single paragraph. Returning to the story about Trevor…
Trevor wanted to tell the lieutenant that he could deal with a regular combat death, that was war for ya, but he couldn’t handle a bullet in the back. Not after all the other boys’ dads came home in clean uniforms, while one little boy clung to the railing of the widow’s walk and watched his mom open a modest manilla envelope containing (among other things) the words friendly fire. The other dads came back with Silver Stars, and the ones that didn’t come back at least sent home a Purple Heart, but the manilla was the worst.
This anecdote only derails the story for a single paragraph, and it is present at the exact moment when readers need to know it. In the opening lines, readers don’t need to know why Trevor is preoccupied with friendly fire, and they might even be more interested if they don’t know right away. But now that Trevor is risking his own life and his unit’s life due to fear of friendly fire, his motivations demand explanation, and that’s exactly what the flashback gives them. But only just enough to grasp what’s going on in Trevor’s head.
Backstory and plunging into the conflict are standard-issue tools in a writer’s toolbox, but what about spoilers? Dropping spoilers -- or at least significant hints about what’s to come -- in the actual text of your story is another way you can play around with time in your story.
But what can spoilers (which are illegal in 17 states) possibly add to your story? Dramatic irony, for one. Because it’s easier to become emotionally-invested in a soap opera if you’re shouting at the screen, “Don’t fall in love with Aureliano, he’s your cousin!” Revealing your ending may also give readers a chance to absorb a shocking plot twist that otherwise would have happened so quickly that readers would have only felt numb. Sometimes, laying all your cards on the table will add psychological tension, because readers know what will happen but are dying to know how it will happen (and will hope that maybe it won’t turn out that way). Spoilers can be a structural technique to remind readers that it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Let’s include spoilers in the Trevor story.
Gordie was the one who had lent Trevor the headband.
“What’s mine is yours,” he said.
And Trevor had shaken his head, dumbfounded and a bit sheepish at Gordie’s generosity. Their packs were so stuffed that they didn’t have much space for luxuries, so the luxuries that you managed to bring from home were priceless. And here Gordie was, giving away his belongings like his pack was bottomless.
That was why later, when Gordie’s pack was up for grabs, Trevor wouldn’t reach inside to see what he could salvage. That would be like reaching inside the mouth of a corpse, snatching that coin from under its tongue. Not that Gordie had anything under his tongue now except a crust of black blood.
“Shame to waste his stuff,” the other guys said, but then they weren’t the ones who wasted Gordie to begin with.
This excerpt drops the bomb that Gordie is dead (and implies that Trevor had a hand in it). Perhaps you can already guess how Gordie died, but even if you can’t, the knowledge that Gordie is dead will still color your reading experience in the next part, when Trevor recounts how Gordie ended up dead. In this case, the spoiler lends an ominous tone to the following scene, or maybe even underscores the inevitability of these events. Not to mention it gives Trevor a chance to reflect on the event as it unfolds, giving every sentence the weight of hindsight.
Back to Trevor.
It had just been a routine tunnel scouting, though it always started that way, didn’t it? Gordie had gotten the short end of the straw, so he got down on his hands and knees and crawled into the Viet Cong playground tunnel.
He was gone a long time.
Trevor couldn’t help it -- his mind filled that silence with VC soldiers playing peek-a-boo with Gordie in the dark. Or worse -- tag. Where a bullet in your brain meant, You’re it!
Unable to stand it any longer, Trevor crouched down and squinted into the esophagus of the earth. And when the earth hiccuped something back up, Trevor hiccuped too, and that little hiccup traveled down his arm to his trigger finger.
If only Trevor had looked with his ears instead of his sights, then maybe he might’ve heard the familiar tinkling of dog tags.
Another advantage of writing out of order is that you can give your character time to reflect, just as Trevor is reflecting on his terrible mistake. This technique often works in tandem with flashbacks and spoilers.
If your character does something stupid and never seems to regret it, it may be hard for readers to connect with your numsbkulled character because they seem oblivious. On the other hand, if your character remembers doing something stupid, and wonders in hindsight how things might’ve turned out differently, your readers will understand them. Who hasn’t made a huge mistake and cringed about it afterwards? Reflection helps your character grow.
End at the Beginning
Well, I’ve already kind of spoiled the ending of the Trevor story. Now what? Where can I go from here, now that readers already know how Gordie died? One way is to end at the beginning.
End at the beginning? you might ask. That’s insane! You’ve got to end at the end. Otherwise, the story will go nowhere.
Or maybe it will come full circle.
Actually, here I’m not referring to the beginning of the story as in the opening scene, or even the beginning as in the first event chronologically. In this case, I just chose to end Trevor’s story on an anecdote that happened much earlier than most of the other scenes, a moment that happened before everything went wrong.
Back when it was still Trevor’s first week in Nam, Gordie had let him touch his dog tags. Trevor had pressed his thumb into those little goosebump letters until they left welts on his finger.
“Who needs a medal when you got dog tags?” Gordie told him, stretching out on the ground. “They got your name engraved on ‘em and everything. I heard medals are too heavy, anyway.”
Trevor eased himself into the mud beside Gordie. He felt certain then that Gordie’s pack contained nothing but helium, that it buoyed him up like a parade balloon.
“Don’t you ever -- wonder?” Trevor had meant to say worry, as in worry about how easy it was to die over here, but somehow the word wonder came out instead. Trevor liked wonder better.
“What’s to wonder?” asked Gordie. “I got your back, and you got mine. Isn’t that enough?”
The next morning, Gordie’s name had faded from Trevor’s thumb.
By jumping backwards in time to a seemingly unrelated anecdote, the scene above adds a layer of insight to the rest of the story. The memory gives us a more intimate glimpse at the soldier Trevor killed, and it highlights how Gordie’s worldview is different from Trevor’s. And need I mention the dramatic irony? Ending on a happy memory after such a tragic ending creates a more bittersweet effect, one that will hopefully stay with the readers long after they put the story down.
Putting It All Together
Of course, there’s one ultimate artistic effect that you can achieve by breaking from chronological order. To see it in action, let’s look at an amazing short story published in Issue 13 of Polyphony Lit -- “Lake” by Caylee Weintraub.
Our mother watches us now as we float on our backs… I know, from the pale of her face, she is thinking of Dad who is sick upstairs. She is like a lake drying up.
I wave to her but she doesn’t see me. I’m floating on my back, thinking of how small Dad looked in his bed last night… He did not speak or drink. We took turns wetting his mouth with sponges through the night… He looked around the room, pointing at the walls that had been repainted in shades of blue. We thought he was asking for more water, but he wasn’t. He’d forgotten the word blue.
My brother and I race each other back and forth across the lake. Our mother is still at the window, rubbing her neck in the place where father had scratched her the time he thought she was trying to kill him.
Notice the way this except drifts back and forth through time, from the speaker floating in the lake to their dad in his bed. But what’s fascinating is how these out-of-order fragments of anecdotes fit together. The author is telling two narratives at once (the present narrative of the swimming siblings, and the past narrative of the father’s mental deterioration). Arranged in this order, instead of in chronological order, they express something that they couldn’t have expressed alone.
The author juxtaposes the memory of the dad scratching the mom’s face with the moment in the present where Mom rubs her neck, to show that the scars may have faded but the pain is still raw, even now. Had the author started with the father’s attempt to kill the mother, or put some distance between the present narrative and the past narrative, the impact wouldn’t have been the same. Only when these events are side-by-side do they hit readers squarely in the feels. When played right, this technique can combine two parallel narratives to create a bigger picture.
The human mind isn’t like a glassy-eyed camcorder, recording everything it sees in perfect detail as it happens and in the exact same order it happens. In the mind’s eye, you see moments not in the order they actually happened, but in the order they make the most emotional sense. You experience a story the same way. The most insightful writers know to capture the slippery nature of memory on paper. Sometimes, the best way to do that is to cast off the pesky yoke of chronological order, so you can be free to tell a story in the order that makes the most sense.
Giancarlo Riccobon is a Polyphony Lit alumni and former Second Reader and a blogger at Voices.