This post has been brought to you comparatively in part by a book I’ve recently read. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, if you’re curious. It’s a book that switches year, place, and focus every chapter. There are 38 chapters, so you can see my confusion.
Disclaimer: this is a well-written documentation of Rebecca Skloot’s journey of finding more about Henrietta, the Lacks family, and the scientist that grew the first immortal cells from her cancer. The story is breathtaking, and a respectable read. I am only using this as an example, and emphasizing flaws that can happen when writing something like how Rebecca did. You don’t need to know the story, just the fact that the book jumps around in time and location a lot.
Whether you are writing a book that focuses around the protagonist in a linear time frame, or you have multiple characters, multiple locations, and multiple dates in your book, this information can help you. Starting simple, to make the best out of a sequential story, where each event is arranged from first to last on a timeline, the best tip I can give is go short.
What I mean by this is sometimes people can’t decide how many days to put between one event in the next or one chapter and then the next. It’s always better to go as short as possible, because it moves the story quicker. If you had to choose between three to five months of time, unless it’s absolutely essential something must happen on a certain date, you should choose the spacing of three months. There is also less question as to what happened while the characters were gone all that time.
In other cases, books will jump out of sequential order. This is a technique to otherwise add mystery and a bit of confusion to the reader. The book can start at the end, middle, or beginning of the story. As long as the end of the book is a good point of summarization for your overall message you want to get across, it will work.
There are few tips and observations from books I’ve read that I’d like to point out. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca starts each chapter with a picture of a timeline and a cursor pointing to a year on it. I think this is a very creative thing to put in your book, a small timeline. I do want to say though, if you are using it as a tool for readers, it’s not very effective.
Whatever you put at the beginning of a chapter to let the reader know where they are, who you’re focusing on, and when the event is taking place, you must be able to hack into their imagination as simple as possible. To do this, you must make references between the chapters. For instance, you can say this event happened five years later. “Five years after Henrietta died, the scientists across the country were selling her cells.” Even though that chapter is not about Henrietta, it is more important to give reference and atmosphere to the previous chapter, or the reason why you have your book out of order is pointless to the reader.
I say this because in Rebecca’s 38 chapters, not once, or of what I can recall, did her chapters lineup sequentially, and almost every chapter was focusing on a different group of people. If there was one thing I would ask Rebecca to change, I’d ask her to rearrange the story more sequentially or else don’t even bother putting in the timeline. Like the random scientists with names that only showed up once in the book, the dates and numbers didn’t stick. It was when she actually did make a reference to another time was when I felt the time and space between them. Don’t ever second-guess yourself: write out the relationship between two chapters anywhere in that chapter.
Looking for Alaska by John Green is one of my favorite books because of the way it’s written. The book starts at the beginning of the story, but references the end every chapter in their titles. Chapter 1: “one hundred thirty-six days before.” Chapter 2: “one hundred twenty-eight days before.” And the time between each chapter is really short, which keeps me at ease as a reader. He doesn’t need to reference the time in between because he does that in the titles, and he doesn’t have to say who the chapter is about or where they are because the focus is always on that group of people.
Pendragon, my favorite series of all time by D. J. MacHale, has two focuses: one being Bobby the traveler and the other his two friends back on Earth. There are only two locations: Bobby is on a different planet than his friends. The story is written like a journal sent from the world Bobby’s on, to his friends Mark and Courtney on Earth. We don’t know how time correlates with the two planets, but we can somewhat guess Bobby’s journals refer to things that have already happened.
Sometimes Bobby speaks of wanting to say what’s happening currently, but instead says he has to explain first what happened since his last journal. It’s not at all confusing though, because there aren’t a lot of jumps between locations and the focus. The journals are usually a large chunk of time and, for the most part, are in sequential order. When the chapters switch to Earth, it’s also sequential. Mark and Courney recaps what happens.
The bottom line is: most readers enjoy a sequential kind of story. Unless you can put meaning into why you’re placing them out of order, the chapters should fall into sequential order. Just like keeping time in-between chapters short, you should try to put things in sequential order as best as possible. Starting a book with one chapter out of place is fine, but 38 chapters is a little too much. What could’ve built up to something remarkable will instead be okay, because the time and thinking the reader had to put into understanding the story took away from the book.
Present ideas with full drawn-out sentences, not empty names of people that won’t come into the story again or empty dates with numbers. The reader can get a feel for the atmosphere you are going for through extra words and excellent description.
Thanks for reading,
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