I. What is Chronology?
Chronology is the arrangement of events by time. In literature, most authors write their story as a sequence of events—when you use this method, arranging events in the order in which they occurred in time, it’s called putting them in “chronological order.” Sticking with a chronological timeline is the easiest way for audiences to follow what happens and is generally the best way to show cause and effect. But, some authors may be more risky with a story’s chronology, sharing events out of order—for example, they may start the story at the end and work backwards, jump back and forth in time, and so on!
Specifically, chronology is the science of ordering of events by time, is closely related to timekeeping itself, and is important across almost every discipline of study. In literature and writing, a chronology means a timeline of events or a history; for example, A Chronology of Candle-making would give a timeline of candle-making’s history from its first appearance up until today. You can find chronologies of just about everything! Its study dates back to ancient times and is obviously still incredibly important today!
II. Example of Chronology
The clearest and simplest way to show chronology is with a timeline. For instance, a chronology of your day would start when you wake up, and end when you go to bed. Here is an example:
- 8:30am: Woke up
- 8:45am: Showered, brushed teeth
- 9:15am: Ate breakfast
- 9:30am: Drove to work
- 11:00am: Meeting with boss
- 1:00pm: Had lunch at the deli
- 3:00pm: Grabbed a coffee with a colleague
- 6:00pm: Left work, drove to supermarket
- 6:20pm: Bought groceries for dinner
- 7:00pm: Cooked dinner
- 8:00pm: Finished dinner, washed the dishes
- 8:30pm: Had dessert on the couch while watching TV
- 11:00pm: Brushed teeth, got in bed to read
- 12:00pm: Asleep in bed!
As you can see, this timeline shares the events of the day in chronological order. It is easy to follow since it relays things exactly in the order that they happened.
III. Types of Chronology
a. Linear Narrative (Normal Chronology)
The linear (i.e. in a line) telling of a story as a sequence of events as they happened in time.
b. Reverse Chronology
The telling of a story from the end to the beginning, sharing events in the reverse order from which they occurred in time.
c. Nonlinear Narrative
The nonlinear (i.e. not in line) telling of a story as a series of separate events told out of chronological order
IV. Importance of Chronology
The importance of chronology across all aspects of life is immeasurable, and literature is no different! How else would we readers ever know how and when things happened, and how could we understand a story’s chain of cause and effect? When events are shared out of order and without a context for time, it is very difficult to see their significance, or to even understand what happened.
For instance, imagine you are telling a story about a nerdy, not very athletic boy who becomes the star player on his school’s baseball team. If you started your story showing him as a kid being bad at baseball, but then suddenly he is on a team hitting home runs, the audience wouldn’t understand how it happened. Instead, you should show the transition he makes over time, perhaps with a montage like this:
- First, he might start practicing by playing fetch with his dog in his backyard and by bouncing the ball off his bedroom wall.
- Then you could show him secretly spending his allowance to go to the batting cages.
- You could show the seasons changing as he gets better and better, missing parties and hanging out with friends to practice baseball.
- Then one day, as Spring approaches and tryouts arrives, he finally decides to go out for the team, and makes it.
By exhibiting how he improves and changes over time, you can show the audience just how the young player became so great. By portraying the player’s path from start to finish, you show cause and effect—in this case, you’d be supporting the idea of “practice makes perfect.” So, as you can see, without chronology, telling this story would be quite difficult!
I would love to see an example of this, or a little more elaboration on how difficult it is to understand an effect when you don’t know the cause. Perhaps cause and effect can be broken down a little further (in regards to storylines) -- for example chronology shows us the reasons behind character motives, circumstances, or helps us understand a setting (historical, present, or futuristic) and the actions or events that are relevant. Also, perhaps we can see an example where the story line is out of order and therefore confusing (until the chronology is revealed that is)? It may have to be a 2-part example to show the confusing part and then the actual explanation.
V. Examples of Chronology in Popular Culture
In the family film UP, chronology helps us learn a lot about the protagonist Carl. The movie opens with a montage of his life with his true love Ellie. It begins when they are young and first get married, showing all of the trials and tribulations that keep them from going on the adventure they always dreamed of:
At the end of the montage, we are sad to learn that Ellie died before they ever got to go on their great adventure together. We now know that losing Ellie was the cause of his loneliness, and his grumpy demeanor is the effect. This chronological story of their time paints a beautiful picture for us, and really helps us understand who Carl is. If we didn’t get this timeline, it would be hard to see why Carl is the way he is, or to know why he wants to head to Paradise Falls with his house full of memories.
The film Memento is well known for its unique, complicated way of sharing the chronology of the main character Lenny’s life. Rather than start from the beginning, as most stories do, Memento “begins” at the end and works its way backwards through the events that led to his situation. But, Lenny suffers from short term memory loss, and his memory resets every few minutes. Here is the opening scene:
The film begins with the moments that follow a murder, shown in reverse, and will work backwards from here. Memento’s use of reverse chronology leaves the audience in a constant state of confusion, like Lenny himself. Even when we think we know what is going on in one scene, the scene that follows often tells us otherwise as it works backwards in time.
VI. Examples of Chronology in Literature
In the fiction series Diary of a Wimpy Kid, everything the audience knows is from what they read in the diary of middle schooler Greg. The diary starts at the beginning of the school year, and Greg makes an entry every day. Here are a few lines from a couple of different diary entries:
I guess Mom was pretty proud of herself for making me write in that journal last year, because now she went out and bought me another one. But remember how I said if some jerk caught me carrying a book with “diary” on the cover they were gonna get the wrong idea? Well, that’s exactly what happened today.
When I got to school today, everybody was acting all strange around me, and at first I didn’t know WHAT was up. Then I remembered: I still had the Cheese Touch from last year.
Greg’s diary is a chronology of his life. It is a timeline of everything that happens to him day by day, and he tells us about past events, too. With each new book in the series you get to witness the details of his life as they happen, in chronological order, and learn more about his past through the memories he records.
Sometimes authors write things out in an actual timeline, similar to a diary. In author Mary Ruefle’s short piece of creative nonfiction called “My Search Amongst the Birds,” she records her thoughts over several months, creating a chronology of her experience feeding the birds at her home. Here’s a selection of the work:
- Aug 19 It took the little birds—are they wrens?—about a week to find the seeds.
- Aug 23 One day a pigeon joined them, he was larger and seemed “superior,” the wrens seemed “respectful,” as if they were deferring to him.
(later) I saw a bird in the bushes near Dairy Queen. It looked thin to me.
- Aug 26 They come for breakfast and they come for dinner. WHERE DO THEY GO FOR LUNCH?
- Aug 28 Bought a pair of opera glasses to facilitate my search among the birds.
- Aug 29 I replace the little golden seeds, for I have run out of them, with black oiled sunflower seeds, which everyone knows are superior and preferred by all birds. I do this in the middle of the night so as to “surprise” the birds in the morning. But in the morning they don’t act “surprised” at all, they act as if nothing’s changed. But then again, they may be “acting.”
(later) They ARE acting—the wrens don’t like the new seed, they are ignoring it! Do they KNOW how much work it took to lug that bag up the stairs?
VII. Related terms
A flashback is when a story temporarily jumps backward to a previous moment in the past. It’s used to give the audience insight about characters or other relevant details in a story without having to disrupt the normal flow of events in chronological order.
A flash-forward is just like a flashback, but going forward—the story temporarily jumps to a specific moment in the future. Like a flashback, it doesn’t disrupt the way the story is being told, but still lets writers give a peak at what will happen later.
It’s easy to see why chronology is such a major part of literature—just about everything we understand relies on time, and that includes storytelling and writing across all genres. In writing, establishing a chronology for your topic or story is a great starting point, and a crucial part of the big picture!