Friday, April 14, 2006

Crimes of Chronology

Keeping a consistent chronology is one of the easiest mistakes to make in any narrative work.

Oddly, it is also one of the easiest mistakes to avoid, if taken into account from the beginning. And it can create no end of headaches if discrepancies go unnoticed until the work is completed.

Chronology issues crop up from the most innocuous of sentences. Take, for instance, this dialogue from a current project in the Commentary Phase:

"Today is Tuesday. The meeting is Friday. Let’s review what we have on Thursday morning.”

Aside from the minor flaw of having a character tell another character something he already knows ("Today is Tuesday"), this semingly straightforward series of statements unleashes a Sam's Club-sized can of chronological worms.

"Today" can’t be Tuesday. It’s Tuesday 40 pages earlier, when certain events are set in motion.

Ten pages later, we learn what happens “the next day” -- which would be Wednesday.

Another ten pages go by before “the next day." This brings us to Thursday, and a LOT happens within the story.

Another 10 pages brings us to "the next day" which, according to any current calendar, has to be Friday.

Now, I realize that seeing things spelled out like this makes it appear as if the writer was inexcusably sloppy. Not so. In fact, the manuscript is actually cleaner and more polished than most. Furthermore, several knowledgeable people have read it and commented on it. Evidently, no one caught the impossible chronology.

Time frame mistakes are so easy to make because so much can happen between one day and the next in a narrative. As you get caught up in the plot of a project, sometimes all you want to do is find out What Happens Next. Since the work takes place in a world of your creation, and since it can literally take days (or weeks) to write out what happens in a 24-hour time period, it is easy to forget what day it is within the work.

Once the work is finished, fixing chronology mistakes can be tricky. In the current project, for instance, the writer continues on under the impression that her characters have 3 more days of the work week ahead of them. Instead, the weekend is upon them. This literally changes everything, and will necessitate significant reworking of several portions of the manuscript.

But keeping chronology straight is actually quite easy, if done from the beginning of the project. I use a calendar -- one of those little pocket planner things. It doesn't have to be current. Outdated ones work just fine. I write out the events that have to happen within the calendar blocks. As the work progresses, I'll also write in the page numbers that correspond to those events to help me keep things straight.

It sounds simple, and it is... it's MUCH simpler than trying to turn back time once you thought the project was finished.