Narrative vs. Chronology

Narrative is made of successive events. Not necessarily in the order they occurred.

Narrative is the order in which the author presents a story’s events to the recipient, i.e. the audience or reader. Chronology is the order of these events consecutively in time. Some people use terms from Russian Formalism, Syuzhet and Fabula, to make the distinction.

A chronology usually has less emotional impact than a narrative – essentially a chronology is recounting a report whereas a narrative is telling a story. In a chronology, the plot events are lined up in temporal sequence. You could say “and then” between each event. In a narrative, the emotional effect is closely related to the causality implied by the arrangement of the events. Between each event you could say, “because of that …”.

Narrative therefore carries with it the implication of understanding. The juxtaposition of events, for example, will create associations in the audience’ minds that lead to possibilities of interpretation. While a chronology may explain things, it is in itself inherently neutral. Narrative on the other hand is an arrangement that is usually consciously made by an author who intends something by the particular arrangement, and which, independently of author intention, is subject to interpretation by recipients.

While the convention in most storytelling is linear, i.e. to relate the story’s events consecutively in time (chronologically), we as audiences and storytellers are also very used to narratives that move certain events around. An event may be moved forward, meaning towards the beginning of the narrative, perhaps even to be used as a kick-off. Or possibly events may be withheld from the audience or reader and pushed towards the end, perhaps to create a reveal late in the narrative for a surprise effect – though this technique often feels cheap. Also, an author may use flashbacks to insert backstory events from the past, the past being all relevant events that take place before scene one in the narrative.

As authors, when we begin composing a story, we may sense the event-order of narrative before we are clear about the actual chronology of events. Irrespective of the chronology, we may order and reshuffle the story’s events until we feel the narrative structure creates the desired emotional effect. The process of ordering and shuffling (in other words, of outlining) helps us to see where there are gaps in the plot, i.e. where the audience requires knowledge of events in order to understand what is going on. And in the rewrite, we may decide to remove some events because they provide too much knowledge too soon, or because they are superfluous since they do not provide new knowledge.

A clear case of narrative differing from chronology is when the beginning and end of a story form a frame within which the bulk of the story is embedded, as in Citizen Kane, James Cameron’s Titanic, Stand By Me, the movie version of The English Patient, or the German Realism classic Der Schimmelreiter by Theodor Storm.

Sometimes an author plays with chronology to surprise the audience, as in Pulp Fiction. Sometimes chronology can be the premise of the story, as in Irreversible or Memento, which are told backwards.

Written fiction is in some ways more free than movie structure, but whatever the medium: one of the many decisions the author must make concerns the congruence between narrative (Syuzhet) and chronology (Fabula).

We delve deeper into the meaning of narrative in our post on Story vs. Narrative.

Now hear this!

Related function in the Beemgee story development tool:
Narrative/Chronology Switch

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