Chronolocic Structure

The logic of time (chrono-logic) is perhaps the oldest structure for a story, going all the way back to the storyteller at the fire in front of the cave. "I woke when the sun woke. I left the cave and walked over the mountain and down to the big river. Then I saw a deer come down to drink. I crept up close on quiet feet..." and so on until the embers glow and the story ends, probably with the storyteller's arrival back at the cave. This follows that, and then that is followed by.. .and then later____

The listener (reader) can easily follow the tale because of its logical "and then" structure of the movement of time. Even before time measurement came along, people knew about the passage of time.

People commonly concern themselves with various segments of time. Bruce Catton's A Stillness at Appomattox, for example, treats one chunk of time—the final moments of the Civil War. He opens the book with a scene at Washington's Birthday Ball in an army encampment near the Rapidan River south of Washington, D.C. We meet some of the young officers having what for some of them will be the last joy of their lives on Earth. The author goes on to take us in ensuing chapters down various war roads until the final scene in the town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. We watch as the Union commanders ride in to accept the sword of surrender from General Robert E. Lee.

A chronologic structure like that brings contentment to the mind. It brings closure, which psychologists say the human mind naturally seeks. (Gestalt psychologists would say that our minds demand closure—will even create it where it doesn't exist.) Our comfort comes not only from closure (the resolution of a problem) but from its linear development. Our understanding increases as we move from cause to effect, from A to B to C. We understand C because we've already grappled with and comprehended B, and before that, A. By the time we reach Z, we can apprehend the entire progression from A to Z. We see it then not as A to Z, but as alphabet. We've understood the constituent parts as we went along, so now we see the whole for what it is. The trouble is that this attractively simple, linear sequence is sometimes simplistic, not simply simple.

In the complex world of human affairs, events are not necessarily caused by the immediately preceding event. Sometimes, for example, actions are caused by a perception or speculation about what the future might be. When this is done, the future determines the present as people adjust to prepare for that speculated future. A chronological construct of time may be inappropriate to use when trying to explain years later why what happened happened.

A shorter passage of time may call for a straight chronologic structure. The story of a plane crash, a ship collision, or a bank robbery may use the device that shows us at the beginning of the paragraph the precise time—11:43 A.M. As we make our way toward the climax, the time increments may shorten, so that by the end we're seeing the time change every few seconds. At the beginning it may have been by month, day, or hour. In nonfiction, we often know the ending already, yet we're fascinated by the inexorable march of time. Filmmakers love to show us the clock face or the digital counting mechanisms on a time bomb ticking, ticking, ticking. The camera cuts back and forth between the mounting action and the ticking. Suspense mounts. We're affected emotionally by the merciless sweep of time.

Suspense, deliberately planned, has not traditionally been considered appropriate for nonfiction work. Nonfiction writers would sometimes emphasize the passage of time, but they'd be using it simply as a coherence device, as the narrative string. Today's creative nonfiction writers use the passage of time as a device both for the coherence it gives and for the suspense it can develop.

Gloria Steinem used this kind of time device in an article that exposed the lifestyle of one segment of America—"I Was a Playboy Bunny" collected in her book, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. Steinem (clandestinely) took a job as a Bunny to conduct research for the article, an article that helped make her reputation as a writer in the feminist cause. She worked as a Bunny mole for about a month (long enough, she said, to increase her foot size several times after all the walking and carrying heavy trays). She structured her article chronologically, heading up each minor section with time data: AFTERNOON TUESDAY 5tH; WEDNESDAY 6tH; etc. Some suspense develops as time goes by and we wonder when they'll discover her role as mole.

Steinem structured another article, "Campaigning," also in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, around a number of essays she'd previously written about the general topic of political campaigning. She used dates as headlines: JULY 1965 (about George McGovern on the trail), and so on, through various other campaigners such as Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and Richard Nixon, until the final date, JULY 1972, when the Democratic National Convention convened in Miami. The dates stressed her point about how the women's movement grew into platform planks over that seven-year period of hard work by many men and women. She ended with the significant statement: "But women are never again going to be mindless coffee-makers or mindless policy-makers in politics. There can be no such thing as a perfect leader. We have to learn to lead ourselves."

The same sort of device may be used to cover longer periods of time. The well-known naturalist and philosopher Joseph Wood Krutch named a collection of his essays The Twelve Seasons: A Perpetual Calendar for the Country, each chapter named for a month. This works well for coherence and structure in a book where there is no intention of urgency or suspense.

Some of our finest works of nonfiction have followed the seasonal march because it provides a convenient, easily followed structure. It is not only farmers who see life as a series of seasons. The elderly may speak of how many summers old they are. Many people see the spring season as a metaphor for beginnings, renewals. On the Christian calendar, January marks the beginning of a new year; but our bodies and brains tell us that spring, not winter, marks a new year. This gut reaction to our lives and nature's seasons makes a book organized in some fashion around the seasonal flow warmly satisfying.

Henry Beston's The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod and Henry David Thoreau's Walden each chronicles the life of its author deliberately isolating himself from ordinary city and village life to confront nature head-on in a simple cabin. A structure that follows the flow of the seasons seems a natural for such subjects. The Outermost House takes us with the author through a year on Cape Cod, as Beston experiences firsthand the wonders and mysteries of migrating birds, moving dunes, and thundering waves. In his foreword to that book's eleventh printing, he recounts the thoughts called forth by rereading his own words of twenty or so years before:

As I read over these chapters, the book seems to me fairly what I ventured to call it, "a year of life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod." Bird migrations, the rising of the winter stars out of the breakers and the east, night and storm, the solitude of a January day, the glisten of dune grass in midsummer, all this is to be found between the covers even as today it is still to be seen. Now that there is a perspective of time, however, something else is emerging from the pages which equally arrests my attention. It is the meditative perception of the relation of "Nature" (and I include the whole cosmic picture in this term) to the human spirit. Once again, I set down the core of what I continue to believe. Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man.

In books like that and Walden, the authors not only structure the book tightly (or loosely) around the seasons as a natural order, but they also draw from other events in nature, and that becomes content for the book. Such authors may take off from their contemplation of a specific reed bending (or not bending) in the wind to make a more universal point about the advisability of yielding to the superior force if you wish to survive to win another day. Thoreau would straighten up from watching, with a child's curiosity, an ant's activities, and let his mind spin out universal thoughts.

Diaries, journals, log books, daybooks, and similar writings, though perhaps not written with the public in mind, may eventually be published. Sometimes they'll be published exactly in the chronology written: day by day, year by year, or, in the case of a ship's log, watch by watch. We enjoy seeing how things evolve, especially when we know how everything has worked out, but the keeper of the diary had no idea what life would bring right around the corner. When the diarist speculates about what the future will bring, and we see how close (or far off) the mark he or she was, we enjoy it. The diary gets some of its strength by its innocent march into the unknown future, step by step, day by day.

Chronology may be reworked, reshaped, or reorganized for artistic purposes—within reason. The keeper of the diary, journal, or other form of log may use it someday simply as a source of information to help him or her write an autobiography or memoir. In other cases, a biographer or historian may use the log as a research source, and may jump around through time, quoting now from a diary, now from a journal, now from a local newspaper account. The biographer may use a diary entry from one day to reinforce some speculation of his or her own about how the diarist may have been thinking at some earlier point. An entry at age fifty, for example, might be thought by the biographer to provide insight into the motivation or behavior of the diarist at age twenty-five.

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