Movement Forward In Time

The dictionary is correct, if incomplete, in calling a plot "a series of dramatic events moving forward in time." The chronological progression of incidents is what gives the story a beginning, a middle, and an end. The plot of a story is everything that occurs between "Once upon a time" and "They lived happily ever after." It answers an important question: "Then what happened?"

How much time is involved depends on the story. A plot can cover a few minutes, an hour, a day, a year, a lifetime, or more. Short stories tend to have short time frames; that way the limited number of words available isn't spread too thinly over too many events. But you can write a perfectly effective story that spans decades.

Although the incidents of a plot parade forward in succession, the story itself might not. In no way are you required to recount the events in consecutive order. For many stories, a straight chronological narrative is the best way to reach your story goal. In other cases, though, simply stringing out the sequence of events could mean shortchanging other demands of the story—the need to elucidate a character, say, or to create a mood, or to set up the desired emotional response in the reader.

The author's task, in other words, is to arrange and present the events in the way that will achieve the greatest dramatic impact. Here are some sample techniques, by no means an exhaustive survey:

• Flashbacks. A flashback occurs any time you interrupt the forward motion to recount an earlier incident that has bearing on the story. By using a flashback, you can drop readers directly into the action of a scene and then step back to let us know how we arrived at this time and place. You can delve deeply into your characters' memories, or bring in background from their histories that helps to illuminate what is happening to them now.

• Frames. With a frame, the opening and closing scenes mirror each other. They occur in the same place or at the same moment in time, so that when readers reach the end, they are reminded of the beginning. The bulk of the story, though, happens at other times or locations. The result is something like a story within a story. You might employ a frame, for example, to allow a character the opportunity to offer a more mature perspective on experiences she had when she was younger. At the start, the older woman introduces herself as a girl and sets up the story; at the end she returns to offer some insight she has gained over time.

Another use of a frame is to set the stage for the resolution of the story by giving us an advance peek at where we are headed. In William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily, the story begins and ends as townspeople arrive at Miss Emily Grierson's home for her funeral. Their entrance into the house inspires the nameless narrator to share the history, as far as the town knows it, of this reclusive old spinster, and it prepares the way for their postmortem discovery of Miss Emily's secret.

A frame can facilitate a story's sense of closure. It brings the readers around full circle, so that we return to the point where we started but now view it with a more complete understanding.

• Multiple views of a single event. Do you recall John

Godfrey Saxe's poem, The Blind Men and the Elephant? One of the men had hold of the beast's tusk, another felt its trunk, a third man its leg, and someone else its ear. Each of them, based on his own observation, reached a conclusion about the elephant's true nature—the animal resembled a spear; a snake; a tree; a fan.

In a similar way, any one of your characters has an incomplete and perhaps misleading perspective on what's going on. When you show the same event through more than one viewpoint, you can provide more accurate insight into the nature of your story elephant. Don't do it all at once though; rather than jump from character to character within a single scene to give us everybody's take on things, try replaying the event a couple of times, letting us witness it fully each time through someone else's eyes.

In The Lilac Bus, author Maeve Binchy describes the events of a single weekend in eight interconnected short stories, each told from the point of view of a different resident of a small Irish town. All eight characters undergo life-changing events during the course of the forty-eight hours. Although they keep crossing paths with each other, their experiences and perspectives are divergent and highly personal.

• Layers of time. For some stories, you may wish to set linear movement aside. Instead, let the events jump around in time in a way that seems almost random. It's not random, of course; what you're really doing is arranging impressions and tidbits of information in the order that will let you build most compellingly to the climax. The best presentation may have nothing to do with the chronological sequence of events. The effect is as if you had taken the fabric of time, folded it into layers, and run the story through the layers like a needle.


When I taught writing to fourth graders, the first stories they wrote came straight from the videogame arcade. There was plenty of conflict; no sooner would the hero blast away one enemy than a new one would pop up in front of the castle gates or zoom down from the Planet Xorg. But there was no plot. The monsters or space aliens were never in cahoots with one another; there was no cause-and-effect connection between the new problem and the previous one. With no way to provide a satisfying conclusion, the young author would simply run out of steam and declare the story over.

If your protagonist wanders aimlessly about, slaying random dragons, you have no plot. The characters bear some responsibility for assembling their various activities, however disconnected they may seem, into a cohesive story.

Almost all fiction, at its heart, explores some aspect of the same topic: the choices people make and the ramifications of those choices. Faced with a situation, a person chooses how he will respond to it—whether to move forward or backward, to resist or give in, to take a risk or avoid one. This decision sets up a new situation, one that might or might not be in accord with what the chooser hoped or intended. Another response, another choice, is now required.

A plot, then, in its simplest form, is a chain of causes and effects, of choices and their repercussions, as pictured in this simple graph.

Action —> Consequence—> Action —> Consequence

The characters' choices are expressed in their actions. Each action leads to consequences, and each consequence generates the next action: Because this happened, then that happened as a result.

Writer Janet Dawson calls this the domino theory of plotting. If you stand dominoes on end, set them in a row, and push the first one over, they will all tumble in sequence if they have been lined up correctly. Similarly, when you set a plot in motion with a particular incident, that event triggers the next one, and the next, and the subsequent incidents will inevitably follow.

Here's an example of how actions and consequences work in, well, action:

...Because Molly's alarm didn't go off, she was late for school...

...Because she was late, she was rushing down the sidewalk...

...Because she was rushing down the sidewalk, she collided with Veronica...

...Because Molly collided with Veronica, Veronica fell off the curb and badly bruised her knee...

...Because Molly made Veronica hurt her knee, she felt guilty...

...Because she felt guilty about hurting Veronica, Molly decided she should say yes when Veronica asked to copy her answers on the science quiz, even though Molly knew it was wrong and cheating made her feel uncomfortable...

...Because Molly felt uncomfortable, she acted nervous and fidgety during the quiz...

...Because she was nervous and fidgety, the teacher became suspicious and caught Molly and Veronica cheating...

...Because Molly and Veronica got in trouble for cheating

What happens next? Based on this set of incidents, you can construct a story, or several stories. Molly, Veronica, and the teacher have individual personalities, and they react to events in their own ways. Each has her personal goals and desires, which will be affected by this incident's outcome. Change any detail, and the story will change. Are Molly and Veronica seven years old, or seventeen? Until now, have they been friends or rivals? Does Veronica habitually cheat, or was she yielding to a onetime temptation? Is the teacher kindly or mean? Has a recent scandal caused the school to crack down on students who cheat?

The story will also change if Molly or Veronica chooses a different response to what has happened. Suppose, for instance, that Molly said no when Veronica asked to copy her quiz answers. Would that have ended the matter, or would Veronica have demanded a different favor or chosen another way to get even?

Having a chain of actions and consequences means that you can't toss in handy coincidences to force the story to move in a particular direction. Nor can you fly in a deus ex machina to come to your protagonist's rescue. This Latin term means "god from a machine." Originally it referred to a custom in classical theater: At a crucial point in the action, a god would be trundled in on creaky stage machinery to intervene in the mortals' lives. The phrase has come to mean any trick, improbable device, or twist of fate that an author employs to arbitrarily change a character's fortunes.

Playing the "what if..." game can help you work through the procession of actions and consequences. What if this hap-pens—how would this character, or that one, respond? Suppose she chooses to take this action—what would be the likely result? And so on down the chain.

Of course, a story is seldom so straightforward. Events can occur that are beyond a character's instigation or control. Other characters' actions can impinge on her; the weather may ruin her plans; a declaration of war may throw her life into upheaval. All of these occurrences will demand that she do something in response. A single story may involve several chains of actions and consequences, which the author weaves together in a web.

Among all the options that present themselves, how do you decide which incidents and details to include and which to leave out? The ones that belong are those that connect to your story goal and to the central issue you are using the story to explore. That brings us to the fourth characteristic of a plot.

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