Plot Order vs. Exposition Order

By Melanie Anne Phillips

The order in which events occur in a finished novel is not necessarily in which those events occurred to the characters.  In movies, for example, the story might open with a scene in the present, then put up a title card saying, “3 Days Earlier…” and “dissolve back to an earlier time to see how things got to this point.  In the classic book, The Bridge at San Louis Rey, five travelers arrive at a bridge at the same time, then the book jumps back to see how they all came to be there.

These are simple examples of a very common practices of jumping around in time in the storytelling to create suspense and generate interest and mystery.  The problem is that mixing up the sequence of events makes it very easy to miss essential pieces of the logic of the timeline.  When this happens, readers eventually realize that there’s something wrong with the order of events, and if it is a serious enough mis-step, it can destroy the reader’s suspension of disbelief and pull them right out of the story emotionally.

You might think it would be a better idea to just write things in their actual order and then mix them up for storytelling later.  But, authors often create best when envisioning their stories in the order they plan on unfolding them.  Exposition is an integral part of the creative process and forcing oneself to write only in sequential order might very well hobble the Muse and result in writers block.

Fortunately, there is a simple technique you can use to avoid temporal mis-steps than can cause your story to stumble, even while supporting the free form creation of stories in exposition order.

Here ’tis: just write your story as usual, then jot down all the major events in your story and re-order anything that is intentionally out of sequence so that it is in character time, rather than exposition time.  You can do this with index cards very easily.  And when you do, you’ll have no trouble seeing if any steps are missing or, as sometime happens, occurring more than once.

With this clear view of the event-order timeline, you can plug any holes and correct any pacing issues and then apply those changes to your existing storytelling order so that it all flows perfectly in both the character-sequence and the exposition sequence.

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