Critique Technique, Part 23—Confused Storyline

Green die with past, present, and future on faces
Photo credit: Stuart Miles via

I was originally going to title this article “Confused Timeline” but as I put my notes together I realized time isn’t the problem (other than me not having enough of it). Of course it’s important that a story flow in a logical sequence of events from its beginning to its end (with some exceptions I’ll get to in a moment), but that sequence doesn’t have to follow a time-linear order.

In fact, more than likely, it won’t. Consider:

  • If there’s even one flashback, flash-forward, or instance of a character remembering something, the perfect time sequence is broken. This is true even if the story is written in the present tense.
  • Same thing if there are multiple plot lines or point of view characters. A story in which every POV shift also moved forward in time would be unusual because these storylines or characters’ lives run in parallel through the larger story. Jumping forward with each storyline or POV change necessarily leaves out things that happened.
  • Authors will skip events in order to conceal information from the reader or the characters, which builds tension.

There’s also the special case of “experimental” fiction, where the author intentionally disregards time sequencing or other forms of logical flow for “artistic” purposes. These stories are not only a challenge to read, but to critique.

But if time isn’t the organizing factor underlying a story’s plot, what is?

It’s the logical development of the story, the piece-by-piece revelation of the major characters’ problems and responses, the way they take one step forward, one step sideways, two steps back, another step sideways, as they try to reach their goals. Yes, time is a factor—and an important one—in creating a “logical” sequence and structure in a story, but it may be necessary to jump around in time, rather than sticking to a strictly linear flow, to best tell the story.

  • Flashbacks, backstory, and memories can only happen by stepping back in time, then returning to the story’s present.
  • “Frame” stories start in a present time, step back for the core story, then step forward again for the concluding frame.
  • Flash-forwards step ahead in time, then drop back.
  • Multiple plot-line stories will jump back and forth to follow each line until they converge.

Transitions and Scene Order

It’s not the to-ing and fro-ing, then, that can be the problem, but how it’s all handled. Two interrelated factors—transitions and scene order—come into play here. The author may not realize that these factors are confused or confusing because she’s too close to the story and understands all the connections. Your job as the reviewer is to help her see what she didn’t before.

Scene order is just what the term implies: a logical, but not necessarily time-driven, ordering of the scenes. I don’t want you to get too wrapped up in the meaning of the word “logical.” I’m not talking about formal, syllogistic logic here. What I mean is simply that the order in which the scenes appear neither leaves the reader confused about when and where the scene is taking place nor fails to build on the scenes that have preceded it. “Preceded” doesn’t have to mean “immediately before” for either multiple- or single-plot-line stories, just on some earlier page.  This is where transitions come in, if necessary, to connect the reader to that new time and place.

Scene order can also refer to the placement of a device such as a flashback. While there may not be a formal scene or chapter break in the text when this kind of device starts and ends, there still needs to be some sort of transition at each end to signal those shift points.

Transitions take several forms:

  • Chapter or scene headings, which can identify a specific date, time, and/or location;
  • Time-related words or phrases such as “meanwhile,” “two weeks earlier,” “on October 21st, 1933,” etc.;
  • Location-related words or phrases such as “in Paris,” “at the ballpark,” “in another room,” and so on;
  • Scene breaks;
  • Changes in verb tense; or
  • Combinations of these.

Questions For You

What questions should you be asking yourself as you evaluate a piece’s storyline? Try these.

  • When each scene starts, do I know where and when it’s taking place, both in absolute terms and relative to what I’ve read before?
    • If not, what information is missing? How could it be added?
  • Do the scenes appear in a sequence that allows the story to develop smoothly, or do I find myself being jerked back and forth for no apparent reason?
    • Remember that certain types of fiction will disregard this requirement. If this seems to be the case, you’ll need to determine if this was the author’s intent or if he did not understand the concept of dramatic development.
  • If the author uses some other device, like a flashback, memory, or frame, or introduces backstory, am I oriented to this new time and/or place when the device starts and when it ends and returns me to current story time?
    • Again, if not, what information is missing? How could it be added?
  • Does the author use transition devices effectively? Does she use them at all?
    • If not, where could she use them, or use better ones? What information do I need that I don’t have now?

Now it’s your turn. What do you look for when evaluating the flow of a storyline? Be sure to get straight to the point in the comments box below.

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