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.
  • 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.
  • Authors will skip events in order to conceal information from the reader or the characters, or to build tension.

There’s also the special case of “experimental” fiction where the author intentionally disregards time sequencing, and even other forms of logical flow, for “artistic” purposes. If you like reading that kind of work, fine; I don’t care to have to work that hard to understand a story.

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.

To make this happen, the author will have to move around in time. As I suggested above, flashbacks, backstory, and memories can only happen by stepping back in time, then jumping back to the story’s present time. “Frame” stories start in a present time, step back for the core story, then step forward again for the concluding frame. Flash-forwards step forward in time, then drop back. Multiple plot-line stories will jump back and forth to follow each line until they converge.

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 see them because she’s too close to the story and understands all the connections. Or she just may not realize that the sequencing is confusing. Your job as the reviewer is to help her see what she didn’t before.

Transitions come in several forms: chapter or scene headings, often identifying 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.

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,” however. 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 the 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 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.

So, 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
    • Note again 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 doesn’t understand the concept of dramatic development.

Now it’s your turn: what do you look for when evaluating the flow of a work’s story line?

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