Writers who tell readers this happened, then that happened avoid confusion. (image from FischX via wikimedia)
We experience life chronologically: This happened, then this happened, then that happened next. Organizing a story in the same way makes it easy to follow. This happened, then that happened isn’t the only way to structure a story, or always the best way. But whenever I was working with a writer who had trouble with structure, I had a simply incantation: “When in doubt, go chronological.”
Not, I grant you, an original thought. But today, I read an article that reminded me why it’s still important to keep repeating those words.
The Washington Post story involves an 8-year-old girl who’s been missing for several months, the man suspected of kidnapping her, and his wife, whom he apparently murdered before killing himself. The man’s body was found March 31 of this year; the hook for writing a story now was the release of an autopsy report on his wife. No doubt these events are well-known to most of the Post’s readers, which may have helped them navigate the tortuous structure of this article. Even so, it was probably a struggle — and for those, like me, who didn’t know anything beforehand about Relisha Rudd, Andrea Kelly Tatum and Kahlil Tatum, it was torture.
I’m not dissecting this story to criticize the reporters or editors. It’s because the Post is an excellent paper that the flaws in this story are worth considering. If the Post can produce something like this, all reporters and editors can.
We begin the story on “the first day of spring” — quick, reader, what day is that? We are to assume, I guess, that it’s the current year. Then something happens “later” — how much later, we don’t know. An event happens “more than five months after Relisha went missing.” Eventually we’ll learn that the last day Relisha was seen was March 1, but that’s not for many, many paragraphs, so for now we just have to guess from context that we’ve jumped to sometime around the present.
At least five other points in the story give us similarly mysterious chronological terms — “when he first saw his uncle’s face on the news,” “after her daughter had missed a month of school,” “the day after Tatum checked into the hotel,” “the last time Edna Young spoke to Andrea” and “the day hundreds of people showed up to say goodbye to Andrea.” Eventually we’ll be given specific dates for three of those, but the first and last are never specified.
When dates are clear, they jump back and forth. I created an animated graph of the story’s chronology, in the video accompanying this post. It’s very rough, but you can get an idea of the tangled switchbacks readers are asked to negotiate. I’ve left out some passages that appear to be adrift in time. I should also note that some may object that I’m including as time shifts some phrases that don’t represent whole changes of scene. However, one of the story’s flaws is that it contains few fully realized scenes.
Surprise introductions, redundant repetition
We get this sentence:
The last time Edna Young spoke to Andrea, she was in bed, settled in for the evening because she had promised to babysit her grandchildren the next day.
That would be confusing enough in any structure, because we’re not sure which of the women is the “she.” Readers who take a guess that it’s Andrea, the closest antecedent to the pronoun, may get thrown for a loop by the mention of grandchildren. All we knew at that point was that Andrea had a daughter
It’s deep in the story that we’re told Andrea had children from a previous relationship, who declined to talk to the reporters. That’s long after we first heard from Andrea’s daughter — who apparently is one of those children, although that’s not completely clear.
Meanwhile, some information is repeated — a common problem when you bounce around in time. Twice, we read that Andrea’s daughter said her mother had considered leaving Khalil; twice, that Khalil had filed for divorce in February. In paragraph 8, we’re told the couple struggled with addiction and incarceration. In graf 22, Khalil spent “long years” in prison. Graf 26, we get the specific years of his imprisonment (separated from the previous reference by a sidetrip into Andrea’s relationship with Edna). In the same graf we learn that Andrea had a drug habit; 11 grafs later we’re told it got her sent to jail.
In a tangled timeline, questions raised in a reader’s mind in one paragraph may not be answered until far later. For example, in paragraph 2 we learn that police were searching for a missing eight-year-old girl. It’s not until about 18 grafs later that we gather that Relisha Rudd is still missing. (Yes, that would be known to readers familiar with the case. But “everybody already knows that” wasn’t a good answer in the old days, and it’s a far worse answer now when the internet regularly brings your stories to the attention of a wide and uninformed audience.)
Worst, though, are questions that never get answered. “Police had been searching for a missing 8-year-old girl when they arrived at Room 132,” we’re told at the start. Why did they think Relisha would be in that hotel room, which the victim and her husband had checked into just the night before? No answer.
When the couple checked into the room, “three people accompanied them but left after about 90 minutes,” and one of those three “returned at 5:40 a.m. to pick up Kahlil.” Why did five people go into a hotel room at 10 at night — particularly the couple who presumably already lived in the area? Why was one of them picking up Kahlil — but just Kahlil — early in the morning? No answer.
After telling us where Andrea worked, the reporters write:
In a brief, cryptic note about Andrea, her boss, Robert Siegel, said … ‘She was loved and hated by many people.’
An email to whom? Did the reporters follow up to ask what that “cryptic” message meant? No answer.
In all of these instances, it may be that the reporters tried to get answers but couldn’t. However, we’re never told that. When your story has big holes like these, you have to acknowledge them. You can say that people couldn’t be found, or would not answer your questions, or — if worse comes to worst — just say something like “what the group was doing in the room is unclear.” But you must let the reader know that you know there’s a hole.
This is a problem in any story, but it is a disaster in a jumbled timeline. The reader is off-balance: She doesn’t know if the writer will ever return to the question, because she can’t rely on the author to tell her that this happened, then that happened.
We’re hard-wired to understand a story told as this happened, then that happened. That means a story with a straightforward timeline connects with the readers on a deep level.
Using chronology doesn’t mean you can’t ever shift back and forth. In “Follow the Story,” one of the books on my 100 must-reads for journalists, James B. Stewart says that you can use flash-backs and flash-forwards — but sparingly, and only when you have a specific reason to do so. “To sprinkle interruptions in chronology through a story invites the reader to quit.”
Even if you decide a time shift is really, really necessary, you must handle it properly. To understand what that means, you need to know a little more about Stewart’s advice. He recommends that you begin the writing process by making a list of the scenes — events — you will want to describe, and putting that list in chronological order. For each scene, you should also note of where it happens (the setting) and through which character’s eyes the events are described (the point of view). Now you can reorder the scenes as needed.
Each transition point — each place where you shift from one scene to the next, one setting to another or so on — is a potential hurdle for readers. To reduce those hurdles, you should first try to minimize the jumps the reader will have to make. For example, “it is always easier to shift scenes if the point of view remains the same.” So, if you’re going to disrupt the timeline, try to maintain the same setting and the same point of view, changing only the point in time.
Another tip: When you do timeshift, re-situate the reader quickly. “Forty years ago …” or “In college, when John first met Marcia …”
Stewart discusses these issues in far greater depth, of course. But the basic point is simple: When in doubt, go chronological.