Using a Timeline to Revise Narrative Structure
In short stories, novels, and narrative memoirs, there often comes a point where the writer is confused or stuck when trying to construct a narrative structure. Sometimes, especially in memoir, this occurs because certain crucial events are not part of the writing yet. At other times, certain narrative elements are missing, such as a definitive goal or truly irreconcilable conflicts. Or certain structural elements, such as a true third act or final battle may be missing.
When narrative problems occur with a student’s work, I often tell the student to write down all the events in the work if it’s a piece of fiction or all the important or crucial events of the time period of the memoir. I may even have the student do this two or three times.
Next I ask the student to put those events in chronological order. I tell him that the story or novel or memoir doesn’t need to be told in chronological order; indeed, many works in fiction and memoir eschew chronology. However, such a timeline allows the writer to see the events as they occur in time; this helps them better understand how one event can lead to or cause another, or how certain events may be linked to form their own section, or how the timeline of the events can be broken down into sections or into the mythic journey or a three-act structure.
Once the writer has done this timeline, he should look at it for various structural and fictional elements.
The first element the writer might look at is a combination of the hero’s journey and the three-act play.
In The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell studied myths from across the world and discovered that they almost all contained elements of what he called the hero’s journey. He broke down the complete hero’s journey into a sequential narrative. In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler used the hero’s journey to break down the structure of screenplays. Here’s the basic structure, to which I’ve added the three-act structure:
ACT I (The Call)
1. Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD, where
2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE
3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
4. are encouraged by a mentor to
ACT II (Struggle and Doubt)
5. CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where
6. they encounter TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES.
7. They APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold,
8. where they endure the SUPREME ORDEAL.
9. They take possession of their REWARD and
10. are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
ACT III (The Final Battle)
11. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
12. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World.
Campbell makes the point that when we first see the hero in the ordinary world, often something is wrong, something is awry or amiss, in that world and/or in the hero’s life. In certain myths or stories, the kingdom is not flourishing or is fallow; there’s a pestilence, a plague, a drought, corruption, an evil dragon, repressive forces, or a repressive ruler. All this can also be seen as symbolic, as a metaphor for a psyche that is faltering and is being asked (by outside forces, by the unconscious) to change. Often, I find that what is missing in student work is a description of the fallow kingdom; that is, at the start of the piece, there’s no statement of the problem or conflict or contradictions that the hero or protagonist is facing. Without the description of the fallow kingdom, the reader doesn’t understand why the hero is undertaking the journey or goal, doesn’t feel what is propelling the hero out of the ordinary world.
As indicated above, the structure of the mythic hero’s journey has its correlative in the three-act play (or screenplay). In the first act, the hero is in the ordinary world or the fallow kingdom and is called to take a journey, to take up a goal, usually twice. When the hero takes up the call, the journey, the goal, that is the end of the first act.
In myth, when the hero leaves the ordinary world and crosses into the new or special world, the journey may be relatively easy at first. The hero may find new powers, abilities, opportunities. But gradually things become more difficult; there is struggle and doubt and often, the crisis of the second act, when things become particularly difficult and dark.
The third act is the final battle. Often, the end of a story or novel may not work because there isn’t a clear final battle. Or the final battle is not significant enough or difficult enough. Or the hero reaches the goal—or fails to reach the goal—not because of the hero’s own actions (i.e., the hero is too passive).
So, in the first part of this assignment, after writing down all the events in the work or all the crucial events of the time period, look at the timeline you have created and try to see if there are equivalents to Campbell’s structure of the hero’s journey.
Then see if you can break the timeline down into three acts.
(Note that scenes or sections can also be broken down into three acts.)
Next, find the key actions the protagonist takes to pursue her goals, whether in an individual section of the work or in the work overall.
Next, using the principles outlined in this book, find the irreconcilable conflicts or desires that the protagonist faces.
Next, find the lies that the protagonist tells (both active lies and lies of omission). Recall that these lies are often about the irreconcilable nature of the protagonist desires, that is, the protagonist lies to himself. The protagonist then tells lies to others in order to pursue those irreconcilable desires.
Next, find the places where the protagonist makes plans and takes an action; mark where the action results in reactions by others or by the world or within the protagonist that the protagonist did not foresee.
Next, find the places where the psyche or others or the world pressures the protagonist to tell the truth and expose the protagonist’s lies.
Note all these elements on the timeline. If some of the elements are missing, think about how you might construct them if you are writing fiction. If you are writing a memoir, see whether there are missing elements, events, experiences that will embody the missing pieces. Or see if you can reorganize or rewrite the narrative so that those missing pieces are there.
One thing to remember here is the principle of metonymy—the part for the whole. If there is a series of arguments involving a couple, the writer doesn’t need to show and dramatize each and every argument. One detailed argument can serve to illustrate all the other arguments, which can then be summarized more quickly.
Another principle to remember is the use of three trials or three attempts. If the protagonist succeeds in the first attempt, then fails at the second (or vice versa), the third is the tiebreaker. If the protagonist fails in the first, the second, and the third attempt, the narrative and the reader may conclude that this will continue.
After you complete this assignment to this point, go back to writing the narrative with the timeline in mind. Refer to the timeline and revise it as the process goes on.
When I’ve asked writers to do this assignment, they inevitably come out of it with a firmer understanding of the narrative structure of the work, or they see ways of revising the work for narrative structure. Moreover, when students do this for the first time, they reach a deeper understanding of narrative structure and technique.
I do understand that writers, like all artists, work through intuition, through feelings and hunches. This timeline assignment is more structured, more left-brain oriented, more technical. However, especially when the writer is learning the structures and techniques of narrative, this timeline assignment is a useful tool. Here’s an instructive analogy: After a while, Shakespeare stopped counting syllables when he wrote iambic pentameter; he didn’t have to think about individual feet and the ten-syllable line. But when he was learning to write iambic pentameter, he did have to consciously keep these critical factors in mind to learn and become accustomed to the form.
So it is with learning narrative structure and technique. Often, the writer must consciously and sometimes mechanically use these structures and techniques, and in this learning, he might be best off not worrying about the overall quality of the work and concentrate on learning. Once the writer absorbs these structures and techniques, their use will become intuitive, and he may come to use them without having to do a conscious timeline (though even then a timeline may help if difficulties or blocks arise).
Once a writer has learned to construct a basic scene and a basic story, he can apply those lessons to any piece of writing. And I guarantee that the writer will inevitably be writing better work. This will be true even if the writer chooses to abandon or eschew the structures of the basic scene and story in some later work (just as learning to write meter and form and going back to write in free verse will provide the poet with a deeper understanding of how free verse works and how sometimes the ghost of meter and form may inhabit free verse).