Structural Challenge: The Out-of-Sequence Story

Story structure is on my mind as I revise my work-in-progress. My challenge is that I have discovered after reviewing my first draft that my story must be told out of chronological order. I discovered this after coming to the realization that the person who was originally my main character was the wrong character to carry the story. I didn’t realize this until I was well into my first draft.

Here is the background. The story, tentatively titled, Say a Prayer for Maura, centers on an Irish Catholic family in the Boston area. Frank O’Malley, the patriarch, is dying of cancer and his only wish is to reunite with his estranged daughter, Maura. I envisioned this as Frank’s story, but as my first draft progressed it became clear to me that this was Maura’s story. The character Maura really took life and crystallized as I wrote her. I felt alive and in tune with her psyche and I struggled to write the scenes involving Frank. The original inciting incident focused on Frank’s cancer diagnosis. I realized later the inciting incident was the argument that led to the rift between Frank and Maura. Specifically there was a powerful scene that occurred when Maura found herself homeless on the streets of Boston during a blizzard. She was six months pregnant.

This scene took place ten years before the original inciting incident. I had to move it up as close to the beginning of the story as I could. My challenge now is to intersperse key events that led to the estrangement ten years earlier with Frank’s quest to reconcile with his daughter. Complicating the task, Maura’s siblings, Junior and Kevin, play major roles in the events and there are chapters woven into the story from their points of view.

It will require much care and several rounds of meticulous review, but there are clear benefit to telling this story out of sequence.

Have you ever written a story that required an out-of-sequence narration? How did you deal with it?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Structural Challenge: The Out-of-Sequence Story

  1. I am still dealing with it! With a novel written in short bursts, I could not be bothered to stop and start linearly; and once I reviewed the first draft, I realized that the work hangs together better in some disorder. Can’t say that I’m sure about the final sequence yet.

    • It is a challenge. You have to try different things and see what works. As long as it’s clear to the reader when you go back and forward in time, an out-of-sequence narrative can work.

  2. Tina Goodman

    I used 3 different timelines in a short story. I book-ended the present timeline at the beginning and end of the story. I wove the past and more recent past into the middle of the story, separating the sections with * * * to make it clear to the reader.

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