How a chronology can help your writing

To prepare for revising my new screenplay, I’ve been reading The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver by writing maven Syd Field. One of the takeaways I’ve gotten so far is the need to write backstory. Although very little, if any, of this information appears in the script, the backstory helps writers understand and develop their characters and story.

One of the backstory documents that I’m using, and have found useful in the past, is a chronology. I write a table of all of the events that happened to the characters leading up to the story. It helps me identify what shaped these characters and what motivates them to act the way they do.

So, why do I use a chronology instead of writing biographies? It comes from my belief that stories are told in time.

Even though time-travel movies are the rage right now, we are still used to thinking in linear time. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Even if the character is moving between past and future, he or she is still experiencing the situation and responding to it linearly. At the end of the story, the character may be in an earlier time period from where he or she started, but that person has changed as a result of everything experienced from the start of the adventure.

This is the case of one of my favorite novels, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Billy Pilgrim may have become unstuck in time, but Vonnegut’s story doesn’t. Even though the narrative skips between past, present, and future, the story moves in a linear progression until it reaches what I feel is a satisfying conclusion.

In that respect, having characters move through time is no different from having them move through physical space. Changing time is just another way of changing scenes, but the progression of the story remains the same. Writing a chronology helps me keep my story straight as it goes through the changes in time and location.

A chronology also helps me discover facts that improve my story. When writing my novel Doria, I discovered that the United Nations’ infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution was passed the day before the start of the Angola Civil War. This information enabled me to write a powerful scene that changed the direction of the book.

Don’t wait until you’re stuck in a story. Write a chronology and see how it can help you improve your work.