Do the events in your personal narrative unfold chronologically (in the order in which they happened)? Or do they jump around in time, according to their connection to one another and their significance? Organizing your piece in a non-chronological sequence can build suspense and a sense of purpose in your writing. For example, you might throw us into a dramatic scene in the opening paragraph, and then back up, filling in details to help ground the first scene in context. After the opening scene of Andy Duehren’s essay (hiking with his father), he moves back in time to his childhood:
My relationship with my dad is a complicated one. In the halcyon days of my childhood, I remember our Saturday morning “dump runs” followed by a stop at McDonald’s, where, as soon as he let me, I would order the exact same “Big n’ Tasty” meal he would. Then, he took me hiking, camping, and skiing. His patient guidance and care on the trail stood in stark contrast to my frustrated, bumbling childhood clumsiness. I would whine and cry and yell on hikes too long or hills too steep; he would stop, listen and encourage me onward. With him, I was comfortable and secure. He could do no wrong.
In the opening scene, we see Andy as a confident and competent hiker, helping his dad up the trail. Yet with this jump back in time, we come to realize that it used to be his father guiding and encouraging Andy to experience the world. This insertion of a past memory (called a flashback) adds weight and significance to the present moment. Jumping forward can also be useful. Skipping ahead or projecting into the future is called a flashforward.
Sometimes we get so attached to the order in which we wrote our paragraphs, that it’s hard to imagine a different sequence, or see the benefit of reordering. Well… one of our favorite revision exercises requires a pair of scissors!
(Note: This exercise requires printing out your draft. If it’s not possible to do so, simply copy your essay into a new document and rearrange paragraphs digitally!)
- Print out a one-sided hardcopy of your draft.
- Cut up your essay into paragraphs.
- On a large work surface (table or floor), rearrange the pieces of your essay, playing with order.
- Make notes about where you’re planning on adding additional material.
- When you have an order you’re satisfied with, transfer the changes to your digital version.
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