Your story is a journey you present to your reader. Along this journey there are important signposts to help them on their way. Without these the reader will get lost and confused and become unhappy.
These signposts you provide your reader are called Time-words.
The following are time-words: first, second, third; today; yesterday; then; since then; next; before; after; later; sometime later; earlier; at bedtime; by nightfall; in the morning; the next day; suddenly; the following autumn; ten years ago; meanwhile; soon; last.
Time-words are friendly and informative and necessary for the reader to navigate their way through the story . They establish a chronology.
A happened, then B, then C.
So why is chronology so important?
It establishes a timeline of events when storytelling – it’s how we develop a plot for our narrative. Your reader needs to perceive time to follow what is happening, and the easiest way for this to happen, is to put things chronologically.
Chronological order is the usual way to tell a story because that is the direction time moves. It provides a logical path to follow and the reader is more likely to be clear about the sequence of events.
There are other ways – you could use flashbacks, or fast forward, and even skip great chunks of time (because life does not unfold in equally interesting sequences that will keep the reader engaged).
So while telling a story chronologically is a staple, writers will often use time shifts. Flashbacks are good for conveying background information (in the movies they call it backstory): ‘The seeds for the current animosity between the two brothers lay in a disagreement they had twenty years ago when . . .’
Or you might use foretelling or foreshadowing: ‘In the years ahead we would find this situation resolved when . . .’
Or a flash-forward in time, perhaps to the present day, ‘Today I find that there is nothing I can do to prevent . . .’
You’ll notice that time-words are especially important when skipping around in time, forward or backwards.
Beware however, time shifts can be tricky. It’s easy to lose your reader if you flit around too much – doing a Doctor Who. And your audience won’t like it if they get lost and confused about where in the story they are.
It’s best to keep time shifts short and return to the main sequence of events promptly. If you are a beginning author or an experienced novelist, drafting an outline and staying with chronology will help keep you on track.