Thursday, August 3, 2017

Timey-Wimey Timelines

In all of my years travelling through time and space (via stories and not the TARDIS, unfortunately), I have noticed a trend.

Rather than write and publish books following the timeline within their books, authors tend to write and publish their stories out of order. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis is the quintessential example of this. Does one start reading with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (in order of publication), or does one start with The Magician's Newphew (in chronological order)?
This question has sparked many brush fires between passionate Narnia fans. (Please no brush fires in the comment section. I've lost my fire extinguisher, and I would not be pleased if my blog burned to the ground.)

The Chronicles of Narnia is not the only example of this publishing order/chronological order debacle. I'm reading The Worlds of Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones right now, and she jumps all over Christopher's timeline from book to book.
Second Son, the sequel to Jenelle Scmidt's King's Warrior, is really a prequel focusing on one of the characters in the first book.
The fifth incarnation of the Warriors series by Erin Hunter is a prequel series.
Even I am planning on writing and publishing books out of order. If I ever finish my fairytale-fantasy novel, I'd like to write a collection of prequel short stories about a few of the characters (and after that, I have a four-book series planned about the history of my world. I may be slightly too ambitious).

So, why do authors write books out of order? I have several theories, the first of which is that writers do...

Authors are creators, and creators don't have to follow the rules. Of course, it is good to know the rules before breaking them. For example, I know that coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so—aka FANBOYS) are not supposed to start sentences, yet I have started this very sentence with one!
Likewise, it is good to know the rules of good storytelling, and, generally, good storytelling has a beginning, a middle, and an ending—in that order. But (see, I'm starting another sentence with a coordinating conjunction. I do that a lot, and a little piece of my soul cringes every time, but I do it anyway) that doesn't mean that every story has to have the beginning at the beginning. A series can start in the middle, and the sequel can go back to the beginning before the third book wraps up with the ending. It just depends on what story the author wants to tell first, which brings us to my second theory.

Often, authors don't think in a linear timeline. I know I don't. Sometimes, the story I want to tell right now is out of order with other ideas set in the same world. This could happen because we writers have one idea before coming up with the ideas for prequels, or it could be because we don't want to spoil a character's backstory.

Speaking of backstories, sometimes there isn't room enough within the main story line to explain a certain character or a particular part of the worldbuilding, so the author has to write an extended meander through history to share that part of his or her creation with the audience.

So, are out-of-order stories not as good as in-order stories?
No way! Although it can be confusing and annoying (because you want to get back to the characters and plot that you fell in love with during the first story) to read books out of chronological order, the author has a reason for publishing books in the order that he or she did.

Those are some of my thoughts. Let me know yours in the comments!


  1. I do that all the time. XD I love to write my stuff, both books and scenes, out of order. I have the second book in one of my series all planned out, but I have no CLUE what to do with the first one. XD

    1. Haha, that's funny! I don't know if I could ever do that. I can write books out of chronological order, but I have to have my scenes in the right order. Good luck with that first book!!

  2. I write books out of order allll the time. XD I usually try to go by what I'm feeling like writing at the time, and sometimes it's not the second book, but a totally different prequel that isn't really necessary! XD But I feel like if I were to get it published, I would want to publish them in some sort of order.

    1. I usually go by what I feel like writing at the moment, too.
      Don't you worry that if you publish in order, it will take a long time to publish because you write out of order? That's my fear, and also why I probably won't publish everything in order (hey, that's another reason authors may not publish in order!).

  3. I think it's generally the case with "extended worlds" that this sort of thing comes in. And of course that happens more often in scifi and fantasy. Star Wars is another classic example (though not literary), but anything where backstory comes into play, you'll get this jumping around. The Silmarillion is sort of the ultimate backstory example and of course was published much later than The Lord of the Rings.

    I actually had a series planned where I was going to release the books in reverse chronological order, but each volume was going to take place in a different time period, with different characters. That project is on hold indefinitely though. I think my next series will be a strictly chronological one instead.

    Both ways are equally fun, though!

    1. That's a good point. I do know a lot of extended world stories that go out of order. I guess we can say that it's a product of the genre, because I can't think of any classics or middle grade books that go out of order (then again, most classics are stand-alones, which is another whole topic).

  4. I remember when I was younger and looking up the publication dates of the Chronicles of Narnia and wondering what in the world was going on. XD But I can see why some authors publish prequels later than other books in the series especially if they're short story collections. Sometimes the readers need to already be invested in the characters' lives to want to read a prequel of short stories.

    Also, I agree with what you said about how we authors don't always think linearly. So true! XD

    1. Truth. I know I'm more interested in origin stories after I've already been introduced to the character (or is that just because I've read so many origin stories that have been published after the rest of the series that I've gotten used to that? Hmmm...)

      Yup. XD I mean, people assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a nonlinear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey... stuff. (And there I am quoting the same Doctor Who quote that's in my title. Report me to the Department of Redundancy Department.)