Choosing the trajectory for your work will, for most people, be a more straightforward decision than choosing a theme. Simply put, the trajectory of your work is the way the narrative unfolds.
It’s important here to identify that there is a difference between the story that’s being told, and the narrative by which that story is being presented (see also the later section on Story Versus Narrative). The story is always chronologically linear, in that it starts in the past and moves forward in time to the present (present in the context of the work’s timeframe). The story reflects the reality of what happened over time. On the other hand, the narrative has no such constraint upon it. The narrative can proceed from any point in the story, retreat into the past, fast forward into the future, and back to the past again. The trajectory refers to the course taken by the narrative in presenting the story.
There are several broad categories of narrative trajectory, each of which can provide a slightly different impression of the course of events:
- Linear Narrative – The most straightforward trajectory to employ is one which corresponds with the chronology of the story, starting at the beginning and finishing at the end. This option provides several advantages, including:
- the sequence of the story is easy for the reader to follow;
- it’s easier to surprise the reader with an unexpected event or twist; and
- there is less of a need to clue the reader in to which part of the story is happening in the narrative at that moment.
- in medias res – Literally meaning “into the middle of things”, this option involves starting the narrative somewhere through the timeline of the story and revealing the earlier part of the story through flashbacks or dreams or conversations. Sometimes the backstory is presented in linear narrative, but placed after the opening middle section, and then the narrative proceeds up to and past the starting event(s). This option is particularly useful for the writer to hook the reader immediately in the first few pages (see also the section on Engaging the Reader) with dramatic events that might otherwise not be revealed for several chapters.
- Reverse Chronology –This option involves the narrative revealing the story in reverse order, with each scene being followed by the scene which precedes it chronologically. This option allows the reader to make assumptions about the story based on presuming the chronology is being presented linearly, and so sets up the reader for a twist or narrative lesson when the reverse chronology suddenly becomes apparent.
- Non-linear Narrative – This option includes both in medias res and reverse chronology, as well as any other arrangement of the narrative so that the story is presented out of chronological order. Broadly speaking, use of non-linear narrative is often better suited to the presentation of stories that are narrated in some way (whether by a character or a more traditional narrator), and the narrator can realistically know all the backstory being told.
Some writers prefer to write their first draft in a chronological linear narrative, to get the story straight and establish the precedence of events, and then choose a different narrative trajectory to create dramatic effect or hook the reader early or manipulate the character development in some way.
As with choosing a theme for your work, choosing the narrative trajectory is a decision you can leave until later. If you’re prepared to make significant edits, you can leave this decision until the end.