Let’s Talk About Disjointed Chronology

Last month I talked about “In Medias Res”, a Latin term meaning roughly “in the middle of” and referring to when a story begins with some action that usually occurs later on in the story.  I mentioned how I, personally, enjoy stories with disjointed chronologies.  So I wanted to expand upon that idea.

A beginning, middle, and end.  That’s how it goes right?  Every story has them.  But what if the end is at the beginning?  That’s what “Memento”, a movie by Christopher Nolan, did.  It starts at the end of the movie, and basically plays things out in reverse order.  Although I’ve never seen the movie, I love the idea of a plot that is told out of order, that is pieced together bit by bit.

One of the most common disjointed chronologies occurs in stories where the main character has amnesia.  For example, the video game “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” begins with the main character stumbling through the halls of a castle, struggling to maintain his memories of who he is and where he lives.  By the end of the intro, he can barely manage to utter his name.  He then wakes up on the floor of a hallway and the game begins.

As you wander through the castle, you eventually come across a note written by yourself, revealing that the amnesia was self-inflicted, caused by a drink your character consumed.  The note tells you to descend into the depths of the castle and kill a man named Alexander.  It doesn’t explain why, but insists that this is the only course of action left to you.  And as you work your way through the castle, scattered notes help you piece together your past and what, exactly, led you to this place.

The idea of finding notes is a common one in video games, sometimes replaced by audio or video recordings, telling a narrative in pieces.  Often, these pieces are out of order chronologically, and it’s up to you to put together what happened and when.

Last time I talked about how the game “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” used a set piece that occurred later in the story as a means to hook the player at the outset and keep them engaged and interested in what was happening.  But disjointed chronologies have more power than just getting the audience interested.  They can also highlight the mental state of a character.

This is an idea expressed in “Memento” where the main character suffers from “anterograde amnesia”, a form of memory loss that occurs after an accident, leaving the sufferer able to recall details before the event but unable to form new long-term memories after.  This is reflected in the main character of the movie, Leonard, who uses a sophisticated series of photos and tattoos to remind himself of where he is going and why.

In this way, the out-of-order events help us identify with the main character and his plight, creating a unique story experience that would be missed if everything were told in simple, linear order.  Not that there is anything wrong with a linearly ordered plot.  But there is something to be said for a story that jumps around in time, keeping you guessing as to what happens next.  Disjointed chronologies can be very powerful, acting to engage the brains of the audience and make them work for a cohesive narrative.  Unfortunately, sometimes a storyteller goes too far with that idea.

“Primer” is an indie movie about two engineer friends who, in the course of inventing things, accidentally create a means of time travel.  While it sounds like an intriguing premise, I could not for the life of me tell you what the hell happened by the end of that movie.  I have nothing against a good, mind-bending plot, but “Primer” took things too far, deliberately making the plot obtuse and hard to follow.  In the end, I was barely paying attention because I was mentally exhausted trying to follow what was happening.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that the writing was also obtuse.  You would often enter a scene where the main characters were already in the middle of a conversation, making it difficult to follow what they were talking about.

In the end, “Primer” seemed like it tried to be too intellectual, and ended up missing the point altogether.

When it comes down to it, some people love disjointed chronologies, and some people hate them.  It all really depends on the context.  They can create a unique narrative experience that lets the audience really connect with the main character and craft a story that engages the imagination.  Or they can purposefully obfuscate details to the point of confusion, creating a plot that might only make sense to the one who wrote it.  Like any tool for a writer, a chronology told out of order can be very powerful, but destructive if wielded improperly.  Telling a story out of order simply for the sake of it is usually not a good idea.  There has to be some reason behind it, a method to the madness.

Otherwise, all you will have is madness.

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