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This is a question that often comes to my mind while writing. I can't know whether I should respect the sequence of events chronologically as they happened or try to include backstories/flashbacks. How do I know what entertains more a reader in such a story and attracts him/her to continue reading?

Currently, I'm writing a short story. This story is about a 12 year old child who accidentally kills his twin brother. Through the time, and with the growing sense of guilt, this boy will develop some sort of psychotic disorder, till ending up with a severe situation, especially that the familial environment is unbalanced, which complicated things more.The whole story intends to focus on two major things: The child's development of mental illness, and how his mother dealt with that. In this case, what's better to do? Write events as they happened, from causes until consequences, or start for example with the boy is taken to a mental institution and then start explaining things for the reader?

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4 Answers 4

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One common element that keeps a reader reading is the feeling that the stakes are rising and tension is building. There are other elements that could keep readers from putting your novel away, but the rising stakes is likely the simplest one.

The basic idea is that with every scene you introduce one further element that gives the reader the perception that for the characters the cost of reaching a conclusion has increased, that they have more at risk than they had a few pages earlier, and that the consequences will have a far broader reach than initially anticipated.

Telling a store in chronological order may already give the reader this climatic feeling with the added benefit of being easier to understand (and probably easier to write). On the other hand, reshuffling the order of events allows you to group them thematically, and provide a quick burst of rising stakes within the global tension building.


For example, consider the following plot:

  1. Bob rescues a dog
  2. Alice injures her foot in an accident
  3. Alice takes the bus
  4. Alice recovers and takes the car
  5. Alice run over Bob's dog
  6. For revenge Bob sets fire to Alice's car
  7. Unbeknownst to Bob, Alice was inside the car

The story has a general tension building, but it is bumpy. A reader may continue reading 'just to see where it goes' or how Bob and Alice are connected. In addition, there are drops of tension along the way as taking the bus is not as climatic as injuring one's foot in an accident.

This is how it looks like after we reorganize the plot by grouping together related events, and (sort of) order them by the tension that they may generate.

  1. Alice is taking the car
  2. The month prior Alice has taken the bus due to a foot injury
  3. The injury was due to a car accident
  4. Bob sets fire to a car
  5. Bob has rescued a dog
  6. Alice runs over Bob's dog with her car
  7. Alice is trapped inside a burning car

The latter plot may be more engaging as the consequences of the actions widen from page to page, and the reader may feel increasingly compelled to know how the story is going to end.

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    Personally, I would much rather see an author tell a chronological story and find ways to imbue the less-tense or "less interesting" scenes with something that makes them interesting—to use the chronological constraints as an excuse to add a layer of meaning, character development, plotline, etc. Jan 17 at 6:34
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Alpha readers.

The other answers address some ways this particular plot could be made more or less interesting. As far as the question of "how do I know how interesting my story is to other people", the only objective answer to this is to have other people read it. Keep in mind that published work often goes through many revisions before it's ready for publishing and don't be discouraged or afraid to take feedback (although that also doesn't mean all feedback is equally good or applicable).

You can take the other answers' ideas and make what seems like the most interesting plot to you, then get feedback from people willing to read a rough story and give honest feedback, take their feedback into account and edit and try again. That will give you the best idea how other people react to your work (and also improve your gauge of what is interesting to begin with over time).

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    I agree 100% with this. Find some readers and get their feedback. Jan 17 at 21:55
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    If you were willing to do the work to write it both ways, you could do A/B testing: Randomly give a different version of the script to each alpha reader, and just ask them afterward which bits were the most engaging.
    – jpaugh
    Jan 18 at 3:28
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Un-controversial hot-take:
The narrative effect of telling a story in an interesting way will make the story more interesting.

Reasons to tell this particular story out of order:

The whole story intends to focus on two major things: The child's development of mental illness, and how his mother dealt with that.

The 'climax' does not conveniently occur at the end of the chronology.

In typical 3-Act structure, your story might be re-ordered to begin with the family dynamic as the central conflict. The child being surrendered to an institution (or whatever) could be the mid-story low point, indicating they cannot continue with the status quo. The emotional climax is the acknowledgement of the death itself which occurred much earlier. Finally addressed, this will lead to a long recovery/resolution.

The catalyst is a mystery.

We know something has happened to disrupt this family, but we don't know exactly what. We see the signs of dysfunction, grief, and coping. The story is focused on these character dynamics, not the events that triggered it. The tragedy serves as a kind of MacGuffin for the reader, they will search for clues once they become aware of it.

Knowing the chronology would bias the reader.

We need to develop sympathy for the boy before we understand that he is the root cause. We also need to see the mother lashing out/falling apart at seemingly irrational and unreasonable moments, making her unsympathetic before we learn her tragic predicament.

Which came first: Chicken or Egg?

Focusing on the family's dynamic, without knowing there are specifc circumstances leading up to it, creates a chicken or egg effect in which we might assume the mother is the one with the mental illness, and her inconsistent behavior towards the son is causing his problems. The reversal of these assumptions is a plot twist that creates story 'depth' once their behavior is re-framed by the truth.

The son's mental condition is meta to the reader's experience

The story is fractured, deliberately obfuscating the cause and effect of the events. This mirrors the boy's internal state and his sense-of-self which is eroding. The reader must piece together what really happened, despite an unreliable narrator.

What is real?

The son could talk about his brother in the present tense, a brother we never see. Is he imaginary, maybe a coping mechanism against the family's abuse? The mother's reaction towards this 'imaginary' brother might be inexplicably hostile or triggering. By stages we learn there is a brother, he has died tragically, and the son killed him.

The linear story has a too obvious conclusion

By withholding the details of the tragedy, readers are not able to jump to the obvious: this family needs professional help. Through grief and dysfunction they will each make bad character choices which compound their problems. Readers may be frustrated when the solution is inevitable but characters are actively sabotaging getting there.

Social Worker as detective

It's a trope, but a limited 3rd-person POV from outside the family could experience their own investigation chronologically, while unraveling the 'mystery' in a non-linear way. They might be a psychologist, a court-appointed case worker, or a family friend. The events could be known, as well as the aftermath. The 'mystery' is why, or even potentially that the death was not entirely an accident.

A Hobson's Choice isn't really a choice

The story might center on the mother who is faced with a Hobson's choice of protecting her remaining son, and justice for her dead son. Under the pressure of an unresolvable inner conflict, she might obscure the truth or implicate herself.

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    A very compelling formula. I think a semi-chronological approach could work (the mother's diary?), in order to build a certain kind of tension: "events are unfolding faster than she can cope." Of course, a diary addresses events and issues by the chronology of when they're important, not by chronology of when they happened. Being able to utter the whole truth, in one stark sentence could be the moment when her recovery begins.
    – jpaugh
    Jan 18 at 3:37
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The question may not be so much "boring" as "depressing". Nobody will be too interested in a depressing piece of fiction. If it was a real-life case study, well then maybe psychiatrists would read the case study, but few others.

For fiction, the formula is: denial, denial, denial, ... , APPROVAL. See if you can make an arc that fits that simple formula. Inject moments of hope in the denial, so the reader keeps going. There should be at least one character who deeply cares about the child with the problems.

When I grew up this really happened to a classmate of mine, in the seventh grade, who shot his brother. He returned to school for the eighth grade but then left and we didn't hear from him -- we thought he was working from home, which he probably was. When something like this happens it's tragic.

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    "Nobody will be too interested in a depressing piece of fiction" I don't think this is accurate, assuming I'm understanding your point. Many of the classics I can only describe as depressing, such as Steinbeck's The Pearl or Of Mice and Men.
    – Laurel
    Jan 18 at 17:55
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    I have to disagree as well. You may not be a fan of downbeat works and that's fine, but history shows that many people do enjoy them. Tragedies do sell. Jan 18 at 21:22

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