Micro-Chronological Order

"Micro-chronology" is the order of events within a paragraph or so. In story telling of any kind, events are naturally presented in chronological order. In fact, it's rare to break chronological order within a paragraph.

The exception is hyper-interesting starts, where chronological disorder becomes ordinary:

Mandy was gone. She went quietly, her body still, and Dane was at her beside to let her go. The ICU physician said it was inevitable. ...Her heart went into premature ventricular contractions...(Illusion, Peretti)

Those first two sentences reverse chronological order, and the premature ventricular contractions ocurred before both of them. So events are being described in reverse chronological order.

The physician's pronouncement might have been before she died, but it could also have been a consolation after she died. Not knowing the order of events is – other than at the start – very rare. The convention is presenting events in chronological order, so, unless somehow marked or by meaning, each event is assumed to occur before the next event in the narration:

1. The man shouted, "Enough," and walked out the door.
2. The man walked out the door and shouted "Enough".

The shouting occurred first in #1 and second in #2. (Or they occured at the same time, an ambiguity that will not concern us here.) We know this, even though the order is not marked, because of the convention.

So when two events are presented out of chronological order, their deviation from chronological order is usually marked. However, the author didn't mark anything in that first passage. The next tries to mark chronological order.

The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes. There had been tensions beforehand, rumors of disturbances in other towns whispered above my head, but no explosions, nothing outright. (Girl at War, Novic)

The second sentence describes things that occurred before the event in the first sentence. So again there is this odd presentation of events out of chronological order.

The reversal in time was marked by the word "before" and by the change from past tense in the first sentence ("began") to "past-of-the-past" tense ("had been"). So ambiguity in chronological order is avoided, but at the cost of a few more words and a slightly more complicated grammar. These are small things, yes, but writers try to avoid them.

This continues:

Caught between the mountains, Zagreb sweltered in the summer, and most people abandoned the city for the coast during the hottest months. For as long as I could remember my family had vacationed with my godparents in a fishing village down south.

These two sentences describe a time before the second sentence. So this paragraph is still moving backwards in time.

The last sentence continues the use the past-of-the past-tense. This second jump backwards in time can't be marked with verb tense, because the previous time was in past-of-the-past. (For better or worse, there is no past-of-the-past-of-the-past tense in English.)

The Reader's Problem in Construction

The man stood up and before that waved to the crowd.

The reader presumably imagines the man standing up. Then the reader (1) learns this was wrong and has to (2) imagine the man waving to the crowd and then standing up.

Human beings can easily assemble the events of a paragraph into a coherent story when the events are presented in chronological order. That is, after all, what they do for their entire lives.

The point is, construction becomes difficult when events are not presented in chronololgical order. That's true even when the correct order is well-marked; it's a much more serious problem that a few extra words or occasionaly confusion.

Writers meanwhile imagine their scene in chronological order. So not only is chronological order better writing, it's natural and easy. The result is that events are almost always presented in chronological order . . .  except for that hyper-interesting first sentence and the subsequent disruption in the first paragraph.


She nearly killed an innocent man.

Creighton "Charley" Bondurant drove carefully because his life depended on it. Latigo Canyon was mile after mile of neck-wrenching, hairpin twists. Charley had no use for government meddlers but the 15 mph signs posted along the road were smart.
He lived... (Gone, Kellerman)

The second sentence lept backwards in time, isolating the first sentence.