by guest writer Kris Schnee
©2007 Kris Schnee

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   “I’m disappointed in what they did with Anakin in Episode IV. Why have all that buildup for three movies if he wasn’t going to be the main character?”
   Someday, someone will foolishly watch the whole Star Wars series in the official numeric order and make that complaint. The fact that the ‘right’ order for watching the series—episodes 4 to 6, then 1 to 3—abandons chronological order actually improves the experience of watching them. This pattern of telling a story out of order seems to crop up in a significant number of anthro-related stories and in other fiction. What good is it?
   For instance, there’s some dispute about the best order in which to read C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia books. The seven-part series was first published from 1950 to 1956, one book per year, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first. Part Five, The Horse and His Boy, takes place during Lion, while Part Six, The Magician’s Nephew, takes place during the origin of Narnia, long before the other books. But starting in 1980, several editions of the series have officially renumbered the books to make the first three Nephew, Lion, then Horse. (Six, One, Five.) Why this rearrangement? Besides ‘fixing’ the chronological order, the publishers explained that the renumbering was in accordance with Lewis’ wishes. Lewis did make several comments in favor of ordering the books by time, but some readers have found that the new sequence greatly changes the reading experience. Nephew introduces characters like the White Witch and Aslan and explains their origins to some extent. In contrast, Lion leaves them mysterious. The kids in Lion find out about Aslan in the same way the new reader does, through rumors of a mighty (but usually absent) “Lord of the whole wood… the great Lion.”
   So what? As one Lewis commenter, Peter J. Schakel, points out, starting in the middle of a story is a technique at least as old as The Iliad. (Its first line: “Sing, goddess, the rage of Achilles the son of Peleus…”) The difference between chronological order and flashbacking is how much control the author has over the audience’s knowledge and expectations. With a straightforward order, an author needs to keep the audience’s attention by introducing conflicts and mysteries that will be resolved later in the story’s timeline. With a mixed-up order, there’s more flexibility because the resolution can come at any point on the timeline, so long as it’s on a later page. The author can show the events immediately before and after a murder, and snip out the key page to leave us in suspense till the end. In the case of Narnia, the characters’ experience of meeting creatures like Aslan in Lion was part of the story’s appeal. Then, by following that book up with Nephew, a reader gets to fill in some interesting blanks in the timeline implied by the first book. With that reading order there’s novelty on one end, then interesting backstory on the other. If the books are taken in strict time order instead, we lose out on both of those advantages. Given the stories’ heavy Christian symbolism, it’s even been argued that there are theological implications to the order, in terms of whether Creation or Redemption is given first place! [1] Some Christians have said that the Bible itself should be read starting with the Gospels for pretty much the same reasons—that is, skipping past most of the ancient, hard-to-relate-to bloodshed to begin with the nice part. [2]
   On another holy note, Phil Geusz has written a series of short stories involving the history of a religion called Lapism, and this series is another example of order-shuffling. The first-written story of the bunch is Drama Class, set years after the Lapist movement began. Later, Geusz wrote In the Beginning, which involves the group’s origin. At one point Geusz was wondering whether readers new to the series should read Beginning or Drama first. [3] On one hand, Drama introduces Lapism and several characters who appear in chronologically earlier stories, creating the mystery of where it and they came from. By reading that one first, we also experience this belief system from the perspective of a stranger to that future setting: as an already-established group that’s gotten some notoriety. If we start at Beginning, we’re there from the religion’s origin, and there’s no backstory to fill in. Our perspective is like that of a friend of the founder, who knows more than do some of the characters in ‘later’ stories. The tension is in wondering what’s going to happen in the group’s future, and in realizing after the fact that ‘earlier’ events were important. That’s not a necessarily better or worse experience, but it’s different. The emotional impact comes at a different point in reading, depending on the order. With a Beginning-then-Drama order, we realize why Beginning matters only partway through Drama, instead of going into Beginning primed to expect exciting things.
   The furry webcomic Jack, by David Hopkins, draws much of its drama from the fact that its timeline is so jumbled. Initially, we’re introduced to the ragged demon-bunny Jack, who in his world is both the Grim Reaper and the incarnation of the Sin of Wrath. Then we meet Drip, the even more blatantly evil Sin of Lust—but then there’s a twist: Drip was once a mortal, responsible for such horrible rapes and murders that some cosmic force chose him as a representative to Hell! If that’s how Drip ‘earned’ his job, then what the heck did Jack do? Since Jack himself doesn’t remember, and we’ve been introduced to him as a sympathetic character with a really unpleasant job, there’s an ongoing mystery about him. We know just enough (early on) to figure that it was exceptionally evil, which creates a conflict between who Jack is now and who he used to be. We share in Jack’s confusion and horror as he remembers bits of his past. Now imagine instead if Hopkins had just shown us outright “this is what Jack did,” before getting into the Hell part of the story. It’d be hard to sympathize with the character. The mixed-up order is the difference between making a friend and discovering later that they’ve got a criminal record, versus learning that up front and deciding to stay away from them. The conflict’s not there in the second version, since no emotional investment has been made. We’d also be misled about the topic of the story. Most of Jack is about the supernatural interaction between Heaven, Hell and (furry) Earth, while there are science fiction elements in Jack’s backstory. Someone who picked up the comic thinking it would be science fiction from the opening chapter would be appalled that it had “gone all religious” by the second chapter. [4]
   Octavia Butler’s fantasy novel Wild Seed pits the shapeshifting woman Anyanwu against the sinister, body-snatching Doro. Butler started the story centuries into Doro’s life but included a flashback to the day Doro discovered his powers. It’s been argued that by putting the flashback very near the book’s end, Butler chose between several possible ways she could have set up the audience’s expectations: with Doro’s background, which would have made him a more sympathetic character, or with the meeting between him and Anyanwu, which made Doro an unknown with more clearly evil motives. Butler chose to tell her story in a way that presented a relatively clear heroine and villain. So, simply by controlling what we know and the order in which we learn it, she was able to substantially affect the story’s feel. [5]
   Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is a case of what happens when a storyteller insists on chronological order. In Tolkein’s original books we find out what the Ring is at about the same time Frodo does, and it’s news to us when Gandalf explains that this piece of jewelry might destroy the world. In the movie version Jackson decided to start off the trilogy with a long prologue telling the story of the Ring’s four previous owners. By the time Frodo finds out what the thing is, the audience has reason to ask, “Didn’t you get the memo?” We lose out on the suspense of Gandalf hurrying off to do research and then demanding to see the Ring thrown into the fireplace. We already know what he’s going to find out. So, the movie experience would have been more interesting with the prologue skipped or moved.
   For an extreme example of playing with a story’s order to confuse the heck out of an audience, see the movie Memento. [6] The hero has a specific (real) type of brain damage that makes him unable to form new memories. The hero can’t remember anything between the day of his injury and about thirty seconds ago. He keeps himself focused with tattoos that remind him that he’s hunting a murderer. To tell the story, the scriptwriter chose to put the scenes in reverse chronological order: the last scene, then the next-to-last, third-from-last, and so on. The effect is that we know what’s going to happen, but like the hero, we have no idea what happened a minute ago. The movie’s structure is a way of getting us to share in the hero’s mental state.

Start at the beginning, go through to the end, then stop.
   The Red Queen, Alice In Wonderland

   Is there something about anthropomorphic fiction (or religious themes?) that especially lends itself to the idea of playing with the order of storytelling? It’s possible. Remember that by starting in the middle of things, we approach a story with a particular level of knowledge about characters and events that may have a complicated history. A frequently used technique in fantasy and science fiction is to make one character a ‘stranger in a strange land’, who (by virtue of being young, foreign or ignorant) is allowed to ask stupid questions like “What’s going on?” or “Who’s that guy?” without breaking the realism of the story. Shuffling the order adds a level of emotional sympathy because we, the audience, find things out at the same time as the characters. We share in their feelings of confusion, fear, and surprise. The shuffling also helps focus our attention on the main characters and events of the story, instead of distracting us with information we haven’t yet been given a reason to care about.
   In anthro fiction, the characters tend to be particularly weird. In some ways it’s harder to sympathize with a furry character than with a human; in a genre that already includes fantasy and science fiction elements, there’s a danger of overloading the audience’s imagination because there’s nothing recognizable to hang onto. One way of dealing with that problem is to zero in on a person or a moment we can identify with, ignoring chronology. Drama Class starts with two kids waiting for a school bus. Narnia starts with kids moving into a new house. Tolkein’s epic starts with a guy getting ready for a birthday party. No matter how much weirdness there is in a story, starting off with a relatively familiar bit helps anchor us in the story by setting our expectations for what kind of world this is and what the hero is like.
   So, mixing up the order of a tale can be an especially useful technique for telling anthro stories, perhaps even more so than for fantasy and science fiction in general. It saves us from some confusion, adds emotional impact, and tells us what to expect. But maybe there’s more appeal to the technique than that. Anthropomorphics is a young genre that doesn’t yet have a well-established style or theme. There’s room yet for experimentation with a variety of storytelling techniques and other forms of weirdness. For the sake of having an interesting story, getting it backwards is one of many ideas that writers have been using to good effect.


  1. Peter J. Schakel. The ‘Correct’ Order for Reading The Chronicles of Narnia?, in Shanna Caughey, Revisiting Narnia: Fantasy, Myth and Religion in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles. Also: Wesley A. Kort. The Chronicles of Narnia: Where To Start, ibid.
  2. See eg. <>.
  3. Your faux-bunny columnist was personally involved in this discussion.
  4. Jack is not suitable for kids; cartoon Hell is still Hell.
  5. Orson Scott Card, How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, ISBN 0-89879-416-1. Page 74-5.
  6. If you haven’t already.

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