What is Emotional Chronology?

That’s a pretty great painting of a kingfisher, isn’t it? What? You don’t agree? But it looks just like a kingfisher. All the strokes are technically perfect. It’s a beautiful kingfisher! No doubt thousands of kingfisher paintings exactly like this one grace grandmothers' walls all across America.

But you’re right: it will never end up in the Met, MoMA, the Denver Art Museum, or even your local artists co-op. It will never be Starry Night by Van Gogh, Water Lilies by Monet, or Guernica by Picasso. It will never be something unique to the artist who painted it. It will never have voice. 

Templates, like paint-by-numbers, make writing seem possible. They make it safe. They offer a very necessary pathway for someone to learn how story works, and they are extremely helpful if you’ve never written a novel or memoir before. They are even helpful if you’re a seasoned novelist or memoirist who has found a way to alter the template and make it your own in some way. 

But Van Gogh started with a blank canvas. He found his way. I’m guessing that every time he stared at an empty canvas, he was filled with fear (as every writer facing a blank page should be filled with fear). I’m not promising that learning emotional chronology will make you the writer’s equivalent of Van Gogh. But it will get you to a place where you understand how to structure a novel or memoir without relying on templates or formulas. It will also allow you to move back and forth in time without dragging the story down with the dreaded “backstory.” It will free you up to listen intensely to your characters and your story, to create your own organic structure that is yours and yours alone—which will change with every book you write. 

I’ve taught classes on emotional chronology across the United States for three decades, and every time I teach it, lightbulbs go off for the writers in the class. My experience is that they leave the class feeling inspired, rather than dragged down by their stories and the challenges they pose. I experienced this myself when I was able to name and analyze how dynamic narratives really work. When I had the guts to drop the idea of templates and hard structured outlines—that’s when I feel I learned to write. 

I’ve spent years creating exercises and discussions that explore how to use emotional chronology and why it’s an extremely dynamic approach to writing. I love sharing these years of study with writers. I’ll put it this way: I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program. Years after my class had graduated and most of us had published several books, we had a reunion. We talked about “what we wish we’d been taught while in the Iowa MFA." Structure—workable, dynamic structure—was at the top of that list. 

I’m hoping to pass this along to others now, to maybe help aspiring writers avoid some of the pitfalls that I and others have come across in our post-MFA, post-writing school lives. 

BK Loren is teaching our two-weekend intensive, Emotional Chronology: Dynamic Structure in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction, at Lit Fest 2018. She is the author of the novel, Theft, and the essay collection, Animal, Mineral, Radical.