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The word chronological comes from two Greek words. "Chronos" means time. "Logikos" means reason or order. That is what chronological order is all about. It arranges information according to time.
In composition and speech, chronological order is a method of organization in which actions or events are presented as they occur or occurred in time and can also be called time or linear order.
Narratives and process analysis essays commonly rely on chronological order. Morton Miller points out in his 1980 book "Reading and Writing Short Essay" that the "natural order of events - beginning, middle, and end - is narration's simplest and most-used arrangement."
From "Camping Out" by Ernest Hemingway to "The Story of an Eyewitness: The San Francisco Earthquake" by Jack London, famous authors and student essayists alike have utilized the chronological order form to convey the impact a series of events had on the author's life. Also common in informative speeches because of the simplicity of telling a story as it happened, chronological order differs from other organizational styles in that it is fixed according to the timeframe of events which happened.
How Tos and Who-Done-Its
Because time order is essential in things like "How-To" presentations and murder mysteries alike, chronological order is the preferred method for informative speakers. Take for example wanting to explain to a friend how to bake a cake. You could choose another method to explain the process, but putting the steps in order of timing is a much easier method for your audience to follow - and successfully bake the cake.
Similarly, a detective or officer presenting a murder or theft case to his or her team of police would want to retrace the known events of the crime as they occurred rather than bouncing around the case - though the detective may decide to go in reverse chronological order from the act of the crime itself to the earlier detail of the crime scene, allowing the team of sleuths to piece together what data is missing (i.e., what happened between midnight and 12:05 am) as well as determine the likely cause-effect play-by-play that led to the crime in the first place.
In both of these cases, the speaker presents the earliest known important event or occurrence to happen and proceed to detail the following events, in order. The cake maker will, therefore, start with "decide which cake you want to make" followed by "determine and purchase ingredients" while the policeman will start with the crime itself, or the later escape of the criminal, and work backward in time to discover and determine the criminal's motive.
The Narrative Form
The simplest way to tell a story is from the beginning, proceeding in time-sequential order throughout the character's life. Though this may not always be the way a narrative speaker or writer tells the story, it is the most common organizational process used in the narrative form.
As a result, most stories about mankind can be told as simply as "a person was born, he did X, Y, and Z, and then he died" wherein the X, Y, and Z are the sequential events that impacted and affected that person's story after he was born but before he passed away. As X.J. Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy, and Jane E. Aaron put it in the seventh edition of "The Bedford Reader," a chronological order is "an excellent sequence to follow unless you can see some special advantage in violating it."
Interestingly, memoirs and personal narrative essays often deviate from chronological order because this type of writing hinges more upon overarching themes throughout the subject's life rather than the full breadth of his or her experience. That is to say that autobiographical work, largely due to its dependence on memory and recall, relies not on the sequence of events in one's life but the important events that affected one's personality and mentality, searching for cause and effect relationships to define what made them human.
A memoir writer might, therefore, start with a scene where he or she is confronting a fear of heights at age 20, but then flash back to several instances in his or her childhood like falling off a tall horse at five or losing a loved one in a plane crash to infer to the reader the cause of this fear.
When to Use Chronological Order
Good writing relies on precision and compelling storytelling to entertain and inform audiences, so it's important for writers to determine the best method of organization when attempting to explain an event or project.
John McPhee's article "Structure" describes a tension between chronology and theme that can help hopeful writers determine the best organizational method for their piece. He posits that chronology typically wins out because "themes prove inconvenient" due to the sparsity of occurrences that relate thematically. A writer is much better served by the chronological order of events, including flashbacks and flash-forwards, in terms of structure and control.
Still, McPhee also states that "there's nothing wrong with a chronological structure," and certainly nothing to suggest it's a lesser form than thematic structure. In fact, even as long ago as Babylonian times, "most pieces were written that way, and nearly all pieces are written that way now."