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Posted on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 1:34 PM

A chronological design, based on time or order, can solve approach issues in a wide range of assignments.

By Peter Jacobi

Dann Denny is an award-winning feature writer for the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana. The city is where I live. The newspaper is one I serve as part-time freelancer, providing readers with a Sunday column called "Music Beat" and about 150 reviews of musical events annually. Dann Denny is a full-time staffer. Most every story he contributes can probably offer a lesson of value about writing and/or reporting. But I was deeply moved recently by a particular effort which, deservedly, ran on page 1. "Tribute to a hands-on Dad" was its title, and it retraced the embracing, nurturing relationship of a father, who had just died, and his writer son paying tribute.

The feature is a series of memories, starting with the earliest: "I was 3 years old, maybe 4. Dad would place his powerful hands beneath my armpits and hurl me high into the sky. Even at the apex of my flight, suspended in midair, I never felt fear. I knew his hands would catch me upon my descent."

Dann moves forward: "I'm 5. I'm in a swimming pool with my Dad, and his hands are beneath my stomach holding me above water ... I'm 7. I'm watching Dad, who's on his back peering at the underbelly of our leaky dishwasher ... I'm 9 ... I'm 11 ... I'm 13 ... I'm 17 ... I'm 20 ... I'm 30. I'm at my wedding rehearsal dinner. Dad rises to his feet, holding a glass of champagne in his right hand. He says he wants to make a toast. In a quavering voice, he says he hopes I light up Kim's life in the same way I have lit his. Then he sits down and starts rubbing his eyes ... I'm 38 ... I'm 39 ... I'm 58..."

This is the final paragraph: "It's March 24, 2010. Dad died today, more than a half century after he first tossed me into the air. His hands are resting now. But I can feel them still."

A love story has been shared. I'd encourage you to look up the whole piece (March 28, 2010) to be inspired by an account of two entwined lives lived so positively, so productively, so beautifully.

Chronological Years

Dann Denny's memories suggest the course of familial unity and devotion. In format, they also draw attention to a structural technique always available to you as writers and editors: chronology. Not that you want to overuse any story structure, but a chronological design, one based on time or order, can solve approach issues in a wide range of assignments.

Chronology: giving substance to a recipe. Chronology: explaining how a bill becomes law. Chronology: going back-of-the-scene to describe the conceptual origin and development of an art exhibit. Chronology: the steps that must be taken toward a healthier lifestyle. Chronology: a day in the life of someone or something. Chronology gives order to a series of events or to a process. Order, in turn, gives comfort to a reader striving to understand a topic with multiple elements.

Chronological Days

The New York Times recently ran, on its first page, "Diary of a Queens Pay Phone, Where a Link to Life Costs 25 Cents." Manny Fernandez, the author, reminds us that the public pay phone is a dying entity. "And yet," he notes, "this grimy phone -- in a silvery booth that Superman would have skipped over, for it is door-less and not fully enclosed - survives and, in its own nickel-and-dime way, thrives."

He continues: "Those who stepped into the booth last Thursday and Friday provided a snapshot of New York's pay phone user... They were mostly men, as young as 18 and as old as 62. They were Hispanic, black, white, Arab. Several said they were unemployed and could not afford a cellphone. Others owned a cellphone but did not have it for one reason or another ... .They called their mothers. The machine served not so much as a lifeline as a simple landline, with life."

The story follows use across those two selected days, from Thursday morning to Friday night. You'll have to read the story (February 13, 2010) to get details of those who called and whom they were trying to reach and what they said and why. The story will move you; it will intrigue you. And it comes to you in chronology.

Chronological Hours

I'll go back a couple of years -- to July 25, 2008 -- for an "American Idol top 10 hit the road to stardom" feature in USA Today, by Marco R. della Cava. Again, the article has been laid out in chronological form. This time, the coverage deals with just part of a day, specifically starting at "1 p.m., when a convoy of unmarked luxury tour buses pulls up to Allstate Arena, disgorging 10 American Idol finalists in search of a career." The arena is in Rosemont, Illinois.

At 1:40, according to a subtitle, "Mobs of fans greet their arrival in Chicago." At 2:30, it's "Time for a quick bite to eat - and a few quick laughs." At 4:10, there's "More meeting, more greeting, more signing." Rehearsals follow at 5:25. At 7:24, "It's showtime, and the livin' ain't easy." "Archuleta brings the show to a crescendo" at 8:55. At 10:50, the entertainers entertain "More fans" with "more autographs." And come 12:05 a.m., they're "On the road again."

Yes, it's a "day-in-the-life-of" piece, like so many others I've read across the years, each one effective, at least if and when the specifics employed for substance have resulted in individuality: "A Day in the Life of a Department Store Santa," "A Day in the Life of a Newsstand." "A Day in the Life of Hollywood," "A Day in the Life of China," "72 Hours in the Life of a College Team," "Seven Days in the Life of the City," "A Week in the Life of a Day-Care Center," "Seven Days and Seven Nights Alone with MTV," "Murder, A Week in the Death of America," "A Year in the Life of a Painting," and "An Hour in the Life of a Retail Manager."

Narrative is Chronological

As I state in my book, The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It (Indiana University Press):

"A narrative is chronological. It happens in time. Even if you employ flashbacks, you offer a series of events or happenings that become consecutive. If you have a story to tell, an event to relate, chronology becomes your means from a beginning to an ending.

"How-to articles also lend themselves to chronological treatment. They involve sequential activities. Therefore, think chronology, the technique of the storyteller."

Yes, think chronology.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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