Ambrose Bierce's story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" features a fascinating narrative structure. The story's first section presents a man about to be hung. This man is already standing on a railroad bridge with a rope around his neck. The soldiers around him finish their preparations as the man thinks of his family. He thinks that if he could only free his hands, he might have some chance to escape. Then the sergeant steps aside as a sign to let the man drop.
This beginning in media res, in the midst of things, is effective for its drama and its mystery. It pulls readers into the story and gives them just enough information to understand a little of what is going on. It also allows readers to feel the emotion of the main character even though they do not yet know his name or anything about him. They are already caught up in his story, and they want to know what will happen next.
But Bierce doesn't continue the story just yet. The second part of the tale flashes back to formally introduce readers to Peyton Farquhar and to show how he ended up standing on the bridge. He said too much to a federal scout, and he was caught in a plan of sabotage. This little sequence provides necessary background information but also heightens the suspense of the story. Now that readers know about Peyton Farquhar, they are even more interested in what happens to him and they understand better why he is on the verge of being hanged.
The next section returns to the present as Peyton Farquhar falls down from the bridge and loses consciousness. Readers follow with interest as Farquhar seems to escape, swimming away under a hail of gunfire and returning home. But just as Farquhar is ready to run into his wife's arms, he feels a blow to the back of his neck and sees a white light. Then the scene shifts back to reveal Peyton Farquhar hanging dead from the Owl Creek bridge.
This narrative structure, which breaks chronology and seems to blend the real with the imagined and desired visions of a dying man, is effective for enhancing the story's drama. Had Bierce chosen a straight chronological approach, readers would have missed out on the buildup of tension that the first scene and the flashback provide. His chosen structure packs a much more dramatic punch and leaves the reader almost gasping for breath by the end of the tale, which is a surprise for most on their first read. Indeed, Bierce is a master of suspense, and his narrative choices contribute to his success in that area.