Time Times Two

This is my second post about time. As time goes by, maybe there will be more.

When you’re considering the time span of your whole story, intensity is a variable. If a few characters are trapped together (think of a stuck elevator, a haunted house, a jury room), everything will be compressed. Your characters will be forced to reveal themselves quickly. They don’t have to form long-term bonds. They need only to solve the crisis. The story may take place in just a few hours or a few days. The urgency creates tension – delightful for the writer.

Out in the world, where you do want some of your characters to form deep relationships, you need more time. In the mystery novel I’m working on (which I just finished the first draft of, hooray!) Elodie, my main character, is given refuge by Meenore, another major character. As soon as Elodie is safe, the mystery begins and they separate again. Wrong! They haven’t formed a bond yet. As I revise, I have to build in a few days, maybe a week, for them to get accustomed to each other, and I have to work in some tension while they do.

My Mesopotamian fantasy, Ever, was inspired by the bible story of Jephtha and his daughter. Kids, this is a disturbing tale. If you look it up, you may want to discuss it with a trusted adult. For our purposes you need only know that Jeptha’s daughter has two months before something horrible is going to happen to her. My book isn’t much like the bible story. Among the many changes I made was shortening the two months to one. Two months felt squishy. One month felt tight. Enough time for relationships to form, not so much that boredom sets in.

On to short-term time– Take this scene: Three friends go out for ice cream. I want to demonstrate what they’re like, so we see that Bree can’t decide among four flavors. She twists a strand of hair around her finger and enumerates what she likes and dislikes about each flavor. Vanilla is too plain but also pure. Chocolate has to be rich but not too rich, sweet but not too sweet. And so on. Luna interrupts to order a scoop of mocha in a cone, no sprinkles. Tim tells Bree she has to make up her mind because he wants to have a scoop of whatever each of them has, which sends Bree into more agonies of indecision while Luna tells him he needs to find out what he likes, not what they like, and he thanks her for the lecture. We’ve learned something about each of them, but I’m stuck in real time in the ice cream store. They have to pay, and there’s got to be shtick about that, because Tim has only forty-eight cents, and Luna gets mad when she learns that the store doesn’t take credit cards for purchases under twenty dollars.

Five pages have gone by, and even if I ever get them out of the store, there are a million diversions on the street. What to do?

First of all, I don’t have to lay the detail on quite so thick. Bree can dither among three flavors or even two, for example. But detail is good, so I don’t want to cut too much.

I can just pick a point in the dialogue and hit an extra space bar to create a gap and start again at a later time or in a different place. This works best if the last speaker says something that rings at least a little bit final.

Or I can wrench the story away with a statement like, After half an hour, the three left the store and separated for the day, each one IMing the others by the time they were two yards apart. This introduces telling rather than showing, but that’s okay. Nonstop showing is impossible.

If I’m writing from the point of view of a character rather than an omniscient narrator, my POV character can help. I can imagine Luna saying, “Enough! I’m out of here.” She leaves and I’m gone too. It’s cool when I can do it that way.

Or, an omniscient narrator can simply jump in with something like Meanwhile, across town.

Sometimes I can bring the real-time segment to a crisis, and this is my favorite technique. Suppose Bree thinks Luna is bossy, and Luna is feeling that everyone is criticizing her. If I have Bree say, “Yes, Mommy,” Luna might blow up. If the friendship is important to the story, Luna’s explosion might be powerful enough to end the chapter. Then, ta da! you can start the next chapter at a later point.

Anyway, it’s not so bad if you do go on too long. In early drafts you can let a scene drag, finish it finally, and keep writing. When you revise, you’ll be better able to judge what to cut and what to keep. Just don’t do what I often do: tinker forever to get the segue just right. Then, later, I find that the whole scene is unnecessary and cut it.

It also helps simply to be aware of time. How many minutes and hours are ticking by during a scene or chapter? Is it still morning? Has time arrived for a meal? Is everybody getting hungry? Are they starving because a week has gone by and you (or I) haven’t fed them?

As I revise my mystery, I’m going to write a chronology by days in a separate document. For each day I’ll list the events that happened. I should have done this in the first draft, but I’ll do it now. I have time.

Time Out

After my last post, Erin Edwards commented:

“How you do handle gaps in the time line, or resist showing what the character does every second of every day? I think I’ve almost got the day to day stuff figured out but I wonder how you cover it.

“Right now I’m working on describing a longer passage of time without being boring and trying to give some indication of what the main character was doing. I’m also trying to figure out how long a passage of time I should have this way too. So in a way, I guess my question is about deciding time lines in general.”

I struggle constantly with the long and short of time. I’ll start with the long and talk about the short next week.

For an absolutely masterly handling of time – if you’re a grown-up or in high school at least – read The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, which I just finished. The book spans about a hundred years, but always feels immediate. The prose is gorgeous and the story intriguing.

Some story structures make handling time easy: epistolary novels (novels in letters or e-mails), novels told in journals or diaries, novels in which each chapter covers a specified period (the first chapter may be March, the second April, and so on).

For other sorts of stories, abridging time involves telling, not showing, using such phrases as The next day, A week passed, A month went by. You can also accomplish this with a theme, like the seasons, as in, Winter ended, and mud season began. Mud season ended, and black fly season began. Or a school theme, like, The second graders filled the corridors with fallen-leaf collages. Fallen leaves morphed into jack-o-lanterns. Jack-o-lanterns became Santa Clauses. But however you do it, skipping a stretch of time inevitably pulls the reader out of the story a little, and you will probably have to fill her in on what she missed.

Here’s how I do it at the beginning of Chapter Nineteen in Fairest:

A week passed. The mood in the castle was bleak. The corridor troubadours sang of pain and grief. Whenever I illused for Ivi I was sure the word trickster would appear on my forehead, spelled out in glaring blush-red. I feared sneezing or hiccupping or fainting. I felt dizzy and feverish.

It’s all tell, no show, very direct. That’s okay. Notice that everything in my summary focuses on the tension that’s moving the story forward. Keeping the tension center stage will help your reader stay interested. Suppose, for example, your characters are preparing for a siege. You can enumerate the preparations that took place during the gap. Sheep were brought in from distant pastures. The armorers repaired damaged weapons. Townspeople packed to move into the castle. A string of five or six of these events will make the reader feel up to date. Naturally, if a siege is looming, you won’t update the reader about the progress of the castle seamstress on the princess’s ball gown. Stick to what the reader is worrying about, the siege.

Your break in continuity should be as short as you can make it. The lengthier it is, in general, the likelier you are to lose your reader. If the gap is years or hundreds of years, you have a challenge I’ve never dealt with, and I would try not to plot a story this way.

Still, it won’t be so hard if the main character continues at the end of the elapsed time, because the reader will still care about him – Rip Van Winkle, for example. If he’s in a time capsule along with all the other important characters, then time matters a little, but not much. But if only the main character remains, the reader will have to adjust to a new time and new people.

If even the main character is gone when the story resumes, I would approach starting the next section as if I were starting an entirely new book and would draw the reader in with a new beginning. A page that says just “Part Two” or “Part Three” will also help prepare the reader.

Isaac Asimov does a fabulous job with multiple long time breaks in his Foundation series about the death of a worn-out civilization and the birth of a vibrant new one. He sets up two groups to bring the next civilization into being, the First Foundation and the Second. Although the characters don’t survive each time jump, the Foundations remain, and the reader wants to see what happens to them. The lesson from Asimov: Build an overarching, impending catastrophe as your temporal bridge.

Everything in writing is possible. You will discover your own ways to manage extended time, or you may already know a few. Please comment with your ideas. Have fun, and save your comments!