Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Craft of Writing: It's About Time

Much is written about the need for writers to outline every aspect of their characters, down to the breakfast cereal they prefer, even if it never shows up in the actual story. To a slightly lesser extent, setting is also emphasized, but, to my mind, not nearly enough attention is paid to the aspect of Time in our stories. Time comes into the writing in two ways: The period in which the story/novel is set and the time that elapses within the story. I feel very strongly that, just as with character and setting, writers need to know the details about Time, even if they are never explicitly set out in words.

Setting the Story
Broadly speaking, all stories take place in either the Past, Present, or Future, but this can be broken down even further. The Past can be historical fiction or a story that takes place within the writer's lifetime like Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. The Future is most often associated with Science Fiction, but in Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty author Tim Sandlin takes us no more than 20 years hence when the Baby Boomer generation will be elderly. This was not a future of intergalactic travel and metallic underwear, but he did need to add a few touches to make it believable.

The majority of stories take place in a nondescript Present or immediate past (he says/he said). Even so, it's important for the writer to have some sense of the year, the season, even the day of the week. My story, "The Foundations of Churchill," is about a once-rural community that is being developed into an exurb of a major city. While this theme is being acted out in real-time across the country and the world, it soon became apparent that in order to ground my story in reality, I needed to decide exactly when it took place. Since I was writing about my own community, I set it back in the 80s, when many of the events it was based on actually occurred. It took a little extra effort working out details like the cars people would drive (SUVs were not nearly so ubiquitous so driving one implied upper middle-class status). I might have gotten away with some generic time period, but getting specific made it feel more real.

Elapsed Time
I'd say nothing screams amateur like unrealistic timing, but I've read published books, particularly thrillers, where the protagonist couldn't possibly have accomplished that much is so little time. Still, I happen to believe that the more parameters a writer places on her work, the more disciplined and well-crafted it will be. If your protagonist leaves home for the city at 10:00 PM, meets up with friends, visits three or four bars, and plays a game of pool, she'd better be returning home in the "wee small hours of the morning" and not sometime after midnight.

The same applies to non-linear stories, for instance, "circular" stories where something triggers a flashback and at the end, the protagonist remains in the same place (or only slightly advanced in place and time). In Fellow Travelers, a book I reviewed for Roses & Thorns, the entire novel, covering several decades of the protagonist's life, is told as a memory exercise while tying his tie––all 300+ pages. On the sublime end of that spectrum is "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff, where the author masterfully slows down time to take us through the protagonist's past.

Follow Through
As with other aspects of a story, once you pick the time, there must be follow through. Say your story opens on Saturday, then make sure your protagonist is doing Saturday things. That is, he's not dressing for work unless he's a work-a-holic and he's not going to church, unless he's particularly pious. And it should go without saying––though sadly it can't––that you need to be careful about changing the day or making the next day Monday instead of Sunday. You'd be surprised at the number of sloppy submissions I've read where the writer didn't pick up on this glaring error.

If you add seasonal specifics, make sure to follow through with that too. In Joyce Carol Oates' "Gargoyle," the main character is driving at night in a wintery mix of snow and rain. At some point it changes to all snow, and the character slows her speed when her car begins to skid. Oates is a pro who realizes that, if the weather/season is to play a part in the story, the reader needs to be reminded throughout. Unfortunately, less professional writers might mention the season or the weather as a plot device then never mention it again.

Finally, of course, if your story is set in the past, make sure to get the details right.FDR going on TV to talk about the market crash is a pretty obvious flub to those of us of a certain age, but in these days of rapidly advancing technology it's easy to forget that as recently as the early 90s a character could not pull out a cell phone when her tire went flat or IM friends about meeting up later at a club. Luckily part of that advancing technology is the Internet. So, when in doubt, look it up.

It's about time.


Angie Ledbetter said...

Interesting! I'll be back when I have more time to read...and especially want to catch your story!

Daniel W. Powell said...

Hey there Nannette,

Nice post. You do a nice job of discussing pacing and narrative duration. I like the blog, and I'll make sure that I check in regularly.

Looking forward to the interview with Ms. Thorp.


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