The beauty of Big Time – and a dialogue request
I was going to talk dialogue this week, only then I noticed the date. The last Friday of August, a tipping point for the year. The last golden breath of summer. The last week of vacation, before:
- Return to school
- Blackberry collecting
- Apple scrumping
- Hello again to socks
- Hedges gather little jewels of purple and red (haws, sloes, damsons, crabapples, all of which are abundant near me)
- Tints of yellow in the leaves
- The long poles of cow parsley have dried out
I live rurally in the fine county of Oxford and – if you have the misfortune to live anywhere else at all – my experience of late summer and early autumn will be different from yours. So, I don’t know, if you live in Australia, you probably associate this season with even more massive spiders than usual, yellow dust storms that last a month, the croc vs kangaroo Olympics, and the chatter of wallabies high up in the eucalyptuses. (Disclosure: I have never been to Australia, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the country nailed.)
Now we’re talking about time this week, but first a little announcement:
We’ll talk about dialogue next week, and we’ll do that via your own submissions.
Give me some chunks of dialogue to examine next week. Here are the rules:
- Drop your offerings into the comments below this post.
- Max 300 words per submission, please.
- One submission per person.
- Make sure you give us a line or two of explanation first off, so we can understand the context of your scene.
- Don’t email me anything. If it ain’t on Townhouse, I ain’t looking at it.
- If you pop anything in the comments below, I'm gonna assume you're OK me RIPPING YOUR WORK APART MERCILESSLY IN PUBLIC. If you're not, then keep your tin hat on and your head below that sandbag parapet.
- Specifically, your work and my comments on it may appear in an email to a lot of people, here on Townhouse and potentially one day in a book. If you don't want that happen, then please see above in relation to tin hats and parapets.
I only pick work that I basically like, though, so if I pick your work, you're doing OK.
Now back to time:
Movies struggle with Big Time. They can do day to day stuff easily. We see a character going to bed. We see them eating a croissant and drinking coffee. The audience easily conjectures that this is the morning after. Boof.
But Big Time? For movies, that’s hard. The old Hitchcock era movies used to handle those things by pages flipping off a wall calendar, shots of the changing seasons. (Wind! The universal signal of autumn. Snow! The universal signal of winter. And so on.)
Now all that’s a bit crass, a bit heavy. These days, movie makers attempt something slicker, even if it’s just a caption at the bottom of the screen or a speeded-up, CGI of the wind-snow-crocuses model of passing time.
You, a novelist, don’t have the same problem. If you want to tell the reader it was two years later, you can just say “Two years passed.” That’s simple, clean narration. It doesn’t have that CGI, calendar flying clunkiness. No one will resent your simple captioning.
But time offers so much more. It’s not a problem to be dealt with, but a dimension to be embraced. Think of it like place, a silent character, a huge extra richness in your broth.
Here are some examples of how you can use it – but there are a million more. Think of these examples as mere appetite prompters.
Changes in weather is a technique so obvious, it could come close to a flipping calendar in terms of crassness. But it really doesn’t have to be like that. The novel of mine that made most use of the weather was Love Story, with Murders. There, I carefully seeded the earlier chunks of the book with hints of chill and forecasts of something much colder on the way.
Then, before the cold had actually arrived, my character was fussing around with giant red snow shovels and the like, but in a context where those things felt odd and out of place.
Then – the snow arrived. Canadian levels of snow and cold in a country that doesn’t normally get much of either. The snow wrought huge changes in the landscape, but also in Fiona’s life.
Alone in a remote cottage with inadequate provisions, she is forced to adapt her diet:
Make tea. There’s nothing herbal here, so I make do with a regular tea-bag. No milk either, so just brew a pint of hot, black tea in a huge pottery mug. Contrary to my usual habit, I add sugar, to take away the taste of the metallic mountain water, the strongly tannined tea. It tastes like sweetened bog-water, but is nevertheless somehow welcome. A comfort against the cold.
That’s not strictly about either weather or time, and yet it is both. By compelling us to register change, we notice both the cold and the time. And those changes register not just in feelings-of-being-chilly and making-of-log-fires, but also in unexpected ways – earthenware cups and sweet, tannined tea. Time and the cold become multidimensional: they disrupt habits, force giant earthenware cups into our hands, change the taste of tea.
And then, of course, time and the story proceed.
Fiona almost dies in the cold. And then the snow melts, and she encounters her normal landscape, post-snow with its dirty urban water and gritted streets.
Because the changes of weather were viscerally felt by the character herself, the timescape in the book also registered acutely. And the felt passage of time is so close to the actual experience of story, the reader ends up having a deeper experience than they otherwise would. It’s kind of magical, but it definitely happens.
My Lieutenant’s Lover began a love story in St Petersburg in 1917 – separated the characters for a quarter of a century – then brought them together again in post-War Berlin.
Any love story needs to achieve the ache of longing, and there are probably more subtle techniques than the one I used. But dropping two world wars, one revolution, plenty of gulag, and a thousand miles of separation between the two characters certainly did the trick. A character only had to glance back over that past – a sentence, two sentences – for the reader to feel the scale of the loss and the longing.
And all those little markers of age – an attractive seventeen-year-old girl turning into a middle-aged Red Army sergeant – made that weight of time present on every page
Also, my choice of time and place meant that the physical world always reflected the passage of time. The Berlin of my love story was a place of rubble. The factory that had once belonged to my male protagonist was so completely bombed out that virtually nothing remained. A youth using its slim remaining shelter christened it the Nichtsfabrik, the Nothing Factory.
That book with its huge, tragic timescape, just felt big to a reader. It wasn’t (by my standards) massively long, but the love story took on an epic quality simply by virtue of the passing years – and the weight with which the readers felt those years.
One of my books, some time back, was struggling in its near-to-final draft. Everything that needed to be there was there. The story had no fundamental problems, but it didn’t yet have the iron hardness of something ready to print.
A couple of things fixed that book. One was just hard editing. Literally, an edit that looked for and deleted spare words, eliminated unwanted sentences. My character’s voice is always taut, even if my writing’s only at 95%. But that extra 5% brought that tautness to a line of constant tension. A glittering brightness.
But the other thing was: nailing the timeline. Figuring out if the gap between Event A and Event B was four days or five days and being explicit about it. The surprising thing about correcting that timeline was that I’d unconsciously been avoiding proper description, because I knew I was blurry about time. So if my character was out and about in central Cardiff, and I didn’t know what day of the week it was, I’d pull back from really describing the streets. A Wednesday quietness? Or a Saturday bustle? The hubbub of a rugby match at the Millennium Stadium? Or pensioners enjoying a discounted Thursday morning haircut?
The precision of timing didn’t just help my readers sort timings through in their heads. More important, it helped me. That last twist of the lens helped achieve that final, defining focus.
That book turned out a good ’un in the end.
That’s it from me. The blackberries are early this year, but not sweet. I think we need a day or two of sunshine. Which, oh my merry non-British friends, is something you can completely and utterly rely on in the fine county of Oxford.
Don't forget I want to see your dialogue snippets. Chuck em below. Follow them thar rules above.