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Time - our favourite dimension

Last week we were all set to talk about time, when Markus Dohle of PRH and some Italian pigs’-bladder-kickers got in the way.

This week, however, we’re back to our favourite dimension and how to use it. Oh, and incidentally, although I always talk about novels as though that’s all that matters, the issues here are deeply important in narrative non-fiction too, where they tend to crop up a lot.

The idea for this email arose from my self-editing webinar the other day. One of the pieces we looked at was particularly well-written. It had some really good phrases in it, good use of vocabulary, and a great little story to tell. (Ordinary Yorkshireman in the late sixteenth century is called up to fight in a foreign war. He doesn’t want to go, but is compelled to do so.)

But the particular snippet under our microscope didn’t work. The prose had great content everywhere you looked, but the air leaked out anyway, a tyre too flat to pump up.

The problem is common. The solution is easy. And the technique for solving it is universal. Here goes:

The problem

Let’s say there are three chunks of time you want to talk about. Just to mix things up a bit, let’s say our story is about Melinda. She’s a pharmacist’s assistant in Alabama. Her husband, Bill, is a forklift driver, but also a former serviceman who is technically still a reservist for the US Army. The army wants him to go to Afghanistan. He doesn’t want to go, but he’s gotta. Off he trots, leaving Melinda at home. To add a little cajun seasoning to all this, Melinda and Bill haven’t long been married and Melinda is pregnant.

The sequence we need to manage is therefore as follows:

  1. The period after getting married. Bill’s merrily forklifting around. Melinda’s happily getting pregnant, assisting pharmacists and planting dahlias. This period is maybe six months, or something like that.
  2. Bill gets called up. He tries to fight the summons – tries to get a court order, or something. There’s some kind of legal process, but he never stands a chance. All this evolves over a month or two.
  3. Bill forks off to Afghanistan. Melinda’s left at home, heavily pregnant, looking at her dahlias and feeling that life has already gone off the rails.

Now, to be clear, none of this stuff is THE story. It’s effectively a prelude to the action that the author really wants to talk about. But all these elements of the prelude matter, of course. Quite clearly, Bill and Melinda’s feelings about their situation would be utterly different if they were in the midst of a tangled divorce and Bill couldn’t wait for any opportunity to get away.

So we need a way to lay out these elements in a way which prepares us properly for the story to come.

Here are three ways we could do it.

The method condensed

We could handle the entire sequence in a single paragraph or so. Crucially, we’ll avoid any real attempt to give depth of flavour to any of the individual segments. The result will be that the whole thing reads like a single episode – perhaps something like this:

Those first months of married life contained the joys and annoyances usual to the state. [One or two sentences describing that period.] All that, however, was ended – abruptly, rudely, even – by an envelope bearing the insignia of the US Army Reserve Corps. The letter inside informed ‘Sgt. Gates’ that he was being called up for a six-month tour in Afghanistan, the tour he had been promised would never happen. They fought, of course. Launched an appeal against the summons. But the appeal was brushed away. The cruel date arrived. Bill, in uniform, left the house. Melinda cried. Bill promised to write. They told each other that six months wasn’t really that long. But Bill drove away and Melinda was left behind. She was five months’ pregnant.

That’s all fine.

You might, optionally, wish to break that out into two paragraphs, and of course you’ll edit and adjust that prose as much as you wish.

But look what we haven’t done. We haven’t got specific about place and time until the very end of the period in question (“the cruel date arrived. Bill … left the house.”)

The result is that the reader hears “Ah, yes, some good general blah about what things are like after marriage, and NOW – when we get specific about place and time – that’s when our story properly kicks off again.” In effect, the story uses a bit of compressed telling-type language (telling the reader about those post-wedding months) followed by a jump back into showing (time and place specific) at the end. The jump into specificity signals to the reader, "Here's where the story restarts."

That strategy works.

Here’s another way to do things:

The method discursive

This is the opposite strategy.

You take each period – post marriage / fighting the call-up / departure for Afghanistan and the months after that – and give them proper page space. How much is up to you. I’d say a good length paragraph would be the minimum, but if you wanted to write a page or two on the honeymoon period of the marriage, that would be fine.

If you adopt this approach, it’s fine to drop some specifics in there. This sort of thing:

It was a broiling August day. Melinda was rocking on the porch, eating grits, brewing moonshine, fixing her pickup truck and generally demonstrating her hatred of deep South clichés. The postman arrived, as ever with a wad of chew-tobacco tucked inside his lower lip. ‘Seems like the Army got some business with your Bill,’ he drawled…

You can get away with that dab of specificity, because you have given yourself the space to deal with the specific moment, then pull back to a more general discussion of the aftermath, before moving on to the next period.

That strategy also works. Whether you use this option or the one before is really up to you. What’s the right balance for your story? Only you can feel your way into answering that question. (And, by the way, your answer may well change as you come to re-edit the book as a whole. When you first answer the question, you can’t feel the weighting of the whole book. When you do have a sense of that, your first guess about what works may prove wrong.)

But there’s one more strategy you might choose to follow. It’s this:

The method calamitous

This is where you try to combine the two approaches. Where you seek to handle everything in a condensed way, but still try to insert real specifics about time, place, and mood.

This approach always fails. It induces a kind of sea-sickness in the reader. And the reason is that you are making multiple very frequent switches between telling-type prose (condensed, summary, economical) and showing-type prose (time- and place-specific, detailed, discursive.)

Of course, every book can and does switch between those two modes, but you can’t switch too fast and too often in a limited space.

The Method Condensed works, because you basically avoid showing-type language until the very end of the section – that is, when you are ready to dive back into your story proper.

The Method Discursive works, because your switching between modes is quite widely separated – by several paragraphs, perhaps even a page or two.

You almost need to think about the showing / telling switch in the same way as you would handle a switch between character viewpoints. You can do it, yes. But you can’t do it abruptly. You can’t do it screechily, with smoke coming from your handbrake.

That’s it from me.

I have a cunning idea for folding time in on itself which should give me an extra two hours lie-in on Friday mornings. I’m going to need a large amount of liquid helium and a docile test subject …

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Comments (8)
    • I'm not docile, but I'd love to be a test subject. 😆 

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      • Nice subject this week. 

        My choice would and has been thus far, to reveal the facts as we go along as part of the dialogue. Show not tell is, I think, the Jericho mantra, and should be every writer's mantra. I know we can't always go that route, and sometimes when we can it just doesn't work as well. 

        I like to bring the future back to the present. But when that future comes to pass naturally, later on, it then gets shown in a light not previously seen. Two for the price of one. 

        As to helium, best not go there. Death is final, a bit like taxes and the Inland Revenue. An easier way to get two extra hours in bed is to change time zones as you sleep. If you had the time, some disposable income, and can crack the problem of travelling at the speed of light, I believe you could have unlimited time in bed, relative to others. But why waste time in bed?

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        • It’s a shame the method calamitous doesn’t work, because of the three it surely has the best name. Hey ho. As the write of said calamitously-approached snippet I’m looking out for an honourable mention if ever Bill and Melinda make it into print. But in the meantime I’m weighing and balancing and re-weighing the virtues of the condensed and the discursive.

          PS I’ve accidentally misled you. It wasn’t a war against Spain at all. By 1591 it was the religious wars in France that apparently required bands of reluctant English soldiers.

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          • Ha! I thought there was some post-Armada Dutch / Spanish / English embroilment - my bad. But back then, I think there was some law which made it compulsory to have at least one war with France every fifty years. A target we probably mostly exceeded. When did we get rid of that law anyway? Or are we just piling up a lot of wars?

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          • I like Paul Campbell's idea, with starting with the main story and introducing the back-story with intercutting. Something I've used has been introspection - Our hero finds himself in a war, doesn't want to be there, sits and dwells, casting him mind back to ...the back-story. OK Harry?

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            • I'm tempted by your approach, Paul Campbell, but a nagging voice asks; if I go in feet first why would the reader care about what happens to the combatant(s)? Can I safely ignore that voice?!

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