Saturday, August 25, 2012

Week 35 - Time

26 Aug - 1 Sep: 
Time and tide wait for no man... unless you put the book down and pick it up again tomorrow night, and the story happens to be about the ocean.
The Great Gatsby uses some 450 words relating to time (ref. M. J. Bruccoli, 1992, in The Great Gatsby, Scribner Classics).  Did Fitzerald feel he needed to ground the story by giving it a solid temporal context, or did he intend time as an pervasive theme

Even if you care about the answer less than I do (which is doubtful), one must acknowledge that time is an inescapable element of any story, even if it's subtle or blatantly invisible.

1. From the Outside

1. The reader's time
2. The writer's time

Firstly, I'm going to look at the two unavoidable aspects of time in writing, and how to link them.

The reader will probably not be cognisant of the writer's time, after all, a writer could take six days or six years to complete a manuscript, and who knows what goes on in a writer's mind when he or she is organising time and in what order it is done?

But how important is it for the writer to be aware of the reader's time?

Most readers will read a few chapters before bed, reading many times faster than the writer spent writing it, get on with real life for a day or two, then pick up the book sometime later, probably at bedtime again, and continue this pattern until the book is finished days, weeks or months later.

We all know that a story needs pace to keep up with the reader's reading time, but the story also needs structure to ease the reader's mind back into the story after a day or more away from it, hence, why scene or chapter lengths and scene or chapter beginnings are so important. 

In Elements of Fiction Writing: Setting, Jack M. Bickham suggests briefly reintroducing the reader to the POV character's state-of-mind when we last heard from them, even if that was just a page ago in the last chapter.  Similarly, a familiar setting can be used to keep the reader anchored to the story, not by introducing new details of the setting each time, but by repeating old ones and then elaborating on new ones as the story moves on.

2. From the Inside

Okay, so what about fictional time and its movement within the story itself?

Well, we're all familiar with causal plotting (mentioned way way back in Week 4), that is, this happens, and then that happens, and that causes this to happen etc, regardless of whether the timeframe spans minutes or centuries.   This is a recommended approach for us beginners.

But there are endless, artistic ways to represent time.  Consider these:
  • Diary form;
  • A narration about the past (Fried Green Tomatoes springs to mind);
  • A narration about the future;
  • Flashbacks as major or minor components of the story;
  • Intergenerational tales, (I'm thinking Cane and Abel and Prodigal Daughter or historical family sagas);
  • Parallel plots set in different times;
  • Starting at the outcome, and working backwards through time;
  • Fragmented or pulp writing, that is, scenes that seem to be arranged randomly (sounds like what I'm writing, except that my efforts are not deliberate);
  • Suspension or distortion of time;
  • For those interested in time for biographies or memoirs, look out for Your Life as Story, by Tristine Rainer.

I'm sure there are millions of other ways a writer can use time to support a story - just look at Eric Carle's creative representation of time in The Very Hungry Catepillar.

In How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel, Ernest Acosta recommends that, whatever the approach but especially if the time sequence is complex, a writer should plot a course, and work on finding the right beginning.  He reminds us that flashbacks should not interrupt the flow of the story, and that smooth transitions (the topic for next week) are important.

A. A. Milne and Ernest.H. Shepard, Now We Are Six

I'll finish off with some wise words from some of the sources quoted:

"Time should support, not rule the story" (Ernest Acosta in How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel);

"A fictional character that does not live becomes a robot" (Michael Marsh in How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel);

A story is "life in time and life in values" (E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel).

Exercise 69. Plot a course for a story that experiments with an unfamiliar timing scheme.

Exercise 70.  Consider the well-known Ecclesiastes verse, A Time for Everything.  Pick a line and write a story.
a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.


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