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Tell It Like It Is

If you are going to write a novel rather than a poem or even a short story (although arguably this applies for poetry and stories of all kinds) you better learn how to control time.

Literary time is completely different from clock time. You can zip forward decades, eons even, in one sentence. You can roll back years with a simple flashback set up. You can stop time in a way we can only dream of in our ordinary lives. Most useful you can learn to create a pace that simulates normal earthly time without all the boring details. Time control is one of the most basic building blocks of good writing.
Continuing our discussion of when it’s good to tell, today we’ll talk about speeding ahead.
Transitions aren’t easy. Moving in and out of rooms, and over months can bog writing down. In our real lives, it may take twelve paces to walk from the kitchen to the front door, and days and nights of breakfast, work, lunch, travel, dinner and sleep to pass through May to September. But as far as time is concerned, the real world has no relationship to the world on the page. Story doesn’t require you to take those twelve steps from kitchen to door.
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In fact, unless something crucial happens during that walk story demands you leave the steps out.
But how do you zip characters through time and space without making them seem to be a bunch of escapees from science fiction? By using good craft technique throughout you establish a strong sense of authorial control- a feeling you give the reader that you know what you’re doing and that you’d never teleport a character from kitchen to sidewalk or June to December. A feeling that there is a real life being lived even though every breath is not recorded on the page.
And when you come to the moment of transition you tell.
Here are a few examples-
From Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins-
“For three days he waits in the closet, with only the dust and the socks for company.” (at page 40) The verb “to wait” creates emotional tension, but basically Jenkins is telling us the toy is sitting in the bottom of a closet. It’s a truly lovely sentence, perfect for its purpose, but we are being told what the toy is doing.
From Runaround by Helen Hemphill-
“She barricaded herself in her room and cried all night.” (at page 111) Dramatic, yes, but it’s telling. (Actually this transition sentence occurs in dialogue. I’m not sure if dialogue technically qualifies as telling but for these purposes I’ll say it does.)
From The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry-
“They had all become very accustomed to the FOR SALE CHEAP sign that was still tacked to their window box and to the tacked-on addition that announced the reduction in price.” (at page 105) Lowry tells us what the children were used to and implies a fair bit of time as passed.
From Matilda, by Roald Dahl-
“Six days later, by the following Wednesday evening, she was able not only to lift the cigar up into the air, but also to move it around exactly as she wished.” (at page 214)
I plucked each of these books from my shelves in less than 30 seconds and flipped to these transitions on random pages. I could probably find much more subtle examples if I took more time with each of these books, or searched my collection more thoroughly. But hopefully you get the point. The authors use fascinating telling sentences to move time and make transitions.
Telling doesn’t have to be boring. It isn’t boring if it’s one isolated sentence in a sea of showing, punched up with interesting detail and active verbs. Telling gets dull when it detaches the reader from the action. In each of these examples the telling sentence grabs a reader by the scruff of the neck and pulls him to the next scene.
Tomorrow we’ll either stop time all together or jump backwards. Regardless, get ready to be transported.
Tami Lewis Brown


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 13th, 2008 04:38 pm (UTC)
Actually, I just finished a late draft of a novel that takes place in less than one day... and it still has LOTS of time jumps. To tell the truth manipulating time in small increments was a lot more delicate than having weeks pass. Skipping ten or fifteen minutes again and again is pretty tricky. You can't say "the next few minutes were boring so we're passing right over that because the characters sat around until they were ready to do something else" (Maybe in metafiction, but not in that novel)

Plus, unless at least one character is obsessed with the clock you have to come up with subtle external markers of time going by, but not make it obvious that's what you're doing. In an early draft I posted the time at the begining of each chapter, but I took it out because it felt false. I thought it took the reader out of the spell of the story, like having a flashing alarm clock overhead. I know that does work well in lots of novels.

I found it didn't work consistently to have time gaps between chapters. Chapter arcs didn't fall in neat time increments. Often the action continued across chapters. That could just be a problem with my particular story though.

Also having the characters grow and change significantly in a short time was a different kind of a challenge. But yes, it's a great idea to try any kind of compressed setting, whether time or place. Maybe when that novel is closer to finished I'll do a week of blogging about writing across short periods of time.
May. 13th, 2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
My reply must have swallowed up that reader's comment! I promise I didn't hit delete!

She said:

My dream is to write a book that takes place in just one day so I don't have to deal with major time jumps!

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