Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Time: Is It Still There?

As I was writing today, I was thinking about how sometimes, time must pass. Sometimes, time must stretch, and sometimes it must be skipped or summarized. Story time isn't proportional. A minute can take two pages; four months can take a single page.

We all know we can skip every detail. (Do forgive my off-the-cuff examples, please!) We don’t want:

He walked across the room. He put his hand on the doorknob. He turned the doorknob. He stepped back and pulled open the door.

Boring! (Note how good I am at coming up with a boring example, LOL!)

On the other hand, sometimes we can use that sort of exaggerated telling of every detail to stretch out time. Sometimes making a mountain out of every second can build suspense:

Someone pounded at the door.

He closed his eyes for a moment, wishing this didn't have to happen now. He checked his watch, even though they hadn’t made an appointment: they weren’t the type.

His daughter wouldn’t pound, and--thank God--she was at a friend’s house. His wife was gone, gone for good. What would she think?

Knock, knock. More curt this time. Almost polite.

He stood, glanced at the window. Reminded himself he couldn’t jump ten stories and survive. Reminded himself he wanted to survive.

He wished, for a moment, that it could be an old friend. Maybe Danny, still young, still fresh-faced and mischievous, still asking him if he could come outside and play. But he had no friends left, not since--

“Open up!”

A single, harsh knock splintered the wood.

He walked to the door, put his hand on the cold, sharp metal of the lock. Even as the pins tumbled, his mind searched for an escape. He moved his hand to the doorknob, but he was too slow.

The door crashed open.

Sometimes, passing time must be summarized. It wouldn’t make sense to be in a scene like that, and then say, “Four months later, he got the money."

Time needs to pass. It can't be perfectly proportional, but I can't spend two pages on one minute and then one line on four months.

It went on like that for weeks, again and again. They came. They knocked. They demanded the money he didn’t have. They always beat him until he submitted, until things went foggy and he passed out.

He could run. Hide. Disappear.

But it was better this way, better for his daughter. If he ran, he’d be running for life. He’d never get to watch her dance in The Nutcracker, never get to see her squeal when she got her toe shoes for Christmas, never get to kiss her boo-boos and make them all better. Not that she'd let him do that anymore. She was too old for that, she'd say. He thought she was too old for her age, too brooding for one so young, too street-smart to enjoy her time of childhood. It was all his fault.

So he opened the door every week.

At first, they were content to yell, throw a few punches, knock him out. They had a pattern: first one cheek, then the other, then a few good ones to the stomach. They made a wreck of the knee he'd messed up playing football and gave him more than his share of concussions.

Then boredom set in.

They got creative, had some fun taunting him, humiliating him, threatening him with that damned fancy Santoku knife his wife had spent a fortune on. It didn't take them long to enjoy its versatility: just a little cut here, a little slice there…

Um, okay, I’ll stop there. I have to write real stuff, LOL. My point is that sometimes we need to summarize time rather than just cut to four months later. That whole “four months later” thing in italics at the beginning of a new chapter doesn’t really do it for me.

I don’t know how to think of the proportions except to feel them. Am I passing time and boring a reader? Am I not passing enough of it? Is it passing too quickly? Am I missing moments to make a mountain out of? Am I making a mountain out of one boring molehill? Where should I summarize? Where should I jump ahead? Where should I draw out the suspense?

How do you know that sort of thing without just feeling it?

How do you pass the time?

26 bonus scribbles:

david mcmahon 2/03/2009 09:08:00 PM  

Came here from Charles Gramlich's site.

There's always time to write!!

Anonymous,  2/03/2009 11:24:00 PM  

Ugh. I hate this one. It's the hardest for me to do. I'll get in a groove, doing the detailed checking-watch-thinking-through thing and then find myself at a place I need to quit doing that. (Does that make sense?)

And at what point is it important how people move through a room (for example) and just that they do?

"I don't know why you're here," she said quietly, gliding to his side.

He brushed her off, stood, and walked toward the window. "Sure you do."

She sucked in her cheeks, considering whether she should move swiftly to his side or sink to her knees in torrential sobs because she didn't have a friggin' clue how to get this scene moving.

Well, anyway.

So, spy, keep talking about it and putting up such good examples - 'cause, I have to learn from someone!!

Edie 2/04/2009 12:14:00 AM  

Wow! I think the guy should have packed up his daughter and moved. lol

I start Chapter Six in my wip with these three words: Six years later Then I double space twice and start the scene.

Anonymous,  2/04/2009 12:38:00 AM  

I do okay with the "and then three months passed" kind of transitions, (I have a habit of marking it with seasons and holidays...it's worked well so far), but I have a harder time with the more minor passages of time and action. I once spent three full days trying to figure out how the hell to get my protagonist down the stairs. I'd written her in the apartment, I'd written her in her driveway; I just needed to get her down the damn stairs and to the driveway, and I couldn't figure out how.


"I grabbed my purse and clomped down the stairs."

It's not like it was rocket science.

Bevie 2/04/2009 04:19:00 AM  

Perhaps I'm wrong, but my feeling is that if a scene ends, it is all right to restart in the future. Without that sense of completion Readers are left wondering just what the h*ll happened to the story.

At the same time, it's risky to jump too far. Readers can get the sense they are not being given enough of the story. This, I think, is more genre driven.

May be wrong. Generally, my method for dealing with forward jumps in time is to try and do it casually.

The follwowing day...

She spent the next two weeks...

Or, if I can, I let the characters reveal the time difference through their dialogue.

The story dictates. It's not an exact science. It's art. As you said, you have to feel it.

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 09:13:00 AM  

Hi, David! Nice to meet you!

I sure hope so, LOL!

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 09:14:00 AM  

Aerin, I know what you mean! And, HAH! "or sink to her knees in torrential sobs because she didn't have a friggin' clue how to get this scene moving."

Sheesh, if I'd known that, I woulda put up examples from someone really good!

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 09:15:00 AM  

So true, Edie! LOL! And, you know, I don't often like it, but like everything, it sometimes works. I'd be my money it works where you did it!

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 09:17:00 AM  

Oh, RJ, that is so funny! That happens to me all too often. When I'm writing, I will sometimes leave the transition out completely, and smooth things out the next day. That way I keep writing, LOL!

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 09:18:00 AM  

Bevie, there's something I need to work on: ending a scene. I suddenly feel like I've forgotten how. Maybe that's why it's striking me as awkward. I don't know. I think because I'm thinking about it, it's freaking me out, LOL!

Aimless Writer 2/04/2009 12:07:00 PM  

This is hard. It almost feels like cheating when we blow time away in a sentence or two. But, alas, sometimes its necessary. You did a good job. The rest of the passage kept me so involved I didn't care about the four months. I only cared about the character.

um...could we read more?

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 12:20:00 PM  

I do struggle with this, Aimless. I'm definitely not a person who is good with time, LOL!

More? I wasn't kidding when I said this was off-the-cuff. I don't even know this character's name!

Robin 2/04/2009 01:19:00 PM  

I loved your examples! I find this discussion really helpful. Thanks!

I think I do it by feel, and if I'm jumping ahead I give yours and Bevie's sorts of beginnings, "She spent the next several weeks ..."

Sometimes I'm giving a play by play of my MC's actions and I pull myself back and say, "Enough! Nobody wants to hear about her bowel movements!"

Amy Nathan 2/04/2009 01:26:00 PM  

For me it works to sometimes elude to elapsed time.

She didn't think about him for the next four months - and then...

You have to go to school today, you've missed a whole week.

Make sense? I want my reader to know what happened, at least sort of, in the time not written. I think you can jump - especially after a big event or change. Because even in real life we settle into routines and then poof - a while later there's something going on.

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 01:36:00 PM  

Hah, Robin, that's hilarious! So true! You know, you guys all have me wondering how I actually do this. I feel like I need to go back and study my stories and rethink this!

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 01:37:00 PM  

Definitely, Amy. A story can expand over a whole lifetime, and we definitely need to skip a lot! I'm going to notice this more. You guys have turned an old blog post into a fascinating topic.

Lauren 2/04/2009 02:21:00 PM  

Great post. You should reuse that as a start of a book. I really want to know why are these people mad at him, what will happen to his little girl.

Also, relevant post for me as I am dealing with this very issue right now as my main character is traipsing through the woods on a long journey.

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 02:40:00 PM  

Oooh, a journey book. That sounds fabulous, Lauren!

Oddly, I'm not sure why this came out the way it did. I'm not writing this genre and have no plans to in the near future. I'm not even writing in this voice anymore. It just seemed suitable since I started with that particular boring example.

Besides, it has a few plot holes you could drive a truck through. :-)

Avery DeBow 2/04/2009 04:57:00 PM  

Whenever I have a problem with figuring out how to jump a time gap, I'll finish writing up until that point, drop down two lines and write, "Blah, blah, transition thingy," in bold capitalization. Then, I make two more returns and pick up the next scene. I find once I'm not turning that particular sticking point into the lynchpin of my day's achievements, a decent resolution eventually surfaces.

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 05:05:00 PM  

Avery, that's exactly what I do! Well, I don't write that, I just make about ten or so returns, then keep going. No time for stopping and sitting and wondering! I can do that in the shower. :-)

Melanie Avila 2/04/2009 06:02:00 PM  

I want to read this book!

I don't seem to have too much trouble with time transitions, but then again I've only written 1.5 books. :) If you write the way the example is laid out, I'd say you're doing well.

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 06:25:00 PM  

Melanie, I thought you do it seamlessly. Sometimes I feel like if I try to figure out how I do something, my ability to do it and see it disappears! I actually feel less confident since I wrote this post!

Kath Calarco 2/04/2009 06:35:00 PM  

Spy, beautiful examples!

I'm not sure how I pass time, but sometimes I think it's by reading blogs, lol.

spyscribbler 2/04/2009 06:48:00 PM  

Hah, Kath! That's funny! I know exactly what you mean! :-)

Georgie B 2/04/2009 07:22:00 PM  

Very carefully.

Seriously, most of the stuff I write takes place in a compressed time frame.

For example, my novel covered a time frame of exactly one week in the main plot and one weekend in the secondary.

I find if I try to jump ahead too much in the time frame, I get lost and it takes me forever to get back on track.

Jenna 2/04/2009 07:52:00 PM  

Wow, great post Spy. I've been thinking on this a lot lately. I swear I think you and I are kindred in how we over analyze all aspects of writing...but that's why I like you!

I don't have anything insightful to add but I can say that like and try to write to the more "creative" way of elapsing time vs. a tagline of "Four months later".

Oh, and great writing by the way...I like you're style {imagine me saying 'style' all sly-like ;).