Stories are about time, about the interplay of past, present, and future. Characters come with past histories and future hopes. And the narrative convention of plot is based on the expectation that a chronological chain of events will be turned into a causal one.
For the writer of narrative, working with time can resemble the paradoxical task of measuring coastline. Because of the near-infinite irregularity of the boundary between earth and sea, the length of the measuring instrument will determine the final measurement: the shorter the instrument, the more it will register the smaller granulations, and thus the longer the coastline.
Now suppose we have a story to write about someone taking a life-changing journey. We have an intuition as to what the key stages of this journey will be. But in introducing our protagonist we find ourselves going into a brief biography. And then we might think it necessary to explain how this particular journey became possible. And then we might decide to watch her packing suitcases and saying good-bye to family members and setting the alarm clock the night before her flight and being too excited to eat breakfast. It may be we have rendered all of the above in vivid sensory images, but we feel trapped and unsatisfied nevertheless. Somewhere a strange and intriguing country glimmers ahead, but we are so tired of slogging through time that we’re ready to give up on ever getting there.
Here are two tips to keep in mind as you wrestle with time:
- You have no obligation to report on every minute that passes in the world of your story. A zero draft tends to cover more rather than less; later revisions trim away dead time as they pull plot to the foreground and begin to shape the action around causes and effects and direct it toward a point. The old theatre adage might come in handy: every line should either further the plot, develop a character, or get a laugh. If nothing fits these parameters during a particular hour, day, or week in your story, skip it. When your writing seems to be simply filling in time, enabling transition from one event to the next, stop! Opt for white space, the narrative break. That empty band of white across the page is the most concise way to tell the reader to expect a passage of time and/or a change of place.
- You do have an obligation to cover the juicy events. As you make your way through time, follow intensity. Gravitate toward moments of physical action and emotional conflict. Seek out surprises. Scenes of crisis can be more challenging to recount than business as usual. You may have to resist the urge to invoke a narrative break to get past them! Remind yourself that important moments should not take place during the white space. In fact as time moves into a scene of intensity, writers pull out their smallest measuring rod and write around every individual pebble along the shore!