Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Time in Fiction

Someone asked the other day what I consider my greatest weakness as a writer. My answer is time. I have some difficulty dealing with elapsed time in my fiction. (If you look at my three published book-length works [and the fourth one coming out in April] you’ll notice that all the events in each take place in about a week.) I have trouble depicting large passages of time.

Part of the problem (I think) is organic. I have always been naturally drawn to the horror/mystery/suspense/thriller spectrum of genres where a sense of urgency is an integral part of the narrative structure. In these types, the narrative often reads like a timer winding down toward a catastrophe. Thus, they often take place in a limited time frame. (Think the television series “24.”)

Another part of my problem rests in my exposure to stream-of-consciousness literature early in my writing development. Though I don’t and have never written a true stream-of-consciousness narrative, it still influences how I create fiction and how I see my job as an author. SOC as a technique attempted to render every thought experienced by the character during the course of the narrative. It was a complete and total communication of experience. Or it tried to be.

As a writer, I still feel my job is to render for the reader the experience of my characters. This includes any down time that may occur. For instance, a detective working a murder case has run out of leads except for some DNA evidence, but that will take two weeks. What does she do in the meantime? More important, what do I as the author do with those two weeks?

In real life, the detective would remain busy investigating other case and dealing with the normal drama of her home and social life. In fiction, nothing should go into the story that is not absolutely critical to the story itself.

So, in my mind, the author is left with four options for dealing with the two weeks the detective must wait for the DNA results: you can summarize the mundane things that kept her busy for two weeks; you can use the time to address a subplot, if you have one; you can insert a time stamp (such as “Two weeks later…”); or, you can have the detective tie up some loose ends in the case.

Of the four, I absolutely hate the “time stamp” option. It feels lazy to me, like I’m cheating my reader. I have always felt that the writing should tell the reader what the time is, whether the scene is a flash forward or flashback. If the writer needs a time stamp, she’s not doing her job.

I am also not totally comfortable with the “summary” option. Though summary and exposition have a place in every work of fiction, it should be used judiciously and seldom. For the most part, if something is important enough to be included in the work, I should show it to the reader, not tell them about it.

That leaves the subplot and the “loose ends” options.

I ran into precisely this problem in my latest novel, Deception Island (shameless self-promotion. It will be released in April). In my first draft, my protagonist gets shot by the bad guys. It isn’t a life-threatening injury, but, you know, he was SHOT. He’s lost some blood and is in a considerable amount of pain. Due to circumstances, he’s also in hiding and has to make do without medical attention.

In the first draft, he is shot Friday evening and then Saturday is up with his colleagues, trying to strike back at the bad guys. Upon revision, I thought this was probably unrealistic. This guy is not John Rambo. He’s just a young newspaper reporter. Getting shot would be a big deal, both for him and his friends. He would need to spend at least a day or two recuperating from his injuries.

But then what do I, the author, do for that day or two while he’s in hiding, recuperating? Show him and his friends, sitting around, watching television? That seems slightly boring. Especially considering the rest of the novel is pretty much a bang-bang contest of wills. It’s like a chess game. Chess games don’t have time outs and that’s what this would feel like if I just have them sitting around healing.

And again, inserting a time stamp such as “twenty-four hours later,” or “Sunday morning…” feels like cheating.

So what did I do?

Which of the four options did I choose to render the time while my protagonist healed?

I did a combination of two. I worked on a subplot and tied up some loose ends in the main plot. What I did was create three new scenes, featuring two of my protagonist’s friends. They leave him to heal and go out to dig up more information on the conspiracy at the heart of the story. As they do, they discuss some of the emotional turmoil the experience has caused.

Does it work? I hope so. Most important, my protagonist is allowed the time to heal enough to rejoin the fray without my having to bring the story to a complete halt.

This still does not solve the problem of larger lengths of time like those one would find in a family saga or historical novel, where there could be years passing between key moments in the plot. I still haven’t figured out how to manage that. Fortunately, I don’t write much in those genres. I don’t really have many ideas that lean that way either.

I have a feeling that the reason I don’t is that I haven’t yet figured a way of deftly handling the time issue.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Describing a New World: Exposition in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

I was chatting the other morning (real chatting, in person, no technology involved) with a fellow writer and friend when an interesting fiction problem came up. How so we, as writers, give the reader the information they need without sounding preachy or like a textbook?

In other words, how do we do exposition without destroying our narrative?

Gary’s choice of genres (sci-fi and fantasy) offers what is perhaps a unique situation for exposition. He is still in the planning stage of his sci-fi story, which means he’s creating an entirely new, alien universe with its own political and social systems, as well as its own technology, all of which is unknown to a potential reader. All these systems must be created and tested before he even begins to write, because even the most strange and fantastic systems still need to have logical consistency. Believe me, if you forget and have something in your story that does not follow your world’s internal rules, your readers will find it.

For instance, if your fictional world involves the casting of magic spells for either good or bad, there must be rules about how this is done and consequences if these rules are broken. The same holds true for interstellar or time travel, vampire hunting, or international espionage. (Haven’t you ever wondered how James Bond ever got any work done, since he was so famous? Every intelligence agency should be plastered all over him as soon as he set foot in the country.)

However fantastic your world might be, it has to have logical rules governing how things work. There must be rules and there must be consequences if those rules are broken.

Which brings us full circle to the original question: how do we explain the rules in the strange world our story occupies without being preachy or interrupting the narrative with encyclopedia entries?

From where I’m sitting I can think of four techniques or ways of addressing this issue: expositional passages sprinkled throughout the work; limited explanatory statements woven into the narrative itself; having one character explaining or instructing another; or we can simple offer no explanation at all.

Expositional passages. Think of these as short to medium length articles inserted into your narrative at various intervals. This is an efficient way to deliver information to the reader (after all, textbooks and reference materials have used factual articles for decades); the biggest drawback is that we risk losing the reader because for the duration of the article, the narrative comes to a screeching halt.

Many readers also pick up a book because they want to be entertained, not instructed. This type of exposition will not win you fans among this group.

Nevertheless, if done well, this technique can be very effective. Herman Melville uses it in Moby Dick, alternating passages of dramatic narrative with almost encyclopedic entries about the business of a whaling vessel. Doing this, frees him to proceed with his story without having to wonder whether the reader will understand what’s going on.

Douglas Adams uses a similar technique in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He uses the entries in the fictional Guide to explain (usually in a very humorous manner) what was happening in the story.

Limited explanations woven into the story. This is probably the most common technique and is usually used for filling in backstory. It can often be used to explain environmental laws we aren’t familiar with, but are important to the story.

A good example of this can be found in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Several times in the various novels of the series, Harry Dresden (the first person narrator) makes the statement in his narration that he doesn’t have a television, computer or other household electronics because electronics have a bad habit of blowing up around a wizard. In the pace of an entire novel, it is a very short sentence, but gives the reader a concrete example of the rules governing Dresden’s world.

Because they’re short they do not interrupt the story as much as even a paragraph of exposition does. However, for the same reason, this technique cannot do justice to anything very complex.

One character explaining to another. Think mentor with rookie. Someone familiar with the situation or technology is tasked with instructing someone else who doesn’t know it and through them, the reader. Gandalf does this with Frodo in Lord of the Rings, especially in the beginning, explaining the significance of the ring and the purpose of the hobbits’ quest. We learn about it as Frodo does.

Again, the problems in this method is that the story really doesn’t move while the instructions are given. It’s like sitting in a classroom while the teacher answers another student’s question. It can be interesting, but it isn’t really exciting. Worse, if the mentor isn’t a character integral to the story, it can come off as artificial. (Wow, look, so-in-so shows up to tell Johnny how warp drive works, then disappears forever. How convenient.)

No explanation at all. This, along with the “limited explanation” option above, is the one I lean toward using the most. This one is simple. To keep with the science fiction motif today, think back to any Star Trek episode you might have watched. (I know, Star Trek is primarily television and film, but storytelling is storytelling. The media is less important than the technique.) One of the standard technologies of the franchise was the “transporter.” Yet I cannot remember a single episode explaining exactly how it worked.

There are explanations out there, but I believe those originated with the series’ fans more than the creators or writers.

The example I used when talking with Gary the other morning, was speculating an alien life form reading a story about us in the present. Suppose we decide to go down to the Mexican restaurant for lunch. We climb into our car and drive to the restaurant. We don’t spend any time explaining how an internal combustion engine works. It just does. (Or it breaks down and we have to find someone who know how to fix it.)

We also don’t explain how modern paper currency works when we pay for the meal, or the distribution system that provides the products the restaurant uses to make our food. Most of the time, people don’t pay any attention to the systems that surround them at all until they break down. Cars just work. You flip on the switch and the lights come on; turn on the television and a program is there to watch. Most of us don’t really know, or care, how the system that creates it works. It just does.

Why should we think someone in the future or an alternate universe would be any different? Joe Smith in 2234 has a portal that takes him instantly from his home to work. Does he know how it works? Maybe. But it’s just as likely that he doesn’t give it a second thought. It’s just a part of his daily life, like a car or electricity is to us.

A story about Joe Smith in 2234 should reflect that attitude, shouldn’t it?

The problem with this method is that if the world described is very alien, the reader will not know what’s going on. Nothing drives away readers quicker than having to wade through jargon to find the story.

We all have to seriously examine our work, both as we’re writing it and as we revise it, and decide what exactly our readers need to know. Do they have to know precisely how our world’s political structure works? Possibly, but possibly not. If they do need to know something, what is the most unobtrusive method we can use to give them that information?

That’s the method we should use.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

“Don’t Describe the Sunset”

I recently began reading a fiction self-help book called The 38 Most Common Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham (Writer’s Digest Books, 1992). It was on sale and I’m always looking for new ideas and different critical eyes with which to examine my work. This is an entertaining read so far. The chapters are fairly short and easy to digest and most of the mistakes he mentions I have made or am currently making, so the time invested is worthwhile. I recommend it to anyone wishing to improve their fiction. (And don’t we all?)

One chapter in particular captured my attention. It’s entitled “Don’t Describe Sunsets” and deals with something I believe every writer has to fight at some point or another: the siren song of beautiful prose because of the beauty of the prose.

One of the more powerful reasons to take up this frustrating avocation of writing is that most of us love the music of language itself. We love rendering a poignant and poetic description, a memorable turn of phrase, or a metaphor that stops readers in their tracks. It’s only natural. At some point we’ve fallen in love with the power a well-rendered combination of words can have. This is especially true when we are the ones creating those combinations.

Which is exactly what Mr. Bickham warns us about. Why? In Mr. Bickham’s own words:

“…when they stop to describe something at length, the story movement also stops.”

This is not good. One of the central principles in Mr. Bickham’s work is that fiction is about movement, not necessarily physical movement, but the story has to always be moving. The central character is struggling to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of some goal. Every single word has to be depicting some aspect of that struggle, particularly in short fiction.

I can hear someone in the back grumbling: but I need to be able to describe my settings, my characters, don’t I? Absolutely, but Mr. Bickham (and I agree) maintains that description must be in proportion. A hundred words about your hero’s dashing good looks is probably too much.

“But I worked so hard on this,” another complains. “It’s so beautiful.” Absolutely. It’s gorgeous, the rhythm, the metaphors and word choice. It’s a masterpiece of description. It just doesn’t belong in the story because, though beautiful, it brings the story to a halt. It needs to be cut.

Modern readers want you to move the story and move it quickly. They want to know what happens next. They don’t want to stand around waiting while you paint the sunset.

Still, we writers do need to get some information to the readers. There are several ways of doing this and each has a different effect on the flow of the story. They are:

Narrative Summary
This is the fastest form of all. A gunfight that might take six or seven pages to render moment-by-moment, is summarized in a paragraph. Use this for something to important to leave out of the story, but not important enough to concentrate on.

Characters talking with very little action or interior thought. It can be slow and relaxed, or, when the characters are under stress, extremely taught and fast. Even when relaxed though, dialogue moves the story quicker than the following three.

This is your characters doing things, like on a stage. Much of the story involves narration, whether it’s spies approaching a questionable drop, or two lovers entering a high school dance. Narration moves swiftly and continuously.

Very slow, so be careful. While you’re describing the character’s living room, nothing is happening. While you do need some description, use as little as you can get away with.

The slowest method of all. This is the straight delivery of factual information. Story-wise, nothing whatsoever is happening. It’s like a paragraph from a math textbook, pure data. Some of this may have to go into your story, but there is absolutely zero movement during exposition.

All of us have used each of these techniques at one time or another, I know I have. However, most of my usage has been through instinct, rather than conscious thought. I felt that the story was moving too slow, or too fast, so I instinctively slowed it down or speeded it up by changing the method I used to create the scene.

It’s about pace, the speed at which your reader experiences the story. If you think your story is moving too slow, you can change the method of telling it. If you’ve used narration in the scene, try using dialogue. It will speed up the movement.

In the same way, if you feel your story is moving too fast you can use these tools to slow it down. Say you have a car chase in one scene and a shootout in the next; you may want to insert a short descriptive scene between them, just to give the reader a chance to cool down.

Description is an essential tool for fiction. It is how we ground the reader in the time and place of the story. We can’t usually do it without description. However, it is crucial that the description (or exposition, narration, etc.) be there to serve the story, not the other way around. Description is one way we tell the story. The story is everything.

Keep it moving.