Tuesday, December 20, 2011


There are any number of ways to portray the passage of time in story, a simple example being to start a new paragraph or even a sentence with the word “Later.”  You might also try “Then.”  Sometimes a mere paragraph indentation or the two-line space to separate one scene from the next will suffice.

A slight nudge from the narrative voice, such as “Time moved past her without leaving so much as a shadow” provides the reader with the sense of a narrator so caught up in events that she has been caught up in a daze.

Some writers—you among them—have sketched in the movement of time with such tropes as “Early the next morning…”

You can also slow time down by using stratagems including the addition of relevant detail or background to some dramatic action.

Word choice helps convey the sense of motion in either direction, fast, or slow.  Reading scenes aloud—your own as well as those of writers you admire—is instructive; you’ll see how words with double-o or double e seem to slow time, while short, declarative sentences, if piled on properly, can produce the breathless sense of running or struggle.

You have the power in story that is denied you out there in reality; you can speed time or slow it.  Thinking about the effects you wish time to have on your characters, you begin to see tiny ways, perhaps word-choice ways, perhaps types-of-action ways, to objectify time, making it an adversary.  Taking care not to get noticeable in your manipulation, the choice of words, sentence length, and cadence of language can project the subliminal—repeat—subliminal use of the ticking clock, the shortened fuse, the expiration of the deadline.

But as yet, you’ve said nothing about the importance of pace, the tempo at which time elapses or does not appear to pass.  The length of sentences is an obvious entry into the waters.  Short, choppy sentences suggest running, gulping for air, decisions to be made—now.  Longer sentences, you might even bring in Faulkner here, can demonstrate, as so many of Faulkner’s sentences do, the plight of characters who are attempting to free themselves of their past, but being caught in the snarl of consequences from such an attempt.

At one time in your writing life, you were too much taken with the craft and structure of Ernest Hemingway, reaching into your paragraphs like a hungry worker at a boarding house dinner table, reaching ahead to connect clauses that could just as well stand as sentences in their own right.  You wished to embed the connective “and” between these independent clauses, sometimes teasing a sentence into a complete paragraph, thinking that by doing so, you’d captured Hemingway’s hypnotic cadence and pacing.  You did no such thing, but you thought you had, setting yourself back in your efforts to write enough to see who you were, which version of you was uttering the sentences as you worked to transcribe them into early drafts.

Style was and still is of great interest to you, but in your late teens it seemed to matter so much that you be able to replicate those you admired that you were led away by the tsunami of style from the absolute necessity of story.  You worried in secret about your lack of story material, while at the same time pouncing on John O’Hara, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Jerome David Salinger.  You in effect taught yourself style without teaching yourself story.

The characters in the stories of successful writers, even writers whose work you did not admire, all had agendas; they wanted something, were willing to do something or, in the case of a personal learning experience that seemed to appear out of nowhere for you, not do anything.  The novel Oblomov, by the Russian writer Ivan Gancharov, published about 1860, was about a young aesthete who took to his bed, wishing to remain there.  Himself a member of the leisure class he was satirizing, Gancharov had an agenda, which brought you closer to understanding story.  Your plan was to have a character who wished to do the same thing, but found it impossible to do so because life kept getting in the way.  Almost there, you were; you needed a better-realized protagonist, a more plausible purpose, and a greater connection to theme.  Close, but no cigar yet.

Pacing is important beyond the protagonist running from the bad guys or rushing to get home for an important event.  Pacing relates to the rate with which information is exposed.  (Not all that long ago, you’d have not even thought to say, “exposed,”you’d have said revealed, and let it go there.  Revelation is important but exposing has a bit more nuance about itself.  Not only does revelation mean what information is exposed, it speaks to the kinds and relevance of information, things relating to who the character is, her backstory, her strengths, weaknesses, her needs, her goals, her fantasies.

Looking at this, you begin to think you might be able to keep pace with it.

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