Sunday, January 18, 2015

Wind Me up, Wind Me down

Time plays a lead role in any narrative, does more things in a story than many of the characters can accomplish. This fact alone sets up a competition involving time, the character, and the reader. If the reader does not recognize this contest on some level, time will run out before the story does, leaving the characters to fend for themselves on unread pages.

"It can't be over,"  a character will complain.  From the context, a familiar anguish of something happening all too quickly allows us to impart our own experiences with such events into the story at hand.  Based on context and reader experience, the incident will be haunting in its sadness or hilarious in its humor.

There it is:  Time is the setting against which story is placed, a wind-up toy, if you will, that flaps about in plain view of all until its momentum has run its course.  Without the counterpoint setting against time, story risks the danger of becoming explanation, even though it wishes with some intensity to be action.

From the moment the lead character steps into the narrative--often in the first sentence--the race with time has begun.  The lead character wants something, has perhaps already fired the starting gun.  

Even one of your most favored characters, Sisyphus, doomed as he is to a repetition of the same task for all eternity, wants the rock to come to rest or, wanting a few moments of rest himself, wants the rock to begin rolling down the hill.

Here are some of the many qualities inherent in time:  Time lags, quickens, flies, drags, ticks, lurches.  On the other hand, it is impatient; does not wait, which pretty much says much of what can be said relative to durations.

You, the characters you read, and the characters you create, can and often do cause time to pass unnoticed, because of your steep immersion in some activity.  By growing impatient yourself, you are sending body language to meet time at some halfway point, then tell it to give the appearance of slowing down.

Best get a handle on the historical era in which the time of the story is passing, and the amount of time you've allotted for a particular scene to take place, then make some adjustment by removing or adding space.  Setting is important, if only to avoid historical anomalies, such as Juliet saying, "Yo, Romeo," or, instead of "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore,'" you'd use, "Goes the dude Raven, "Later, man."

Best also to think about an effect you're trying to establish, such as panic or emergency, which you'd do by shortening sentence length, perhaps even to the point of having characters speak in incomplete sentences.  Yet another desired prompt, delay the outcome as long as possible.  How many Victorian novelists, whose narratives appeared in monthly installments, learned to build a readership in this fashion.

Time's close cousin, timing, gives us a closer sense of who the speakers are in an exchange, what, if any, subtexts they are implying, and which dynamics are in play as the characters exchange what could be mere information, insults, double entendre, respect, or outright disdain.  

Timing is more than the way the character speaks the line; timing becomes the voice in which the line is spoken.  In this manner, something as innocent as "Nice to meet you," or "Nice to see you," or "Good of you to say so," can be devastating in its potential irony.

We don't want the lead character to get caught burglarizing the antagonist's office or apartment.  Unless we dislike the parties involved, we do not want the eloping lovers to be caught by either or both sets of parents, who are all for a big, expensive wedding that will in all probability leave enough scars on the couple to be that they will need hours of therapy or counseling.

Nor do we wish to ignore the importance of time or timing in closure, which is to say those moments where some form or revelation, understanding, or agreement is reached that will let all concerned know the story has come to an ending.

Of course there is this:  Too much time and the characters seem to be reading their lines, but without much conviction.  We become more painfully aware that the point of closure has been reached, then passed over; we are also aware the Titanic has struck icebergs, the ship of story is doomed to sink in the whirlpool of boredom.

Better by far to leave too soon than stay too long.  If you leave too soon, your departure may puzzle some, but you will be missed. Stay too long at the party and you'll get stuck helping with the clean-up.

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