Time-Shifts

black and white photo of clocks
Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

Time is an interesting thing in stories. Where in life we are constrained to move only in one direction and at a constant rate, stories give us a higher level of control. The author possesses the unique ability to travel forwards and backwards in time, to pause it, to speed it up. They can even break time if they so desire.

Consider Darren Aronofsky’s poetic epic: The Fountain. This film takes place across three different timelines, one in the past, another in the present, and another in the future. In each of these timelines different incarnations of the same man run into the same fundamental problem: the death of the woman that they love. Each one of them quests to save her in their own way, but each is missing a piece of the puzzle necessary to do so.

Then, at the film’s dramatic climax, the three timelines begin to reach through their own temporal constraints to deliver comfort and closure to one another. There has not been anything previous in the film to suggest that this is possible, but on the other hand there was also nothing to suggest it wasn’t. I think it works really well for that story, and it gives each arc a hefty emotional resolution.

It’s not as though this film was doing anything very extreme either. Every story breaks temporal rules, even when its characters never do. From the reader’s perspective flashbacks are time travel, switching scenes is teleportation, and knowing a character’s thoughts is telekinesis. One of the reasons we love stories so much is because they allow us to view the world in a way we simply can’t in real life. We sidestep all of the mundane time-and-space-constraints that otherwise define our world, and instead cut right to the chase.

But while authors can make sudden leaps of time and space in their stories, they need to have respect for the fact that this is fundamentally different from the reader’s regular life experience, and therefore inherently unnatural. Therefore one must take care to make that transition as smooth as possible, or else you’ll start to give your audience whiplash.

Over the years there has been a language of transitions established, ones that readers have been trained to understand and expect. They are so ubiquitous that its almost hard to even notice when they happen. One doesn’t know why the story they are reading works so well, just that it does, and they wish that they could do the same in their own work. Well let’s pull back the curtain and see what these tools of the trade are.

 

Change of Pace)

Perhaps the most common superpower an author uses in storytelling is the ability to speed time up and slow it down. Real life is comprised of sudden and significant moments preceded and followed by long durations of monotony. It wouldn’t do to translate this same experience to the page, no one would read a story that recounted every second that the main character slept at night. Every author naturally wants to blitz from one high point to the next.

On the other hand, those moments of intense significance might bear dialing the timelapse down to “super-slow motion.” The author dramatically captures the microsecond where the sword makes contact with the iron shackles, giving off a thunderous clang, a shower of sparks, and thus frees the dejected captive.

This problem of shifting between two different timescales was one I encountered in just my last post. In part three of Power Suit Racing I needed to cover a wide ground of character growth in as few words as possible. I needed to turn up the speed from giving the action second-by-second to week-by-week. If this were a movie I would have cut to a montage sequence, but this is a written story so a montage wouldn’t work…or would it?

The fact is that one form of storytelling can teach audiences new patterns which can then be translated over into another medium. We have all grown up watching movies and television, and most of us visualize the stories that we read as if they were being filmed by a camera. With that in mind the author can borrow some narrative tricks from the more visual mentality.

With my story I established a trajectory with the last scene of the slower timescale. Taki was determinedly marching off for his next race. Then I just continued that same trajectory with the following scenes of those races, it just so happened that they were brief glimpses separated by hours and days from one another. Hopefully because there was a shared through-line between the greater detail scene and the more sparse ones the transition came off naturally.

 

Change of Setting)

That idea of transitioning based on a shared through-line is going to show up several times in this study. It’s simply one of the best ways to keep the reader in a familiar context while the set dressing changes around them.

Speaking of changing the set, what about when an author wants to change from one scene to another, but doesn’t want to lose the thread that they were following? Do you remember that scene in Star Wars where Obi-Wan Kenobi rescues Luke from the Sand People? Luke has questions for Kenobi, but he suggests it might be safer to discuss them back at his home. The screen wipes to the interior of Kenobi’s home and their conversation continues. It’s essentially a continuation of the same scene as before, just divided between two locales.

And this transition is able to work because a musical cue begins at the end of the first setting and carries through to the second. It forms a bridge that the viewer’s subconscious uses to connect the two scenes. Stories obviously don’t have musical cues, and they don’t have the ability to softly fade from one image to another, but they can still provide bridges between different settings.

Consider this example:

“Please don’t leave yet,” he said. “I’d like to talk more.”

“I don’t know,” she sighed indecisively.

“You said you were hungry, right? Come on, I’ll show you where to get the best wings in the whole city! I promise you’ll be licking the extra barbecue sauce off your fingers.”

Well, he was right, she thought to herself while taking the last bite of wings fifteen minutes later. They were at a corner shop next to…

By finishing one setting with an item and then starting the next setting with that same item there is a bridge formed. It creates a natural continuation between the two, and once again both halves are sharing a common trajectory.

 

A Distracting Bridge)

There is another kind of bridge you can use as a writer, and this is the “distracting bridge.” In this one you want to join two scenes that don’t naturally fit together. The second scene isn’t such a natural continuation of the first, but you want to move to it quickly without coming to a cold stop in-between.

I wanted to do this exact thing in my first entry for Power Suit Racing. Taki had his heart broken by Rhuni, and then I needed him to appear in the underbelly of the city next to the racing circuit. I needed a way to connect the two scenes, and so I decided to craft a bridge that flowed from the first scene, twisted round, and then connected with the second.

So what did I do? Taki leaves Rhuni and begins wallowing in self-pity. This is the first bridge, and the reader is seamlessly transitioned from the actual conversation to his thoughts about that conversation. He starts wondering what is left for him in life now that all of his dreams are gone.

At this point the twist occurs. His thoughts take a subtle sidestep into reflecting about his finances. This is still related, because he is wondering what to do with all of the money he had been saving up for his future with Rhuni. Now that the question of what to spend his wealth on has been raised, though, we are able to touch down with our second scene. He hears a street vendor offering competitive prices on a Power Suit, and he comes out of his reverie to pursue his new future.

Sometimes your character is going to naturally come across a mire of unimportance. The next meaningful moment is coming up soon, but you need to get the reader through an idle moment on the way there. It is at these points you use the “distracting bridge.” It’s a magic trick where you wave one hand to capture their attention, and then use the other to stuff the rabbit into the hat.

 

Not a Transition At All)

This other trick of the trade is so obvious it’s easy to overlook. This is when you don’t need a seamless transition. It’s the full stop, fade to black, forget-about-this-last-scene-and-get-ready-for-the-next. For that the process is simple: just finish the chapter and start a next one. Reader’s have learned to see these large breakpoints as a signal to let go of their current context and start the next area fresh. It’s completely second-nature.

 

Every now and then it is import for an author to pause and review the fundamentals of storytelling. No matter how good your ideas are, you still need to know enough of the technical details to bring them to life. Management of time and place is one of those techniques that is one of the easiest to overlook because it is so ubiquitous. In fact you’re already doing it whether you were consciously aware of it or not. Usually the first time you realize that you were doing it is when you find that you were doing it wrong.

A movie could be comprised of the most phenomenal writing, acting, and filming, but if the man in the editing room doesn’t know how to weave these elements into a smooth and cohesive whole then the entire thing comes apart. Make sure that once every so often you don your own editor’s cap to ensure that your own transitions between time and space are both intentional and comfortable.

In my next post I’ll be publishing the last section of Power Suit Racing. It will open with a simple conversation in a single setting. That conversation and a second begins, which remain in the forefront while the characters walk to a different location, creating a seamless transition of space to a second setting. That conversation will end on a particularly charged note, one that will create an emotional and physical trajectory that carries clear through the last scene to the end of the story. See if you can pick out those moments when I publish the piece on Thursday, and until then have a wonderful time!

Power Suit Racing: Part Three

white and black vehicle timelapse digital wallpaper
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

Part One

Part Two

“Add me to the next race,” Taki called out to the registrar, who was seated once more at a small desk and taking applications.

The man looked Taki over, noting the shredded suit barely still hanging onto his battered body.

“That race is in less than half an hour,” the man sniffed, ” and you don’t appear to be…ready.”

“I have my other suit being prepped right now,” Taki waved. “I’ll be ready to run.”

The registrar gave Taki another look-over, this time tabulating all of his scrapes and bruises. He shrugged. Taki got the impression the man didn’t like him very much, but had no doubt been instructed to maintain a very low bar to entry.

“Well then come back here when your other suit is ready to be scanned in. And in the meanwhile get yourself over to the medical tent.”

“Thank you, will do.” Taki strode back to Boro’s shack and deposited the shambles of his current suit, then went to the tent the registrar had referenced. There were no medics inside, this was only an Alley Tier raceway after all, but there were all the basic bandages and disinfectants, and any racer had free access to them. Taki started working on a particularly nasty gouge on his shoulder when he heard a step behind him at the tent’s entrance.

“Hello, Tala,” he nodded as he turned to face her.

“Are you looking forward to a grudge match?” she asked, eliciting a bewildered expression from him.

“What do you mean?”

“That runner who tried to throw you last race, you remember him? You grabbed him and hit the boost together.”

“Yeah…”

“Well he spun out hard after the boost and he’s been tailing you ever since you got off the spectator’s platform. Right after you signed up for the next race he did as well.”

“Could be a coincidence.”

“Sure,” she scoffed. “It could be.”

“I guess I’d better watch out for him.”

“I guess you’d better.”

There was a heavy pause, an awkwardness from Taki wanting to continue the conversation but not knowing quite how.

“Hey Tala–”

“Well, I better go help Boro if you want to get your suit in time for the next race. Good luck not dying out there spark plug!” Then she dashed away before he could say another word.

Spark plug? Was that supposed to be a good thing or not? It didn’t sound particularly flattering. Taki shook his head and tried to focus back on his work. All the adrenaline from the race was fading, and he was only now starting to realize how sore and tender he really felt. It was going to be a hard second race…especially if one of the runners had it in for him.

Well, that was how it was sometimes. One couldn’t wait for fair weather when all of life was a storm.

By the time Taki had himself patched up Boro was putting the final touches on the new suit. It was just as haphazard as the last, but Taki wasn’t so concerned about that anymore. Taki got into the outfit and clunked his way over to the starting drop for the next race. There were seven other racers there, one of which was in the same green suit as the racer Tala had warned him of. That racer’s mask was tinted, so that Taki could not see his expressions. In any case Taki thought it a good idea to position himself as far from that racer as possible, then he looked down at the track beneath them.

As always, the track had been changed between races. Each of the various components that made up the raceway were either on moving arms or else fitted with small thrusters, allowing for an architect to craft a new experience each time.

The change to the track for this race wasn’t particularly interesting. Really it just looked like some giant had shaken the whole track, jumbling the pieces around in a random fashion.

Perhaps the one thing that was interesting was the placement of the race’s end. That platform had been moved to the middle of the track and highly elevated. This would be a more vertical race, then, one where the racers would circle around the final platform, trying to build up enough inertia to vault all the way to the top.

The key to those sorts of races was to find a cycle of boosts, dives, towers, and gravity wells, all linked together and looped through over and over while storing away an ever-increasing reserve of inertia. Then, when one’s banks were full the racer could do an almighty thrust up to the finish.

“…and GO!”

Taki had been so caught up with the raceway he had completely missed the countdown. As with the first race he vaulted over the edge a moment later than all of the other racers. Or rather, later than all of the other racers but one. Out of the corner of his eye he happened to notice that the green racer had held back, waiting for him to jump first.

Taki spun around as he fell through the air, turning face-up just in time to see the green racer plummeting down to him. It was too late to get out of the way, and so he braced for the impact.

THUD!

Taki’s suit had already built up enough of a reserve to take the hit without him feeling any of the collision, that wasn’t a concern. What was a concern was that now the other racer had wrapped his arms around Taki’s, locking the two of them together. With the two of them pinned this way the other racer began burning through his own inertia, propelling them downwards like a rocket. The two of them hurtled past all the other racers, screeching towards the pavement below.

This wasn’t a strategy for winning. It was purely a revenge move, one that was entirely illegal and lethal. Taki gritted his teeth and tried to wriggle out of the other man’s grasp, but the lock was too tight and there was no breaking it.

Taki’s eyes fluttered from side-to-side, trying to find some way to escape. His roving eyes happened to light upon the corner of his HUD where his conserved inertia levels were indicated. He had a massive excess there, not too surprising given all of their extra speed.

Taki craned his head backwards, measuring the distance to the ground: 20 meters.

He glanced at the other corner of his HUD which gave the estimated impact force: 34 torques and counting.

Looked back to the ground: 10 meters.

…5 meters.

Taki gave a sharp pulse from his own thrusters, not upwards but in a spin. The two of them rolled, now placing Taki on top. The other man thrashed in shock, finally letting go of Taki’s arms.

Right before impact Taki placed his feet on the man’s chest and kicked off, angling his suit to propel him upwards. There was a massive crack and he burst into the air, climbing through space just as quickly as he had been falling through it.

Taki didn’t know if the other man’s suit would have enough energy reserves to displace the force of both Taki’s thrust and the ground beneath. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. It was on that racer’s own head.

Instead Taki was intent on his target: the end platform. All his incredible excess of energy streamed out as billowing pockets of compressed air, vaulting him high into the sky, lifting him to the level of the winning platform. He passed above it, then angled himself down again, firing with his thrusters for a nice, soft landing on the pavement.

And just like that, he had won again.

Taki dropped to his knees and sighed out long and low. He had managed to survive, but his hands were clammy and his body was shaking. He thought he might be sick.

Power Suit Racing tended to attract some of the most desperate and degenerate of society. Frustrating as it was, revenge-mongers were just a part of the sport. Taki didn’t have long to stay alone in his shock. Already the spectator platform was descending to him, and everyone on-board seemed quite animated. The speed of his run must have broken a number of records.

Taki stood to meet them, feeling his resolve return and deepen. This was just a race, one of many. It was over and now it was time to move on to the next. No stopping, no waiting.

.

Less than an hour later Taki was in the next race, running sideways along a beam, reaching his arm out for a pole. He gripped it and swung himself around to another platform, planting his feet and sprinting towards the finish platform. He had burned too much of his inertia and couldn’t propel himself quickly enough. Another racer in gold won that race and Taki took second. Not as big of a payout, but he would still receive something.

.

“So you said you came here because you were mad,” Tala said to him as he used a spanner to refit the gloves of his suit. “Tell me about that.”

“Why do you care?”

Tala shrugged. “I like to know what drives a man, I suppose. So, did you kill someone?”

“What?! No!”

.

Taki had his feet planted in a wide stance, trying to keep his balance as he slid down an angled platform, coming down the home stretch to the final. Another racer suddenly careened at him from the left, trying to take him out. Taki barely got his hand up and fired a blast just in time to send that competitor spinning away.

Taki’s decline leveled out, came to an end, and he shot out through open space. He threw his hands out and caught the lip of the final platform, but in his moment of distraction had failed to jump high enough to mount it. He gave a blast from the boots of suit, causing his whole body to swing up and around like a pendulum, flipping him onto its surface. He had made it, but during his slight delay another racer had just barely beat him to the win. Second place again.

.

“Not any sort of crime?” Tala asked with a raised eyebrow.

“No!”

“Hmm, okay then.” She looked disappointed. “So what are you running from, then? A girl?”

Taki rolled his eyes. “Why couldn’t it be that I’m running towards something?”

“You said you were angry. People don’t run towards things when they’re angry, only when they’re passionate. Anyway, definitely sounds like a girl.”

.

Taki landed in the center of the gravity well. Here a racer would be suspended in midair, lifting and falling with the pulsing energy. The trick was to figure out the cadence of that pulsation and press against it during an expansion-interval. That resulted the in the runner being catapulted out at terrific speeds. Taki tried to calm his panting breath, looking for that stillness which would allow him to sense the subtle shifts of the pulses.

He paused, waited through a few seconds to be sure he had it right, then thrust! Right as he burst forward another racer slammed him from the side, spinning him to the ground and out of the race.

.

“They keep targeting me directly!” Taki fumed to Boro.

“You’ve been doing well,” Boro shrugged. “They figure you’re their toughest competition.”

“Well I’m not very flattered.”

Boro sighed. “Listen kid, most of the runners in these races are losers. Now every so often a loser happens to have a little talent and they win a few races, but that streak lasts only four, maybe five races. Because really they’re still a loser, and they don’t know how to make the transition to being a winner. Then the other losers will pull them back down every time. It’s the how it works in this world.”

“But if you do make the transition to be a winner?”

“Then they can’t ever stop you.”

“How do you do it?”

Boro put down his tools and leaned close to Taki, looking him right in the eyes. “You did it once already. In that second race when the guy tried to squash you on the dive. You took his attack and you used it.”

“Really I was just trying to survive.”

“Well from now on winning is surviving. Look, they’re gonna to be coming after you like that. Every. Single. Race. You gotta run with their attacks now, not against them.”

Taki nodded to show he understood. “It sounds hard.”

Boro returned to his work. “Only a winner ever manages it.”

.

Taki saw the other racer out of the corner of his eye, but he was too late to avoid the hit. The two collided and the other racer threw him into a nearby boost. This boost was not a useful one, though, it was angled upwards, pointing uselessly out to the skies. Sometimes boosts were setup this way, providing red herrings for racers that weren’t paying attention.

Taki hurtled up in the air and spun around, taking in his new, less than ideal surroundings. In this race the final platform was quite low, 50 meters directly beneath him now. The problem was that the fall between him and it was entirely littered by various obstacles. There were a couple platforms running at odd angles, another boost going in the wrong direction, a giant, horizontal fan spinning dangerously…

Taki gritted his teeth, there was nothing but to go for it. He thrust himself downwards, adding his stored inertia to the natural pull of gravity. As he plummeted he gave a sharp twist and wound around the first of the platforms in his way. Now the next platform was coming up quick and he needed to go sideways, so he threw a thrust to the side, scraping across the last few feet of the platform as he rounded its edge.

He burst right, then left, not daring to slow his dive one bit. He needed to keep up as much momentum as possible for the end. The last obstacle was a wide tarmac shell that stretched over the entire top of the finish platform. It was intended to force runners into taking a sideways route to the end.

Taki streaked down to that shell and slammed his feet down against it, simultaneously throwing a downwards thrust and letting his suit’s impact resistors kick in. Under the triple blow the rock burst apart and he fell through the hole and onto the finish below. Finally a first place.

.

“See I like guys who have a passion for something,” Tala explained.

“I’m really not sure why you keep telling me about what you like and don’t like in guys. I mean I haven’t ever even asked you to dinner.”

“And yeah, about that,” she said accusingly. “What’s your problem there?”

“Oh…uh, well if I did ask would you say ‘yes’ to me?”

She scoffed. “No way. I only like guys who have a passion.”

.

Three weeks past by in a blur. Every night Taki went to bed sore and exhausted, each morning he raced the next day away. He was surprised at how much frustration he had to burn, but finally he seemed to be getting through it. He had already topped the Alley races and now he was being barraged by sponsors from the higher leagues, each asking him if he was ready to make the transition to the big time. He had made enough winnings to pay off both of his suits, and had even commissioned Boro to make him a third one with higher-grade parts. It would be perfect for an advance to the Street Tier.

But now that he was standing on the precipice of the future Taki felt himself hesitating. The whole point of these races had been to just plunge ahead without a plan, now he was being asked to decide what came next. That sounded a lot like having a plan again.

It was with his muddled around thoughts of the future that he walked off of the observer platform towards Boro’s shack, fresh off yet another win. As he neared the small structure he was pulled out of his reverie by a sense that something was off. Both Boro and Tala were standing outside with arms folded, watching him with apprehensive expressions.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Someone came down to talk to you, boy,” Boro said.

“What? Another sponsor?”

“No,” Tala said softly.

Taki frowned, but clearly the two weren’t going to be forthcoming about this. He sighed and walked through the door. There was a richly dressed woman he didn’t think he knew standing with her back to him. As she heard the door open she turned around to face him.

It was Rhuni.

Part Four

 

I mentioned on Monday about the common story archetype of rebirth. I explained that in today’s post we would see Taki fighting to fill the measure of his new identity. Certainly he started this adventure with some natural skill and an inclination for how to race, but as he became more of a threat to the other runners he had to learn to adapt to their attacks.

This growth in his technique is meant to parallel his growth within as well. He is no longer able to identify as just another part of the pack, he is becoming more elevated than the rest of the rabble he runs with. This is leading to a point of decision, evidenced by the conflicting feelings he has for graduating to the higher leagues of the sport. Though that path seems natural and obvious, a voice inside is resisting.

It is at this point of indecision that we are finally ready to see the final component of a character’s transformation: the return. In this case it is the return of his old love interest, come to invite him back to the life he thought he had lost. Next week we will see how he deals with this temptation, and whether he has truly changed or not.

Before that, though, I want to take a brief look at something more technical. I wanted to cover a lot of ground with this section of the story, and that led me to including a montage sequence. All at once the entire timescale of the story shifted to something far more rapid, and then it had to ease back out for the final scene. How exactly does an author manage a shift from one timescale to another anyway? Come back on Monday as we take a deeper dive on that subject, and then on Thursday we’ll have the last entry in Power Suit Racing. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!