Time-Shifts

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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!

Staggering Steps

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Beginnings)

On Monday I posted the first part of my new short story, which featured a character assigned a mission to carry out on a distant world. Amidst feelings of fear and doubt she transported down to that world, and her concerns were suspended by the novelty of the new terrain that she found. During this exploration she noticed a strange phenomena in the distance, and a journey to that location resulted in her meeting a new character. Finally, her discussion with that new character brought back up the assignment that she was assigned at the very beginning, and along with it all of her apprehensions.

In this way her objective remained an ever-present motivation of the story, even while I introduced other new ideas, characters, and places that will also be of importance. This  way of introducing new plot and having it naturally return to your main arc is incredibly useful when you have a great many elements to introduce to the reader.

Think of the beginning of any story, where the reader has to be made aware of the characters, events, society, balance of power, driving motivations, and any mechanics unique to your story. You can’t just dump all of that on them up front with a fact-sheet, you need to drip it out piece by piece. But, while trickling out these new elements of your story you must not get totally lost in their side-plots, the core arc of your story must always be present.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Roverandom we begin simply enough with a small dog and a wizard. The former upsets the latter and is turned into a toy as a result. This simple beginning establishes two of the main characters, the fact that there is magic in this story, and the dog’s great motivation: to become a real dog again.

There then begins one sequential plot after another, including trips up to the moon and down into the ocean. There are new mechanics and new characters added at a measured pace, making sure that the story never becomes overwhelming but also doesn’t grow stale. Each of these side-plots and characters never strays far from the main thrust of the story, either. Each eventually circles back to our dog’s core objective of undoing the spell he is under.

 

Converging Plotlines)

In fact, several of the side-plots in Roverandom end up being integral to the resolution of the story’s main plot. Two plots featuring different kind caretakers that Roverandom is divided in his loyalty between blend together when an unexpected relation between the two is revealed. A side-trip to the bottom of the ocean becomes essential to softening the older wizard’s heart so that eventually he will free the dog from his curse.

These different plotlines dovetailing together towards a singular whole provides a pleasant and balanced feel to the story. It makes the ending more impressive because it is only achieved by the sum of so many other parts. And so juggling between different arcs is not only beneficial at the beginning of the story, but also in bringing the whole to a satisfying close.

Of course the intro I published for With the Beast did not include the end of that novel, but it did introduce two seemingly disparate arcs. First there is one where the reader has evidently come to witness, and even to enact, some tragic destruction. The exact nature of that destruction is unclear, but its imminence looms heavy over the story’s tone. At the same time we are also being introduced to a family of four that are seeking their destiny, hoping to build a magnificent legacy on their own personal island.

These two themes stand in stark contrast to one another, and there is a strong implication that the two are going to come together in conflict. Indeed, that is the case. Throughout the rest of the story each arc will progress in greater and greater contrast such that neither narrative arc can come to their natural conclusion so long as the other remains. They therefore will break upon one another in a climatic finale.

 

Pace)

But this idea of side-stepping between multiple plotlines is by no means limited to just the beginning or ending of a story. It also happens to be one of the best tricks for keeping the pace up in the middle of a tale. Most plots are naturally most exciting at their beginnings and at their endings, and it’s all too easy to lose a reader in the central chapters that bridge between the two.

But if the middle of one arc is paired with the beginning of another arc, then the overall experience still remains fresh. Or if the middle of the arc is paired with the climatic ending of a previous arc, then the overall experience still remains exciting.

Now there is no shortage of examples of this. Just consider the many television serials on the air today. Of course there are series where every episode is its own self-contained plot, such as with the Twilight Zone, but the ones that tell an ongoing tale need to both provide a small conclusion at the end of each episode, but also maintain an ongoing arc that extends beyond itself. Side characters will suddenly come to the forefront, new revelations will upend previous plotlines, and earlier arcs will be brought to their close.

Consider the mini-series Roots, which is a multigenerational tale of African slaves in America. As each rising generation is going to become the focus of the next episode, the series spends time establishing them with the audience even before resolving the current generation’s arc. By the time we see the end of Kunta Kinte’s story we’re already well-invested in the ongoing struggles of his daughter Kizzy.

Recently the work on my With the Beast novel hit a wall where all of its momentum suddenly seemed to evaporate. As I looked closer I realized that I was right in the middle of the tale, and I was bringing all of my introductory plotlines to a close before beginning any of the arcs for the latter half. As you might imagine, it felt like the story was finishing halfway through, and the entire pace had come to a screeching halt. Now I’m stagger out some of those arcs so that there remains an unbroken chain from start to end.

I also experimented with this in miniscule when I posted The Heart of Something Wild. Here I began with a plot about a new chief facing his impending demise. I spent some time on his fears and anxiety, but then introduced a new plot when he began caring for a wounded creature. That plot took the forefront until a new wrinkle was introduced by his closest friendship coming to an end. That falling out simultaneously began another arc for the conflict he now had with that former ally. Already plots were being picked up and dropped with no down time in between, and this was all before the story was half over!

 

Like I mentioned at the beginning, my new short story Glimmer has staggered its central arc of the main character’s sacrifice with that of discovering a new world and its inhabitants. With my next entry the story will further evolve with the emergence of a new enemy and, and an introduction to the souls that lie in the balance of that ensuing struggle. Then, a week later we will have the third and final section of that story, which will feature all of these separate threads finding their various resolutions in one another. I’ll see you then.

A Proper Cadence

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On Thursday I shared the first half of a story that I had originally intended to publish in a single post. As I explained at the time, the reason for dividing it in two was based on the constraints of my appointed deadline. Each of my posts is given a three-day period to be taken from conception to published completion, and trying to do the entire story of The Noble in that allowance would have rushed the the work faster than it should have been. That “rushing” to which I am referring is twofold.

First, the story would have had to be less words. Where I have three days to write each story post, there are only so many words that I can write and still somewhat polish the work before pushing it out the door. I’ve come to learn that for me 3000 words is about my limit before I’m going to be cramming to get the post done in time.

So why didn’t my story fit within that 3000 word limit? Well, right from the outset I had created a general outline for the story, and it called for a very specific number of scenes: five. Each of those scenes was going to run for about a thousand words. Thus the only way to make the math work would have been to lop off two-fifths of the story, either by compressing the length of each scene or by removing them entirely.

So in my dilemma I saw only three options.

  1. Reduce to 3000 words and publish a polished but incomplete story, one that would essentially be a glorified outline of the full story I originally wanted to do.
  2. Super-speed write five thousand words, leaving no time for polish and refinement, and thus taking a hit in quality.
  3. Break the story into two posts.

Obviously the third of those options is the most attractive, given that it does the fullest justice to the story itself. But why did my story need to have five scenes in the first place? Could it really have not worked with only three? Why did each scene have to be a thousand words? Could they really have not worked with 600 each? These are questions related to a story’s overall cadence and a scene’s overall rhythm. Let’s look at these in greater detail.

How Many Scenes?

How many scenes are to be in a story is determined early in the writing process, usually it comes about as a direct byproduct of outlining your plot. Which leads us to the following question: when writing an outline, do you consciously consider how many scenes you are setting up your story to have? Do you have a specific number that you are trying to shoot for? Do you just starting with the beginning scene, decide what should immediately follow, and thus incrementally add scenes until you get to the end? It might be tempting to ignore these questions entirely and just let the story happen “naturally.” That does sound nice, but in practice this approach runs a high chance of finishing your entire work and only then discovering that its pacing is lopsided and disjointed. Far better to put the time in up front to get this right.

In the case of my story The Noble, I chose five scenes for a very specific reason. There were five main phases that I wanted my protagonist to go through in his arc, and each of those phases needed their own equal weight within the story. These steps of the story were chosen intentionally to give his development the natural arc I wanted, passing sequentially through cynicism, intrigue, hope, despair, and finally triumph. Notice how that sequence establishes the cadence of the entire story. About half of it will be spent in slowly ascending from cynicism to hope, after which we have a climatic drop to our lowest low and rise to our highest high. It’s a full and complete experience, and to reduce it to any three of those sequences would make his journey feel disjointed and unnatural.

These are exactly the sort of considerations you want to have when planning out your own stories. Have you decided which cadence you want your tale to follow? Have you chosen scenes that contribute to that natural rising and falling motion?  If your outline is missing a step in its arc then your plan is incomplete and you need to develop it further. Or if you have a complete trail from start to finish but then a few extra scenes along the side, then those parts are just “filler.” Cut them.

How Many Words

Alright, so that’s why I wanted five scenes for my story, no more and no less. But why did I choose 1000 words for each of those sequences? Quite frankly, I didn’t. When I first began I had no consideration for how many words each sequence would be,  that decision was to be determined by one thing and one thing alone: the tone.

Personally, I don’t believe in trying to make a story or a chapter fit into a predetermined size. I don’t think you should inflate your text to try and make it look more serious, I don’t think you should cut each sentence in half because you want it to sell better. It may be that a bigger or shorter story will be perceived differently, or will affect how many sales you are likely to achieve. But I consider each of those criteria to be far beneath the ultimate deciding factor: what sort of rhythm does your story want to be written in.

Consider my story Tico the Jester. This was from the perspective of a child and her toys. Their reality was one of quickly changing interests and high-energy imagination. The scenes there wanted to be written in a fast and snappy rhythm. Pausing to describe the scenery in detail would have been contrary to the tone of that story.

One the other hand consider Deep Forest. This was the recounting of a strange being slowly awaking in a massive forest, one buried by the accumulated dust of millennia at rest.  The scenes there wanted to be elaborate and ponderous. Trying to quickly move from one sensation to another would have also been contrary to the tone of that story.

So when it came time to write the first scene of The Noble, I simply started writing, detailing things or leaving them unexplained according to what felt right. It felt right if it matched the tone that I was trying to establish for that story. At the end of the first scene I looked at the word-count and it was at a thousand words, and I knew that this would be the average magnitude for each scene in the work. Individual sections might run a couple hundred words above or beneath this average, but they would all be around this estimate because they would each be given equal weight in their own space.

To be clear, this isn’t an excuse to be unnecessarily wordy, which happens to be a flaw of mine that I am trying to keep in check. Nor is this an excuse to ignore painting the scenery, a flaw of mine that I am trying to get in the habit of. Merely it is stating that you try to find a narrative tone which has good synergy with the ideas of your story. Allow yourself to move along at a snappy pace when appropriate, and pause to take a knee and breathe in the world when that is what’s wanted.

 

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that your driving motivation in deciding both your story’s cadence and your scene’s tempo should be what your story needs. You should give your story what it deserves, and then let every other consideration follow behind.

It was that very mindset that resulted in me deciding that The Noble simply couldn’t exist in a single post. I look forward to sharing the second half of that tale with you on Thursday, and I hope you’ll find it was worth the intermission.