Friday, October 12, 2012

Time and Location--Working with Flashbacks, Backstory, Chronology, and Transitions in Novels, Memoirs, and Nonfiction Books

A small book came my way this month.  It's called The Art of Time in Fiction:  As Long as It Takes, by Joan Silbers.  Very short, it explores how time appears in different ways in story.  It's useful for writers in any genre who are working with scenes and situations in time and space.

I read The Art of Time in Fiction while briefly stalled out with my novel-in-progress.  It's at revision, which means that I have about 120,000 words written, looking for a better shape and smoother flow.

Some writers find that better shape and smoother flow via plot work.  Raising the stakes.  Finding character motive.  I use these tricks too.  This being my second novel and my fourteenth book, I have a bag full of revision tricks.

But nothing was working.  The book felt bigger and bigger, the problems within it impossible to resolve.  I was drowning in pages.

I decided to create a timeline, inspired by Silbers' book.  I wanted to clearly see what kind of time I was using in my chapters.  Was it classic time, chronological?  Was it a more fluid time, where flashbacks (or backstory) plays a big role?   

I knew my transitions were pretty weak.  Because the timeline jumped all over, a reader probably couldn't follow the sequences easily.  In fact, one of my readers had already sent a list of questions about confusing transitions--how did this person get here, five days later, and what happened in the meantime?  When you get this feedback, you know something is amiss with time and location.

Making a Time and Location Chart
I went through the draft and listed each scene (I call a scene or "island" any time there is a change from one place to another or one time period to a new time).  Next to the scene I wrote its location.  Then I wrote the approximate date it happened.   

If a section was summary instead of scene (it happened over a week or a month or a day), I wrote the span of time and span of locations.  Immediately this reminded me of why summary is less concrete for the reader than scene!

Once I had the chart roughed out, I looked at the list of locations first.  They varied from "airport office" to "farmhouse kitchen" to upstairs studio" to" Molly's truck."  I made sure to list these locations as specifically as possible.

Then I looked at the time.  I got out a calendar for 2013, which is when I hope my book will be published, and started with October 26 that year.  It falls on a Saturday.  I kept giving specific dates and days to each scene, noting how much time elapsed between them.  

If a chapter included flashbacks into the past, I noted those dates and locations too. 

The task took me about two hours.  When I finished I had three handwritten pages.  A good chart with some key information for taking my revision to the next step--and out of it stall.

Using Time to Refine Your Story
As I learned in Silbers' book, time is important to readers.  They track it.  They want to know where we are in space, but also in time, at each moment of a story.  Some writers (Virginia Woolf comes to mind) like to play with time, make it irrelevant.  It's hard to get away with this, especially if you are writing your first book and hope to publish in today's competitive market.  Most modern readers have trouble with expanded or unanchored time.  And even if it feels boring to you, or overly obvious, to say where we are in the day or night or week, the reader will often get lost or irritated if you don't.

It's not that a writer has to be rigid with this.  You don't need to begin each chapter with date and hour.  But somewhere there has to be a time marker, just a mention of how the morning or evening sky looks, to anchor the reader in time.

When I reviewed my chart, I saw how askew this was in my draft.  I had time markers but they were not "tracking" well.  For instance, a scene might start in the morning, then suddenly it would be late evening for no reason except my inattention to time.   

I saw that time of day and year could be much more consciously used in each scene.  If I chose to have something happen in the dark, it had a certain emotional meaning for the reader, compared to broad daylight.  So I began playing with this--something a fiction writer can do!--and adjusted it to make more impact.  Some scenes I put at a different time of day, but mostly I just began to sequence them better, so a reader could track the days without any effort.

The Pros and Cons of Summarized Time
As said above, summarized time is distant for a reader, emotionally.  Summarized time is when you write something like "Over the next ten months, he grew to be the size of an alligator."  We don't see this growth day to day, so the process is less real to us than the end product.

If you need to skate through some uneventful spots, summarized time is fine.  But if you use it alot, your book will begin to read like a list of events and changes rather than an experience of those changes.

I found myself cheating--I would be writing along and get tired of the endless details of scene.  So I would slip into summary.  Skip an afternoon, a couple of days, even several months.  My chart revealed this all too plainly.  And I saw where my boredom as a writer had deprived my story of emotion.  So, thanks to the chart, I could find the spots where I needed to go back in and expand.  Stop taking the shortcut of summarized time.

It also made me aware of how much total time my story covered.  When did it begin, when did it end?  Was that much time essential?  Could I use flashbacks instead, to weave in what happened before, rather than having such an endless stretch of time?
Total Time--What's Most Effective for Your Story?
Memoirists run into this question all the time.  When does my story begin?  I'm writing about my life, or part of it.  Do I need to put in that much about childhood?  When is the story really over--since I'm still living it?

Memoir is not autobiography, so memoirists need to choose a snapshot from their lives to include in their books, then flash back to the past to bring in small bits that are needed for context.  Why a grown man trembles in church?  Flash back to his abuse as a choir boy.  Why a family lives far away from relatives?  Flash back to a huge falling out ten years before.  You don't need to start with the abuse scene or the fight--the passage of time between then and now is not part of your snapshot.  Using flashbacks is a great way to handle total time, so it's more manageable for the reader.

In fiction, same rule applies.  The characters have a past too.  But choose the start of your book's total time in the current dilemma, not in the history that caused it.  

Depth versus Breadth
I looked at my total time and saw I'd added on too much.  I needed to figure out where I could employ flashbacks instead of including past events as scenes.

As a reader, I am happiest with books that do not span centuries.  Occasionally, I enjoy an epic.  But mostly I like depth rather than breadth in a timeline, personally.  I like to go deeper into specific meaningful events rather than have lots of them without meaning.

In my own books, I strive for short total timelines, if possible.  My chart allowed me to see where I could condense each of the three acts in my draft.  My end result:

Act 1--October 26 through November 8
Act 2--December 15 through February 15
Act 3--February 28 through March 3

Acts 1 and 3 are very condensed.  This is where the big crises happen.  Act 2 is longer, slower, and goes deeper in meaning.  I may end up condensing Act 2 even more, but that's where it stands now, since my chart-making.

I also have some gaps to deal with:  November 8 through December 15, and February 15 through February 28.  These are where I can use summarized time.  Not much happens in the story there.  These gaps aren't long; they just need to be justified.
Looking at Location and Emotional Meaning 
My timeline spanned about four months, which is a good period for a novel in my genre.

But my locations were all over the place!  There were way more locations than I could give meaning to.  I needed to also condense my location choices and make them each have meaning.

I began a new column on my chart:  meaning of locations.  The farmhouse kitchen was first.  I scanned the scenes there and saw that most of them contained revelation of some sort--a big fight, a meal where some secret was told, a reconciliation.  I began looking for scenes that weren't in the farmhouse kitchen, but could be, if I wanted to tie this meaning to this location.  I found a few and easily moved them there.

Then I went to the next location--the artist's studio.  Again, looking at the scenes there, a pattern emerged.  Searching the other scenes allowed me to move a couple and condense and focus the location's meaning.

This was quite fun, and easy to do.

Memoirists and nonfiction writers can use this same technique, but just imagine instead of location, they are using a camera lens.  Within a real-life location, there are a thousand views.  Choose the view that has the most meaning.

For instance, in a bedroom, what object, view, or setting detail evokes the meaning you're after for that scene?  Same with a classroom or corporate boardroom.  You are not able to change the location of a true event, but you can change the camera angle or view of that location.  Use this.

How Storyboards Support Your Chart 
In my online classes and my workshops, I teach writers how to organize their books' structure by using a filmmaker's technique:  the storyboard.  Storyboards are the "go-to" brainstorming tool for sequencing everything:  from scenes to locations to time to where to place flashbacks.

To make a storyboard, you can watch my video here.  Or come to one of my workshops and get hands-on training.  Storyboards are the first step I recommend, before tackling the Time and Location Chart, because they give you the bigger picture.   

Basically you write your ideas on Post-It notes and arrange them on a posterboard, then fill the boxes in with more ideas as you continue to build your book.  Easier to manipulate than an outline, storyboards make room for the right brain too--you can move those Post-It notes around as you figure out better flows.

Storyboards are great to learn about--if this interests you and you live near the Twin Cities, join me at a two-day storyboarding workshop on October 26-27 (click here for details).    

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Get out several sheets of graph paper or open a spreadsheet on your computer, like Excel.
2.  Create three columns.
3.  In the first column, list the dates of each "island" or scene in your book so far.  List them in the order they appear in the chapters.  If a section is summarized, write the span of time.
4. In the second column, list all the locations used, for each scene, also in the order they appear.  Be as specific as possible.
5.  In the third column, write the emotional meaning of the location and time/day.
6.  Consider the results.  Where can you trim?  Where must you expand, so that the reader can easily track time and location in your story?

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