Friday, September 27, 2019

Layers of Time in Fiction and Memoir: How Does a Writer Weave Past, Present, and Future into Scenes without Creating Too Much Exposition?

Your scenes have voltage, electric current, for readers.  But in most novels and memoirs, there are layers of electricity, because there are layers of time.  We move between past, present, and future in our real lives all the time, even more so on the page.  One of those times will have the most electricity, and it's good to know that.  But how do you bring in the less-alive times and make sure the reader knows enough about them, without delivering too much exposition?

Exposition is like a commercial break from your story.  It feels like the author pulling us aside to explain or deliver information she or he feels we need to make sense of a scene.  Some writers use exposition as a device, creating an obvious conversation with "dear reader."  But generally, in my experience, exposition means you haven't worked hard enough at the electricity component.  Your scene doesn't have enough voltage by itself, so you want to amp it up with another layer of time.

Backstory is often used to amp up scenes--and done well, it's amazingly effective.  Imagine two people talking.  They are reminiscing about the past.  One of them has a secret about that past that he hasn't revealed.  But the author hints at it via gestures, avoidance, even a little flash of memory here and there in his mind, quickly suppressed.  That delivers great meaning (and electricity) to the dialogue, doesn't it.  We're on the edge of our seats wondering if he's going to blurt.  And what will happen, equally tense, if he continues to hide truth.

But the highest electricity is still clearly in the present moment.  It has the most space and energy on the page.  If the writer chose to change that, going into a flashback for several pages, it might dilute some of that energy.  Readers wouldn't know which time layer was most important.  One of them always has to be, to keep us oriented.

When you think of your writing this week, consider its layers of time.  How much electricity does each have, in a scene, a chapter, the book as a whole?  Have you made it clear which is dominant?

Then pay some attention to your outer, daily life and how conscious you are of living on a time track of past, present, and future at any moment.  Although you may want to "be here now" 100 percent, our history follows us, as do our dreams for the future.  In literature, these three layers of time weave an intricate dance, and a writer's fluidity with them makes for good conflict.   

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