Tuesday, March 19, 2013

TTYU Retro: Dealing with Chronological Breaks in Your Story

Do time-breaks in your story ever drive you mad?

They do me. My recently completed novel was on a very strict schedule - this event has to happen on one day, then this other event has to happen at a three-day delay, and then the next one at the same three-day interval, etc. etc. I got to a certain point and I realized, "I'm on the wrong day. More time has to pass than this. How can I get more time to pass?"

If I were using a more external narrator, this might be easier. I might just say, "The next day..." or "Three hours later..." and there we go. Well, okay, it wouldn't be that simple. The real problem with chronological breaks is that you have to maintain the story drive in spite of them, which means you have to create a sort of bridging effect across them.

So what kind of continuity links can make this work? There's quite a range. You can make an explicit reference to the amount of time passing, but this works more easily with a distant narrator; with a deep point of view, there would have to be a specific reason why the character was aware that this much time was passing. Besides which, I don't prefer to make direct reference to the amount of time if I can help it. I much prefer to use a topic link, or a psychological link.

A topic link means that you leave a cue in the last piece before your time break that you can then pick up again on the other side. I had a case where I was struggling with a break that looked something like this: Nekantor and Tagret were talking about their plans to contact the Sixth Family, and Nekantor said effectively, "No problem, we'll contact them; it'll be great to do this while father's busy talking to his friend Doret." Whereupon Tagret said, "Why is he talking to Doret?" I tried to move on from there to the meeting with the Sixth Family and it felt really awkward because I was feeling as if I had to show them getting a message off, getting a message back, sleeping on it (ugh!) etc. I thought to myself, "What did I do? Why am I feeling obliged to fill all this space with events?" And then I realized that I hadn't bridged properly. None of the message-sending stuff, or what happens in between, is actually relevant to their goals. It shouldn't be in the story. Where I turned off-course was in having Nekantor specifically refer to what they would do to contact the Sixth Family and when they would do it. That automatically sets up an expectation that we will see it as it happens, find out about Doret, etc. Not even explaining the amount of time passed would feel quite right.

So I went back and cut everything out that I had written, so that I stopped with Nekantor saying, "No problem; we'll contact the Sixth Family." The only expectation I set up there is that their next order of business is contacting the Sixth Family - and that allows me to hop straight across the time gap.  I can open the next section with "The Sixth Family took nearly a full day to reply, specifying an evening meeting..." and give Nekantor and Tagret's reactions to their slowness, thus orienting readers to the fact that time has passed and making it personally relevant to the characters and their state of mind. Because of the bridge, it doesn't feel like anything is missing.

The other kind of link that I like to use is a psychological link. Basically this means that instead of focusing on the flow of external events, which might make me feel obligated to include them all, I turn inward to the state of mind that my character is in when the time break is happening. I have a break of several hours that I made a bridge for, between a morning event where Nekantor encounters a setback, and an evening event where he is put under significant pressure. I set up that he's got to wait until evening for the event; I didn't want to have him wandering around all day doing irrelevant stuff. My focus was therefore on how he felt about the setback he'd just been dealt, and what he felt he had to do about it. The presence of the later event meant that whatever confusion he was experiencing, he had to get through it before he was "put on trial"; I could therefore focus on him trying to find a way forward mentally, and refer to his various attempts to break his state of mental confusion without having to ground them in actual external time. He could then make the decision to take action just at the time when the chronological flow of outer events had to resume, which allowed me to move back into the outer events at that point.

I'm sure there are more ways to do this, so feel free to share if you have any special tips. I just thought I'd mention these methods because they are particularly useful when I'm dealing with a time break in deep point of view.

It's something to think about.