Creative writing- dealing with shifts in time. Part 1.
So much of the feedback that as tutors we offer to creative writing students focuses on line editing the prose. That in itself is hardly a surprise- as the problems that jump right out are usually there- but the deeper feedback tends to consider more aspects such as ‘character’ and ‘plot’. Deeper feedback concerns rather murkier concepts, like the intention of the story and the themes. But one area is often missed. It’s an area of uncertainty I’ve noticed a few students enquire about- and that’s how to handle the time frame. Particularly the transitions between scenes. As one student said to me today, it is the moving together from one scene to another, involving some or all of the characters from what has preceded, that can be really tricky. As this student said- ‘I appear to be able to deal with transition where there is a wide time gap but when I’m writing about a time frame of a few hours my writing can become very disjointed.’
My advice on how to deal with scene transitions considers a few layers of the story.
So in the first instance I would draw attention to the difference between the ‘order of happening’ in a story and the ‘order of telling.’
If we consider the opening to Dostoevsky’s 1867 (but still relevant!) story ‘The Gambler’-
‘At length I returned from two weeks leave of absence to find that my patrons had arrived three days ago in Roulettenberg. I received from them a welcome quite different to that which I had expected.’
We have here in these lines the ‘order of happening’ (‘I go on leave’, ‘my patrons arrive’ and ‘I return’) and- distinctly- the ‘order of telling’ (‘I return’, ‘two weeks leave’, ‘my patrons arrived three days ago’.)
As authors we make clear choices as to the narrative frame we apply. We choose which section of the story we want to tell (usually the one with the most upheaval and character change) and the order in which we tell it. I am increasingly familiarising my students with the concept of ‘linear’ and ‘modular’ story design. Linear stories literally follow the order of events. Modular stories jump around between moments in the time frame, with the core principle behind the modular design being that on completion of the story there is a coherence that is satisfying to the reader. I often compare the effect of a modular story (which ties up emotional, thematic and practical threads by the end of the piece) to that of a mosaic. The individual components are unsatisfying, but as an aesthetic whole, the piece is satisfying.
The temptation to keep things simple with a linear time frame opens up a risk. Parts of a story can be sluggish, if we are committed to telling all of it. Fascinating facets of a character can remain unexplored if we just follow a linear thread. But a modular time thread allows us to fully explore various facets of the story and then orchestrate the order of telling to make the most of its richness, and drama. In my own work I have often used modular design to jump from one character’s story into another’s, with both offering different snapshots of the overall linear story. After all- we cannot mess with the linear order in which events took place. But we can draw more texture and tension out of the story from the order in which we tell of its events.
I have often found that using one character’s Point Of View for one chapter, and then starting in another character’s POV in the next is a great way to do this. As, in the first person, one character’s POV is inevitably bounded by their own perceptions and experiences. This in turn creates a kind of second story in the reader’s mind, where they hold conceptually the events that they know about in their mind, and thereby have their own imagination and intellect invested in the story to try and complete it. This is all part of offering what Roland Barthes called the superior, or ‘readerly’ story- ones in which the reader has to invest with the author to help complete the work.
Image: Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels