Slowing and speeding up time can effectively enhance our stories, as my last post showed. It seems apt that this January post should discuss the mechanics of such manipulation. Just nine days ago felt like last year!
First, a confession. When I attempted my first novel, I wrote down everything my protagonist did, every hour of every day. How she woke up (oh, how I varied it—alarm clock! Rooster! Someone barging into her room!). Everything she ate (conflict—she didn’t cook!). You get the picture (oh how I overwrote, when the reader might have gotten the picture with only two examples!). But I had to start somewhere to get a sense of what it’s like to move through story in a world of your creation, and I did.
I’m not alone. In my work as a developmental editor I see a lot of clunky handling of time, so let’s look at some ways to bridge awkward time gaps that might be introduced once you pull all the non-crucial elements from your story.
Physically, a gap in time is represented by a gap on the page: a line break, chapter break, or section break (Part One, Book Two, etc.). But since every break in your novel is an opportunity for the reader to set down your book, you’ll want to take care with how you set it up. Let me show you how.[Note paragraph break here, introducing a gap that might inspire you to set down this post. But I have raised a question, and if you want the answer to it, you’ll keep reading.]
Raise question, insert gap, woo reader
Bridging the gap involves raising a question to which the reader wants an answer, inserting the gap, and then wooing the reader back with a line as effective as the opening of your book. Think of this as a literal bridge, with tension suspending a path back into the story. Re-orient the reader as you hit new territory on the other side, so the reader knows where the characters now are in time and space.
Let’s look at examples from Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, a novel that spans four decades and two continents.
The opening is devoted to the harrowing delivery of twin brothers at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—131 pages of it. That is a long trip down the birth canal! The excessive word count—nearly one-sixth of the novel—shows us that the drama surrounding this birth is at the core of the story. The medically squeamish will be happy to hear that wound through the delivery story are threads that show the convergence of important characters and their backstories in a way that will set up the story’s seminal relationships.
After a prologue gets things humming, Verghese revisits how the mother, a nun, and the father, a psychologically disturbed yet brilliant surgeon, met and grew close. Backstory is an element that introduces a time gap, so let’s see how Verghese ramped back up to the current timeline:
For seven years Stone and Sister Mary Praise kept the same schedule. When he operated late into the night and into the morning, she was across from him, more constant than his own shadow, dutiful, competent, uncomplaining, and never absent. Until, that is, the day when my brother and I announced our presence in her womb and our unstoppable desire to trade the nourishment of the placenta for the succor of her breasts.
This time gap creates meaning: the only relevant thing the reader needs to know about those seven years was how Dr. Stone drew peace and strength from the ever-loyal presence of Sister Mary Praise.
By page 204, time has inched forward only six weeks. The headstone for Sister Mary Praise, who died in childbirth, has just been placed, but the story is about to pick up a little more forward momentum. Note the constant re-orientation to the timeline as the story now skips like a rock over the water of time, touching down only when something significant happens.
By twelve weeks, the twins had gained weight…
—two paragraphs later—
At five months, the boys had a riot of black curly hair…
—two pages later—
One very cold night when the twins were nine months old, and while the mamithus slept in their quarters, and when Matron had returned to hers, everything changed.
Part Three starts on p. 219 when the boys are toddlers. This isn’t stated outright, but we are clued in by phrases such as “…I beg to be carried. I want higher ground.”
We can imagine that they lose baby teeth and spill their drinks and ask “Why?” a thousand times—we don’t need to witness it, because that’s not what the story is about. Instead, the author ages the twins in ways that show how their lives are entwined. When a teacher finally notices a speech delay in one twin while the other is home sick in bed, we learn not only that they’re now old enough to be in school, but that one twin has been compensating for the other.
By chapter 25, the boys are 12 and political unrest has affected their family. Verghese offers us a couple of great examples of un-put-downable chapter bridges.
The end of Chapter 25 refers to Hema, the woman who has raised the boys:
She drank a glass of water that had passed through the purifier. She had just put the glass down when Almaz came running in. “Madam, don’t drink the water. They say the rebels poisoned the water supply.”
But it was too late because Hema felt her face burning red and then came the worst belly cramps of her life.
The opening of the next chapter refers to Ghosh, the father who raised them:
When Gebrew met us at the gate and said men had had come and snatched Ghosh from Missing, my childhood ended.
That chapter ends:
If this is what brave felt like—numb, dumb, with eyes that could see no farther than my bloody fingers, and a heart that raced and pined for the girl who hugged me—then I suppose I was brave.
And the next opens with high stakes begging whatever bravery our narrator can find:
Hanging seemed to be the fate of anyone who’d been close to General Mebratu. What spared Gosh thus far was that he was a citizen of India. That and the prayers of his family and his legion of friends. His imprisonment did more than suspend everything in my world; it took away any meaning life once had for me.
Adopt these mad skills and time gaps will no longer be scary voids into which your reader might fall. On the contrary, time gaps will keep your story humming, and the bridges you create will keep your reader oriented and engaged.
Are there techniques here that might be of use in your WIP? Have you ever struggled to maintain story tension over stretches of time? How have you handled it?
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