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: [Read more…]