How to Handle the Passage of Time in Writing

We arrived in good spirits (and making good time) in Central Florida on Friday. The sun was blazing, and the sky, clouds, and grass seem to exist in bumped-up saturation compared with Texas. While I grew up here, and eventually became a young adult, I couldn’t wait to leave home. So much so that when my plans to go away to college didn’t pan out, I enlisted in the military. But here I am again, 17 years later back where I started more or less. Sometimes I think this was a difficult way to do things. On the other hand, I left, I saw some places, and now I’m back, appreciating where I grew up more than ever before. So there.

I pulled up some examples to study how to handle time lapses in writing. Specifically, I want to know how to handle lapses in time that occur within the same scene (within the same chapter).

As I mentioned in a previous post, time is pushed along in a literary medium through words. In a visual medium, it’s movement that pushes the time continuum (think of the use of time-lapse techniques, for example). So, if I have a chapter in which I want to move from earlier in the evening to maybe two or three hours later, I have to fill the space from point A to point B with words before I can write something like, “later on…” If I don’t fill that space with enough words, the “later on” part will seem as if to come out of nowhere. Here are some examples of what I mean:

In the excerpt above from First They Killed My Father, the author has filled the paragraphs preceding “Later that night,” with dialogue that presents the context for the political catastrophe that is about to occur in Cambodia.

In this excerpt from The Hunger Games, Katniss recounts this lengthy episode with the baker’s boy and some loaf of bread in several paragraphs (not included here) before she says, “By the time I reached home…”

It’s hard to know how much prose is necessary to satisfy the reader with the sense that yes, okay, now enough “time” has passed and we can skip whatever happened in between point A and point B (in this case, Katniss’ trip home from when she received this loaf of bread). I suppose it’s best to ere on the side of more than less, so the time hack doesn’t feel contrived.

How to Handle Minor Characters and Groups in Fiction

As I work on my re-write of my manuscript, a bunch of things are clicking that hadn’t before, which is very encouraging for me! I think I have figured out how to hack into my main characters’ made-up souls to make them believable and interesting. Of course, one thing is sketching them out on my spreadsheet, and another is presenting who they are in some clever way in the story itself. (!)

One area that continues to elude me is how to handle minor characters and groups in fiction. I consistently fumbled this in my manuscript, losing my editor along the way, not making it clear who she was supposed to focus on, and who was unimportant.

Last night Steve and I watched Twilight (I know. I know.), and though I’ve never read the books, I know Stephenie Meyer had to create these high school cliques for Bella to blow off in favor of her vampire boyfriend. In visual media, perhaps showing minor characters and groups is less tricky, because you can simply put them in the background of whatever the main activity is (like Bella in the cafeteria first noticing the Cullens) and it doesn’t distract from where the audience is supposed to focus. In the movie, when Bella first notices the Cullens, she’s physically surrounded by other teens and the Cullens slow-motion walk to their table in the corner of the cafeteria. Here is the book excerpt of this scene setting up this moment from Twilight.

In this excerpt, we have two people, Bella mentions by name and one girl who she is talking to but is not named (since Bella quickly forgets her name). We get the sense that the cafeteria is full of teenagers. We know that Bella is surrounded by other people at the table (“several of her friends”), and is generally feeling like the new kid in school.

Looking at this closely, I notice a few things that Meyer has done.

  1. Each minor character Meyer introduces gets his or her little paragraph.
  2. The “group” in paragraph two has its own little paragraph.
  3. The scenery of groups and individuals is finally painted in the last paragraph.

My take-away from this little analysis is that it takes more words than I thought to develop minor characters. Also, it’s still necessary to develop minor characters and groups by citing some characteristic or behavior, to orient the reader and build the scene.

All that doesn’t seem too hard, does it?!

Pitching Unsolicited Manuscripts

I’ve gotten in a good routine here at my Airbnb without my kids or my dog or my big house to look after, aside from managing some final projects. There is something to be said—a lot to be said— for living a simpler life. While our three-story, 3300 square foot house was beautiful with lots of great spaces and amenities, it’s the sort of home where minor projects become the reason to call in a contractor. I don’t own a ladder tall enough to clean my gutters or change out the ceiling light bulbs in the main living space, for example. So here I will say for the record: I never want a big house again.

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The One Thing You Need To Know About Your Characters

Plot is simply letting characters’ desires unfold and run to their logical ends.

Ray Bradbury

My house is empty now, save some cough medicine and my Macbook desktop computer, which will travel in the back seat of the car. The contractors are upstairs painting and listening to Mexican ranchera. A favorite just finished playing, a song by Los Angeles Azules, “Como Te Voy A Olvidar.” And just like that, I was transported to someplace in Central America, sometime last fall. What fun.

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How Our Brain Processes Written Words

I watched Abbiee Emmons’ YouTube video about narrative pacing the other day (she has a lot of great writing tips on her channel), in which she explains how the rate at which your brain processes each written word affects the pace of your writing. This is because while reading, your conscious mind takes in each bit of information one word at a time. How we experience written information is much different from how we experience visual information in daily life.

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