7.20.2016

Bury Your Time Gaps

A difficult issue for any novelist is corralling the events of a character’s life into a meaningful progression. The longer the life span covered, the more the fallow periods weigh down the productive ones. When you’re trying to link together events that destroy a marriage, for example, all the years that a couple is happy negate any tension created when they were first getting to know each other. Yes, he is still too loud, but she’s put up with it this long, so why’s that such a problem?

This dampening effect operates even when the good years are passed over. The early years, when they first met each other, could take up the first half, and their late years, when they fall apart, comprise the second half. As a reader, though, I’m still feeling the afterglow of their union. Didn’t they get married 50 pages ago?

You may want to use a reset button. You place all the early events in Part 1, and you put the breakup material in Part 2. The effect of blank pages in the middle of a book informs the reader that what happened before is over. You can then dump X numbers of years into that white gutter. I call it burying a time gap.

When you do this, you create discrete time periods. The early years run only so long. Within that compass you can build up a number of issues that develop tension. The same occurs in the second part, only to greater effect. You have all the material in Part 1 to build on, but the breakup occurs within a constricted period. The more compression of time, the more combustion. One thing leads to another and to another, and pretty soon he’s shouting at the top of his lungs. Yes, always loud, but now he’s drunk most of the time too.

I’ll caution against the use of too many parts. A five-part structure might fit a historical saga well, because jumping between generations is one of the genre’s conventions. For most stories, though, you have to consider that each new break chops up the novel. That can make the reading experience choppy and episodic. The more you can create a building sweep—with characters, with plots—the greater the crescendo at the end.

Exercise: When considering the dramatic compression of time, a useful analogue is a theatrical play. Long Day’s Journey into Night squeezes years of a dysfunctional family’s rancor into one explosive visit home. A novel does not have to go that far, but the more you build one event time-wise on top of another, the more cumulative power you gain.

“All the events of his life were compressing to singularity: one night, one hour.”
—Anthony Doerr

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine





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