Bouncing Through Time

Novel writing belongs in a peculiar province of thought. When a person sits down to write, he is making up stuff about other people. The writer must suspend his own belief in reality, and in turn compose a story that is realistic enough for others to suspend their beliefs. When viewed in this way, it is not surprising that an author can fail to make a strong connection between what he would do in normal life and what his characters do.

This chasm yawns open particularly in the realm of a character’s private affairs. Let’s say you are writing about a young woman who becomes one of the first nurses under Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. She had a career in nursing that spanned four decades. Excited by what you’ve found about her activities during the Civil War, then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and all the way to the Spanish-American War of 1898, you imagine a devoted assistant that is your main character. As her boss attends to the next international crisis, along goes your heroine. You find plenty of research on every one, providing numerous gripping scenes of saving the stricken.

Now let’s turn to her private life. If she’s going to all those places, she likely has little of it. She’s too busy doing the 19th-century equivalent of jetting to all these locales. So, given that arrangement, how is the character going to reach a dramatic turning point? What would the turning point be? She decides to quit nursing? I suppose you can make that emotionally satisfying—the yellow fever epidemic was the last straw!— but it seems pretty dry.

The problem with any novel that jumps through time is that we don’t live our lives that way. If I jumped five years ahead in a page, I would have trouble remembering what bothered me so much back then. I’m not even talking about all of the significant events that have occurred in those five years, which have impacted a number of people near and dear to me. At the flick of a pen, all of that continuity is sundered. In effect, it all has been rendered meaningless. I’m telling the reader I didn’t think writing about the events during those five years was worth the bother.

The difference between an engaging concept and a deeply wrought novel is the level of abstraction. That nurse starts out there, a figment of the imagination, but by the end she needs to reside inside your heart. You have to bend time to suit her, not the other way around.

Exercise: One exception would be a novel that is personally front-loaded. By that I mean that you lay a foundation of relationships to which the wandering hero returns periodically through the novel. Such snapshots could show over the course of decades how much the one who left home has lost.

“A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that's the time that seems long in the memory.”
—John Steinbeck

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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