Shifting Gears Too Fast

Most authors know that a novel should contain a series of obstacles the protagonist must overcome. These obstacles gain greater meaning if they are placed in context, including the relationships of the affected characters and their backgrounds. A major factor that affects the balance between plot and context is chronology. When should the story forge into the future, and when should it delve into the past?

A novel has a starting and ending point, yet an author may choose to begin somewhere in the middle. Let’s use the dissolution of a marriage as an example. While you can open the book when the couple first met, that starts the story off on the wrong foot. That's when they're happy together. To show the dissolution, a novel would better open at the point one partner first suspects the other is having an affair. That could be one year, five years, twenty years into the marriage. The bloom is off the rose.

If that point in time is chosen, the question then becomes: how long should you stick with the immediate crisis before providing the context? After all, couples break up all the time, so you have to define why the reader should care about your couple. That requires background. If you jump back in time too fast, though, you may not have added up enough present-time issues to make the present crisis gripping.

Several methods of flipping back and forth in time can be used. The more standard one sets up a present issue, then goes back in time to record the couple’s history in an extended run from start to the present. The more difficult feat is jumping back and forth more frequently, creating juxtaposition. No matter which is chosen, however, you still have to give the reader enough reason to care about the crisis that opened the book. The sole exception is a murder—the end point of a novel that dwells in the past.

In most cases, length of coverage determines reader interest in an obstacle. If you spend five pages narrating the present problem, then jump back in time for 20 pages to cover the course of the marriage, think of how that affects the reader. You’re trading a brief spurt of immediacy for four times that amount of background. Is your reader going to wait that long?

Exercise: You’re better off setting a target at the beginning: go 30 pages, maybe 50 in the present. That length forces you to plunge into the opening crisis to a depth that will truly draw the reader into the book. We can meet a few key players, get a sense of how they rub each other the wrong way. Once you establish the promise of plenty of friction to come, now let’s find out how they got there.

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”
—Willa Cather

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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