By Michael Caligaris
Time in writing is important. I know this is not groundbreaking news, but I think it should be said often and with passion.
Time informs everything within a story. Is it noon? Are we going fast or slow? What century are we in? Decade? Season? Day? You’d be surprised how often the amateur writing forgets or neglects time in their writing. And if I—or any other agent—lose the sense of time in a story, this is essentially the death of the story. So I have three general tips to keep in mind when revising.
This is the most simple and prosaic example I will have on this list, but I also think it is the most essential.
Whenever you are beginning a new chapter, short story, section or scene, I believe a time marker must be found in the first paragraph–a signpost for the reader.
Here are some examples:
Once her hair was dry,
It wasn’t yesterday and it wasn’t tomorrow,
Pretty simple, right? However, writers often take for granted this easy task. I can’t stress enough that whenever a current scene ends in a story, the next one must be positioned in time.
Time mechanisms are not just clocks. A lot of us would go insane if the only way we registered time was by staring at a clock. What other ways can your characters tell time?
Here are some examples:
The elongated ash of a cigarette.
The newly formed laugh lines in her mother’s face upon their reunion.
The collection of empty beer cans on the floor.
The blood moon coming out from behind the clouds.
To express the passage of time in a scene or story, try finding that unique mechanism that makes the passage feel organic.
Oh, the beloved flashback. We writers rely on it often. The problem is that they are a dime a dozen and they are usually bad. Here are my thoughts on why this is often the case.
The transition is really the main pitfall of flashbacks. Here’s a bad scene: “Mary looked at the banana and the yellow made the room spin. All of a sudden she was thinking back to the yellow couch of her grandmother’s and the dead cat she found underneath it.”
This is bad because it’s basically written like the narrator looked a banana, the picture began to fade in and out as chimes played, only for the narrator to reemerged in a memory decades before. What I’m getting at is this is written cinematically—we are conditioned to think of flashbacks in a really literal sense.
A better version of that scene: “Mary grabbed the banana off the table and stumbled a bit as she made her way out the door. There was something about the shade of yellow of the fruit. It was mustard-like instead presenting its usual brightness. Her grandmother had a couch this color and she couldn’t help thinking about the dead cat, Fritz, which she found underneath that mustard-colored couch. She turned left into the parking lot.” This is by no means good. However, it does incorporate a more organic approach to flashbacks. Present scene is balanced with the memory or flashback. There is a more believable reasoning to why we are flashing back. If you find yourself writing a scene that requires flashback, perhaps pay attention to how you are bringing your character back in time.
These are only three small tips, but it’s good to have them in the forefront of your mind at all times.
Tick-Tock, the clock is ticking. You should be writing.
Michael is a literary agent at Holloway Literary. Follow him on social media @mikecali31.