Time and Relativity

No it’s not a post on physics… But it is about relativity to the observer (either a character, or you, the reader).

Writing a story like Small Cuts, in which the tale is told from the perspectives of not one, not two but four different characters is a challenge. Not to mention that the scenes are not strictly chronological. There have been overlaps, some jumping ahead and some flashing back from the characters’ points of view. More than one of you has mentioned how difficult it must be to keep track of the details. And you would be correct!

One basic way I’ve organized the story as I write it, is to keep the sections as individual documents rather than writing one continuous manuscript. This allows me to have multiple documents open at the same time for quick reference as to what happened previously, both in the full narrative and in the individual character’s timeline.

The second tool I use is a timeline spreadsheet: a log of the major plot points and bits of dialogue that are crucial to the story. I started doing this while I wrote my first novel —a mystery with a progressive revealing of clues— and found it to be indispensable. For a shorter work like Small Cuts, which I think is going to end up as a long short story (under 30,000 words) I would usually not need one. However, the multiple points of view require a great deal of coordination so that it all melds seamlessly.

I’ll use the story to explain what I mean.

In the last section featuring James, I back up in time from what I had written for the other three characters. Oliver and Elaine have met at the Center City Hotel, Genevieve has left the house to see what Oliver is up to. James, however, is still in his driveway waiting to back out on to the street to leave for his golf outing. He sees Oliver drive past, Elaine is still upstairs in bed and Gen is at home in her fugue state. The critical issue in this section of the story —beginning when everyone gets up, to James following Oliver and Gen tracking him down, to Elaine meeting Oliver in the lobby and the emergency vehicles driving by— is making sure there is enough time for each of the characters to perform the actions they have taken in the order in which I’ve written them. Here’s a breakdown for you:

Genevieve is the first one to rise. She goes downstairs, makes coffee and then blacks out at the window while staring at the birds. She doesn’t realize Oliver has gone until she snaps out of it. We know he hasn’t been gone long because the shower is still steamy and his scent lingers. Gen takes a minute to check the news, look for Oliver using the phone app and dress and leave the house.

Oliver is up and out of the house just a little bit ahead of James at his own house. He drives past James as he is backing out of the driveway and then continues onto Center City where he parks in the hotel garage. Oliver is early for his meeting with Elaine so he goes for a walk around the park. Meanwhile, James has abandoned following Oliver and is now speeding toward his original destination: the golf course. He is delayed by getting lost and having to circle back into the city. This puts him on the same stretch of road at the same time as Genevieve.

Elaine is about half an hour behind the rest of them, having risen just after James leaves to shower and dress for her brunch date with Oliver. For reasons I have yet to explain, she has taken a different route into the city but arrives just as emergency vehicles are speeding past the hotel to an unknown crisis. (By now you all have figured it out but Ollie and Elaine are oblivious.)

I’m sure you can see what a mess this might have been if I’d neglected to include enough time for the various scenarios to play out. Ideally, this piece would be best mapped out with a chart with a line for each character as they carry out their actions. I wish I’d thought of it sooner, but this is one of the rare occasions that I am writing by the seat of my pants. *Note to self: buy huge whiteboard.* Nevertheless, I’ve made liberal use of my post-it notes for the details of my timeline. Thank goodness I buy them by the case! And at least they are moveable if I find myself with an inconsistency or a paradox of some kind.

Anyway, every writer does it just a little bit differently. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to organize your work. Unless of course, you don’t organize it at all… and run the risk of making enormous errors in the timeline!

Wishing you happy writing and productive editing!

17 thoughts on “Time and Relativity

  1. When I write as I go, I sometimes I have issues… but I figure either (a) no one will notice or (b) I’ll fix it if I ever do anything “real” with the story. But it sure does get complicated… especially with your many points-of-view!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In a way it’s good to be working out all these ‘issues’ on the blog. When you have friends who are close enough to give honest feedback it is so helpful! In a roundabout way, I was drawing attention to the multiple perspectives with this post in the hopes that the people reading along will be watching for mistakes so that I can correct them. I’m going to try and submit this story for publication eventually – not self publish, I think. 😬

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