19 December 2021

On the Compression of Time


Welcome to the last blog post of this year, a not so prestigious milestone in a year of diminishing blog posts. I've been busy deciding how best to do nothing. Writing is my only escape. That's my story, anyway. To keep the record consistent, however, I am uploading this post. Time flies, even with a broken wing, so this post is about time in fiction writing.

When I was writing my semi-biographical novel A GIRL CALLED WOLF, I was working from the events of a real person's life - a remarkable narrative, I believed, and worthy of telling and sharing with the world. I had gotten to know the story's real heroine via Facebook (we had a mutual friend), and I interviewed her about her childhood in Greenland and what followed. However, when transforming someone's real life into a fictionalized version, I was struck by the conundrum of how to end the novel since she would continue on in real life while the novel would have an ending.

Taking the events of a life, twenty-five years at the time, and hitting only the highlights and omitting the rest is often a recipe for a cheesy Hallmark movie, which was not what I wanted. I had to put myself in the mind of a child describing an unfamiliar world, then as a teenager with teenage problems, then be a young adult discovering new worlds and adapting constantly to changing conditions. That was the kind of narrative that intrigued me, hence my desire to collaborate on this "based on a true life" novel. (You can read more about this project here.)

I learned clever ways to compress the timeline, sometimes going medias res (starting in the middle of the action) and backfilling needed info, for example. I divided the novel into longer chapters which corresponded to phases in her life, based on different locations as she moved from one home to the next. It was rather like writing a fantasy quest story but set in modern times - albeit with primitive conditions at the outset. It begins in the arctic and it ends in the arctic. The ending I chose, approved by the woman whose story I was writing, brings us full circle and provides symmetry and offers a profound message about resilience. 

For those readers who wish for an update (no spoilers for the book), Anna is quite well, living her life in Winnipeg, Canada - from where we last saw her heading north in the book. She had a real arctic adventure (with better results than in the book) during the covid crisis in 2020 working med-evac communications from a town in Nunavut. All is well with her and her son - and a new baby. 

A timeline story like A GIRL CALLED WOLF is what I seem to be writing now in my work-in-progress, POST. The chapters and the scenes within chapters parallel the day to day experiences of the cast. Some days are more interesting than others. I expend more text on the exciting days and next to none on the routine days. Such is the quirk of narrative. It's whatever the narrator deems worth narrating. In this new novel - a post-pandemic / post-apocalyptic tale of a boy and his mom and her tuba - I recount how they fled from a chaotic city hoping to survive in the countryside but finding dangers along the way. Changing plans and directions several times brings them to a new destination but one where all is not what it seems at first.

So again I am faced with telling the story of a family and their activities day by day. To speed things up, I skip days. I compress time. I slow down for real-time narrative and go into overview mode to get to the next interesting thing that happens. It's rather like the opera method (read more here) where the scene with the moment by moment action is the aria - a full set piece that displays detail, emotion, and purpose - while the other parts of the story are needed only to move you to the next aria, what we call the recitative. I enjoy writing the aria scenes (though often complex and challenging) and manage to type out some kind of recitative during the drafting stage to be filled out better later.

I find that I'm starting scenes ("sub-chapters") in my new novel most often with dialog, even as a short phrase, then filling in what's needed to know via the ensuing conversation. Otherwise, I begin with a setting description. For important plot points, you have to write out the scene in the detail you would find if acted out on stage. Cannot compress time, cannot gloss over, cannot merely suggest or hint at. You must write it out as though choreographing every movement and every utterance precisely. All right, yes, you can skip over mundane talk: instead of exact speech in quotation marks (e.g., "I shall go forth and write," the bard proclaimed.) you simply say what the character said without having to write out what he said exactly (e.g., The bard proclaimed he would go forth and write). 

Where's my books?
At 95,000 words, I should be nearing the end of my new novel. However, the way the story is proceeding, I could follow the cast members' adventures forever. I only need to invent more things for them to do. If not, I shall have to end it sometime, somewhere, somehow. I'm currently wrestling with how to end the novel. I have three ideas: a happy, hopeful ending; a sad/tragic but inevitable ending; or the vague could-go-either-way ending full of profound meaning. Place your vote in the comments below...and then go have yourself a wonderful holiday season.

Many thanks for your continuing patronage!

(C) Copyright 2010-2021 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

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