I’m excited to welcome back our dear friend Amy Atwell. For many writers, Amy’s been a continued source of inspiration and determination. Today’s post is one of several ways Amy has given time and resources to the writing community, and we love her for it.
Without further ado, I give you Amy!
Thank you to the Romance University crew for inviting me back—especially on a Friday. Today’s post is tailored for the Chaos Theory of Writing curriculum and focuses on a central feature in every story: TIME. I can think of nothing more chaotic for writers than figuring out how they wish to handle time in their stories. Well, unless it’s managing the time while writing their stories!
Most people view time in the simple linear pattern of before, during and after (aka past, present and future). These are abstract concepts that we master as children and rarely question. We learn to measure time in seconds, minutes and hours and conduct our daily lives within these confines. At the same time, we’ve all experienced time dragging or flying.
Not to get too deep into the scientific study of time, but physicists now theorize that time is not linear, only our perception of it is. Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking are two of the most prominent voices that have made all of science rethink our understanding of time. Theory of Relativity. A Brief History of Time. And if you need to take a break and risk making your brain explode, try this article by Hawking on building a time machine—yes, it’s conceivable!
But for our purposes today, let’s look at how human understanding of time affects how readers and writers approach storytelling. Stories can easily be divided into two distinct styles: linear and non-linear.
Linear stories start at Point A and follow a logical progression of time-bound events that lead the characters to Point B. Many books follow this construction. Children’s classics such as Charlotte’s Web, 19th century classics such as Around the World in Eighty Days, contemporary romantic comedies such as Bridget Jones’s Diary. Notice that all of these stories encompass a specific time-period. Charlotte’s Web and Bridget Jones’s Diary both cover about a one-year period while Around the World covers just over 80 days.
Non-Linear stories piece together a story where scenes may be presented outside this single logical sequence. Stories involving flashbacks or multiple story line progressions that jump back and forth fit this construction. Hunt for Red October and other Tom Clancy books where the narrative hops among a broad cast of characters in different settings is one example. And the movies Groundhog Day and Memento show how non-linear a story can be.
The narrative style of story has evolved along with humans and technology. Verbal storytelling often uses a linear structure as this is easier for most listeners to follow and remember. Plays and, later, movies, television and video games have allowed for more non-linear stories. The audience can more easily track a non-linear story with visual cues. Even websites are constructed on a non-linear concept, where the viewer can pick and choose which page to visit in whatever sequence s/he chooses. As we become more familiar with non-linear construction, the more readily we embrace it in all forms of story—even books.
For more tips on these two structures, click HERE.
All right, I hear you…But Amy, what does any of this have to do with writing romance?
First off, we’ve all heard the “rules.” Things like don’t use prologues, or avoid flashbacks and dream sequences, write using immediate scenes, and always explain cause before showing the effect. I won’t bother to argue whether these rules are right or wrong, but I will say that rules are often meant to be broken.
So let’s agree on this: There is no one right way to craft a book. If time truly isn’t linear, then you get to decide how you want to reveal points of time to your readers. Every story is organic, and therefore how you tell it will depend on
* the story’s plot,
* the story’s cast,
* the subgenre,
* the writer and
* the audience.
How do you make the most of time within your story?
* Identify whether you have a strong personal preference to linear or non-linear stories. What you like to read often leads naturally to what you write.
* Identify your main plot and any subplots. Stories with multiple plots often lend themselves to non-linear construction while still creating a logical timeline of overall events in the story.
* Identify your subgenre. Sci-fi, fantasy and paranormal stories lend themselves readily to non-linear structure. But it can also be effective in other subgenres. Just because it hasn’t been done often doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
* Create a timeline of events in your book. Even if you eventually tell the story out of sequence, knowing this timeline will help you keep a clear perspective of what your characters know when.
* From the timeline (above), where does your story start? Is there back story that should be integrated using flashbacks?
* Seek ways to compress your timeline. If your story covers a long or an undefined time period, see whether you can shorten or define it more clearly. The “ticking clock” can help increase the tension and drama of some stories.
* Make a cast list of your characters. How many of them will have a POV in the story? Multiple POVs may allow you more freedom to explore a non-linear construction. Memento is a strong example of how a single first-person POV creates dramatic effect through non-linear construction, but even I’ll admit it feels unnatural to try and tell a HEA romance backwards. <g>
* Look at the cause and effect of the big turning points in your story. Is it important for the reader to know the cause before seeing the effect? Which style of telling will raise the stakes?
One last tip: you can also play with “time” and non-linear construction while writing your story. If all points of your story exist out there in the ether, you can write scenes out of sequence and link them into whatever construction works best as the story unfolds.
Bottom line, you’ll rarely be told you’re “wrong” by using linear sequence, but you might get a richer story from a non-linear construction. More and more readers, especially the younger generations, are encountering non-linear stories in other mediums. Open yourself to the possibilities to broaden your skills and overcome some of the chaos of writing.
Now, here’s the question of the day: was the last romance story you read written in a linear or non-linear construction? Did you even notice the use of time within the story while you were reading? Feel free to name titles and authors. Thanks!
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Please join us on Monday for Sally Bayless’s next installment of Diary of a New Writer, a series detailing her journey toward publication.
After fifteen years in professional theater, Amy Atwell turned from the stage to the page to write fiction. Her romantic suspense novel Lying Eyes debuts from Carina Press Nov. 15th. FWIW, she wrote most of the story scenes out of sequence in under five months, and the story uses 10 POVs in a multi-track timeline that is, more or less, linear. When not writing, Amy runs the WritingGIAM community to help goal-oriented writers achieve their dreams. She regularly blogs at What’s the Story? and Magical Musings.
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for Nov 1-5: C.J. Redwine, Adrienne Giordano & Amy Atwell
- Ask An Editor: Problem With Tense?
- Dirty Little Secrets
- Amy Atwell: Chaos? Tame It So You Can Write.
- A Matter of Timing: Positioning Your Major Plot Points Within Your Story by K.M. Weiland