Transitions in Time

The landscape of time can be a ticklish beast, particularly when writing. We live our lives in a linear fashion, always moving forward, never backwards or sideways. Our characters often live their lives linearly as well. In fact, books themselves must be read in a front to back fashion where chapter one leads to chapter two and so on. Yet time – or story time – is more malleable in a novel than it is in real life. Engaging a reader in the whole history of a world and character requires flashbacks, summarization of memories, and whole scenes that make us time travelers. Or as my favorite time traveler Doctor Who would say:

As authors, the question is how do we deal with all this wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff without disorienting our reader? Jumping around in time is a luxury we can explore, but walking blindly into a flashback, without any cues to the reader, will break the fictive dream and draw attention to itself. It will commit the cardinal sin of writing, which is to remind the reader that they are reading.

One of the best ways to transition a reader in time is through the careful crafting of language. Words are our tools and used craftily, that can lull a reader through an invisible portal from one time space to another.

Let’s look at four techniques to help a reader flawlessly transition through story time.

mango1) Word Repetition

Create transitions through the repetition of sounds, syllables, objects, and words. In the excerpt from The House on Mango Street below, the repetition of the words know and because are used as a portal from one time period to the next. The words move us from the present day story space to a new location in Mexico, and then back again.

“I have never seen my Papa cry and I don’t know what to do. I know he will have to go away, that he will take a plane to Mexico, all the uncles and aunts will be there, and they will have a black-and-white photo take in front of the tomb … because this is how they send the dead away in that country. Because I am the oldest, my father has told me first and now it is my turn to tell the others.”

2) Sentence and Phrase Repetition

Create transitions through the repetition of phrases, images, and sentence structure.

In this second example from The House on Mango Street, the repetition of a sentence structure creates a rhythm and punctuation to the paragraph. It is the repeating words along with the repeating rhythm that transitions the reader from impression to impression.

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine … It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings … songs like sobbing. It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine.” (The House on Mango Street)

humanbraincloud_shot13) Word Association

Remember being a kid and playing the word association game? The mind likes to make connections through visual images evoked by single words. You can also use this technique to create transitions in time and space.

The word association game begins with hair in the example below. It then riffs off of imagery to transition from hair to bread, thus moving the reader into a memory.

“But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly … sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you… is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell  when she makes room for you on her side of the bed … the rain outside falling and Papa snoring.”  (The House on Mango Street)

wordUp-44) Question and Answer

You can also use a question to transition the reader from one time to the next. The question creates curiosity in the reader’s mind and the answer works as a transition into the new time space.

“No address. No Name. Nothing in his pockets. Ain’t it a shame. Only Marin can’t explain why it mattered … but what difference does it make? He wasn’t anything to her. He wasn’t her boyfriend … Just another brazer who didn’t speak English. Just another wetback … How does she explain it?  She met him at a dance. Geraldo in his shiny shirt and green pants…” (The House on Mango Street)

There are a lot ways to transition between time and space in a story. In later posts we can discuss things like: cause and effect, causality link-chains, or pause button violations. For now, focus on the magic of phrasing and how your words can makes a transition seem inevitable, natural, and invisible.

See these time transition techniques (and more) in practice by reading and studying these awesome stories:

  • How to Tell a True War Story by Tim O’Brien
  • The House on Mango Street by Sanda Cicneros
  • Small Damages by Beth Kephart

Word Crimes

I’ve spent the last week neck-deep in revisions and in a coffee-induced state of mania. It’s exciting to be on deadline, but also a little nerve wracking. Realizing I might go crazy and turn into Jack Nicholson from The Shining, my fiance was kind enough to force me to take a break.

“There’s a hilarious new Weird Al Yankovic video, you have to see,” he told me. I was skeptical. I love Weird Al, but I had work to do!

I conceded, and I’m so glad I did. I can’t get this song out of my head! All you grammar nerds are about to pee your pants with excitement at how brilliant and fun this is.

Even if you’re busy, take a quick break from all your hard work and enjoy this awesomeness. You’ll be glad you did.

Marketing Fun and the “If I Stay” Movie

Okay, so I don’t normally promote silly marketing ploys … even when they have to do with fantastic YA books.

But, this one is so darn fun.

I have to admit, I’m really excited that Hollywood is turning a bunch of contemporary YA books into movies! Books like If I Stay, The Spectacular Now, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Fault in Our Stars! These are books that deal with difficult subjects like alcoholism, death, and cancer, proving that YA (at least in the eyes of film) isn’t just fighting to the death in the latest and greatest Dystopian world. Not to say I don’t love Hunger Games, Divergent, or The Giver. I’m just really happy that difficult teen subjects are being taken seriously as subject matter worthy of film.

So yes, I’m gonna take a moment and share this silly promo gimmick for an absolutely wonderful novel (If I Stay by Gayle Forman) that comes out as a film in August.

What’s the gimmick? You can generate your own IF I STAY movie poster!

The movie poster is actually very beautiful and well designed:

 

new-if-i-stay-movie-poster

And now you can insert your own photos into the poster’s design, like this:

My_If_I_Stay_Poster

Do you need this in your life. No. Is it fun. Absolutely. Did this gimmick work? Of course it did, here I am talking about it like a fool. I don’t know if this will make you see the movie, or better yet read the book, but at least my ten-minute internet distraction resulted in making something beautiful. And that’s worth something.

Create your own If I Stay movie poster here!

Now stop playing on the internet and go back to writing! :)

4 Tips for Writing Great Scenes

We all want to write scenes that grip our readers and keep them glued to the page! Easier said than done, right? Well, here are four tips that I try to keep in mind every time I sit down to craft a scene. They aren’t 100% fool-proof, but they often help me find that extra oomph to make my scene’s sing.

ptsd-soldier-crying1)  Make Sure Your Scene Has Dramatic Action.

The number one reason a scene falls flat is because it doesn’t have any dramatic action. Dramatic action is the action the protagonist takes to resolve the problem he has suddenly been faced with.

In STORY, Robert Mckee talks about dramatic action as “story events” and defines them as an event that creates a meaningful change in the life situation of a character and is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.”

Well plotted stories are built on stringing together the scenes that have dramatic action. These are the important moments within the character’s life that move the plot forward. For example, we seldom see a character go to the bathroom or sleep, because there’s no dramatic action in these moments. Instead, we pick the scenes that are the most exciting and meaningful for the reader to read.

smiley face images2)  Is There a Significant Emotional Change in the Scene?

A great way to tell if your scenes have dramatic action is to check and see if there’s a significant emotional change. If the character starts the scene happy and leaves it happy, nothing has happened. But if a character starts happy and leaves sad, then something has happened in the scene to change their life situation and make them sad.

You can track the emotion of your scene by drawing emotion faces (happy faces, frowning faces) at the opening and closing of your scenes. The emotion should reflect the emotion your character carries into the scene, and the emotion the character carries out of it in when it’s over. If the emotion-face is the same, for example both are grumpy faces, then you don’t have any dramatic action in the scene. This indicates that the scene may need to be cut or revised.

expectations-a-poem-by-pooky3)  Set Up Reader Expectations

Setting up expectations helps the reader to feel the emotional change in a scene. If we know what a character wants and expects as she enters a situation, the reader becomes more invested. They want to see if the character succeeds or fails. You won’t have any reversals and surprises if you haven’t set up any expectations for the reader.

It’s much more exciting to watch a scene where a character scales a cliff if we know he’s afraid of heights, or we know his family is trapped at the top, or we know he thinks he can’t do it. It’s rewarding to see the character defy his fear. It adds tension if we know each misstep means he’s one step further away from saving his family from that fire-breathing dragon above (of course … you’ve got to set that up that dragon!).

Protecting4)  Stop Protecting Your Characters

Even though we’re told to “torture our characters” it’s really common for us to protect them instead. Have you ever written as scene and decided to:

  • Have an important conversation interrupted by another character/event.
  • Had a character freeze up and avoid talking about their feelings in internal monologue.
  • Had your character avoid asking an important question? Or had another character avoid answering it?
  • Hinted to something, not once, but over and over and over again, and never unveiling the truth until late in the book.
  • Bailed your character out of a situation before it reeeeeeally got tough?
  • Avoided writing a scene because you the author felt uncomfortable?

All of that, is protecting your character (or in the example of the last one, yourself). The most common culprit is interruption. What’s happening is we start a scene, but the second it gets to the tough questions or uncomfortable conflicts, we bail our characters out of the scene and ask our readers to wait.

Sometimes we think we’re creating mystery and tension by drawing out the answers to questions, or avoiding the main conflicts. In real life we absolutely avoid questions and conflicts. But in drama … well, we want the drama!

Don’t cut off the scene before it gets going. Don’t avoid the dramatic action!

Stop protecting your character by allowing her to wander, avoid, and be bailed out of situations. Lock your characters in a room and make them deal with their conflicts! Be brave and get to the guts of the scene.

Happy scene-writing everyone!

Immersion: The Writing Process

We each have our own writing processes, and every book demands to be written differently. While participating in the #writingprocess blog tour last month, I talked about how my current WIP has been a difficult project to wrap my brain around. I said:

“This book demands immersion. She demands focus for hours at a time. And I’m not talking half-assed freewriting or NaNoWriMo first draft word-puke. This novel wants my blood. I do the best I can to keep myself immersed in this novel as much as I can, because she likes to hole up and shut me out for weeks if I’m not diligent.”

I haven’t been diligent. I’ve allowed this project to hide in the back of my mind. I’ve been avoiding it.

So after failing to immerse myself in this novel, I’ve decided to dive in 100% and go for it. There’s no time like the present. I just dropped my fiance off at the airport and he won’t be back for five days. Which means I have five days without distractions. It also means I can turn my writing studio (which happens to be in our living room) into a shrine to this project.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done. Say hello to my workspace this week:

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Yup, I’ve covered the walls with all of the brainstorming I’ve done on this project: character sheets, outlines, mind-webs, questions I need to answer and more.

Workspace

I’ve been working through John Truby’s 22 Steps of Story Structure:

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I’ve collected setting and location images:

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I’ve created character sheets with photos and lists of controlling beliefs, external goals, fears, moral needs, self revelations, and distinguishable traits.

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As much as I’ve been avoiding this project … I can’t anymore. Not if I have to look at this every morning!

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Lets hope this keeps me motivated!

I wish you all happy writing this week and the next. And if you have images of your work spaces, I’d love to see them!