Subjectivity and Time in Prose

I want to talk about the way time functions inside a story–specifically within prose fiction. It’s all about subjectivity.

This may be the crucial difference between books and movies, actually. Time is a director’s medium–in a movie time can be measured in footage, in actual minutes of runtime. You know how long it will take a viewer to watch a movie, and you can build your scenes around exactly how many seconds they’ll last. Writers of prose don’t have these tools at their fingertips. A reader might take six hours to read a book or six months. Their experience of time passing in a story is therefore much more subjective, and that’s where the real difference lies, in that very subjectivity.

Movies are typically objective in their scope–they are a relating of events that happened in the world; prose stories are far more subjective, exploring the psychological state of a character, how they feel and react to the events of plot. Think of the difference between a third-person and a first-person video game. The latter is all about What Happened. The latter is about what Someone Saw.

This subjectivity allows time in prose to be much more fluid than it is in the movies. It’s true movies can jump around in time, or contain subjective flashbacks, but film isn’t nearly as nimble as prose can be in this regard. A writer of prose fiction can jump back and forth in time within the space of a single sentence–recall the memories of a character or delve into their subjective experience of an event, spending pages exploring a single second of real time.

Subjective time affects every element of a story.

Time is always an element of setting–you can write a story that takes place over the events of one special summer, or the life of a character who lives to old age, or you can tell a story that happens all in one hour. Subjective time makes it possible to stretch a single moment to fill an entire book, as in Nicholson Baker’s wonderful Mezzanine, which takes place entirely over the time it takes a character to ride an escalator between two floors of a building.

Subjective time is crucial to the tone of a piece. A slow, languid story full of reminiscence and regret will feel very different from an action-packed plot full of cliffhangers and sudden reversals.

It has a major effect on characters. The more subjective time that passes during a story, the deeper the characters become, the more they will be changed by their experiences. If time is sped up and breathlessly hurtles forward, characters won’t have a chance to reflect on their own actions–which may be what you want for your story.

The structure of a story can be radically remolded by subjective time. You can put gaps in time into your story that allow us to see a character at different points in their life. You can go back and revisit events that happened long before the beginning of the story, or start in media res, or even tell a story backwards, showing us how the climax of your tale developed inescapably from prior events. Iain M. Banks uses this to brutal and undeniable effect in Use of Weapons, one of his best books, which contains two parallel narratives flowing in opposite directions through time (if that makes no sense, just read the book–it’s well worth your, ahem, time).

And of course time is the fundamental element of plot. You should always have a clear idea of the timeline of your story (even if you don’t share this timeline with your readers). The strict rationing of time can kick your story into a higher gear. Giving your characters deadlines to meet forces them to take action, forces them to make decisions. Strict rationing of time keeps events from getting bogged down–it’s absolutely one of the best ways to create dramatic tension.

Backstory and Front-Loading

Your characters didn’t appear out of the ether, newly created on page one of your book. At least, they shouldn’t feel like they did. They had lives before the story starts, families, jobs, religious affiliations, pets. If you’re going to make them feel real to the reader, you need to know their backstories. You need to at least think about where they came from.

But how much of their backstory should your reader see?

Backstory can be useful when creating characters to sketch out their entire lineage and life story. It can help you get a handle on who they are, so that when you’re writing their dialogue and plotting their actions, you’ll know what they will–and won’t–do. This is useful.

But when it comes time to actually write the story, consider not including that backstory in your text. Think about leaving it all in your notebook. Ask yourself very seriously how much of that backstory matters to the current story. Do we really care whether the Space Pirate Captain’s grandmother was fond of a certain brand of tea?

Everything you write in your story should be meaningful to that story. It should serve a purpose. Whether you’re writing a 5,000 word short or a 200,000 word epic, you just don’t have room for extraneous information.

Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, used to talk about character stories. His players would come to him with fully fleshed-out characters who had deep, rich experiences before they arrived at the table. “Character story,” he said, “is what happens between level one and level five.”

(If you don’t understand what that means, you may be reading the wrong writing blog, by the way.)

In other words, the best way to get character details across is to show them. To dramatize them during the story.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that backstory–whether it’s told as flashback or narration or a letter found in an old dictionary–slows narrative down to a crawl. It distracts your reader from the rip-roaring plot of the adventure they came to read. It brings up the question of why, if this old news is so important, did you choose to start your book later on in time? Why not write the prequel first?

The other reason to avoid extensive backstory is front-loading. Front-loading is the problem that occurs when a writer needs to put a lot of detailed information into Act I, information the reader will need to comprehend and digest before they can understand the rest of the story. Front-loading is bad. It feels like homework. It doesn’t just slow down your plot–it turns it into a slog. A death march.

If your plot hinges entirely on what a character’s father said to them when they were a child, if your worldbuilding requires you to include three chapters on how the kingdom came to be ruled by somebody’s housecat… that’s front-loading, and it can ruin a great book.

Front-loading isn’t just a character problem, as we saw in that last example, but when it comes attached to characterization–when it’s all about backstory–it’s doubly deadly. There are readers who enjoy a good history lesson at the start of a book. But when you front-load the backstory of your main (or even worse, your secondary) character(s), you sabotage your story right from the start.

The first act of your story is about establishing things as they are now. Not how they got their way. The first act is where you tell us who the important characters are–if you have a lengthy scene with your character’s math teacher, then your story becomes, de facto, about that math teacher. The first act is about establishing stakes, but front-loading backstory makes it feel like your story is just the epilogue to some other tale.

Take a very close look at the backstory of the character you’re writing right now. How did that backstory effect them? How did it change them? Rather than describing those past events in detail, could you instead get away with, say, just showing us who they are today? Could the collection of tics and mannerisms that make up a character speak for themselves? Can we get that your character is an alcoholic not by describing their drinking days, but by showing how terrified they are of going to a wedding party where everybody will be drinking?

If your backstory is slowing you down, cut it. You may have to find ways to get information across–creative ways, innovative ways. But solving problems like that is ninety per cent of what it means to be a writer.

Love Stories

For Valentine’s day, I thought I’d write down a few thoughts on one of the hardest things in fiction–writing effective love stories.

This is one of those things that’s so much easier to do in a screenplay. Of course Trinity falls in love with Neo–have you seen him? He looks just like Keanu Reeves! In fiction, though, you can’t just say “two pretty people met and fell for each other, and it was super hot.” In a book or a short story you actually have to show it happening. You need to give your reader actual reasons why the two people involved enjoy each others’ company–and why they want to take time out of their busy schedule of slaying dragons and surviving alien invasions to be together. I’ve put together some basic tips here that should help you avoid some of the common pitfalls of romance stories, especially as they’re deployed in genre fiction.

You may not actually need a love story. A lot of stories don’t. If your characters don’t get along, or if it feels like you’re just shoehorning in a romance subplot… try not doing that. Let the characters be happier as friends. Not every two people who meet in a book are destined to be together. If the love story is taking up too much room in your plot or if just feels forced, let them go their separate ways.

Opposites repel. If your characters have diametrically opposed goals–say, one is a hero and one is a villain–or if their personalities actively clash, why would they even want to date? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but when your characters are constantly squabbling, they’ll often come across more as obnoxious than lovable. Instead, try giving your characters something to bond over. You’ll be surprised how when two characters actually respect and like each other, feelings can just naturally blossom. It makes them want to spend more time together, and have more scenes together. Speaking of which!

Put your characters in the same room. Nothing feels more artificial than a love interest who is always away on quests or only shows up in the character’s life when it’s least convenient. This is the fictional equivalent of the significant other who lives in Canada or goes to a different high school so we can’t ever meet them. The lover who can’t be tied down may be a romantic archetype, but it always feels like a device, not a character. You want your two characters spending LOTS of time together. We need long dialogue scenes between them, and to have them go on adventures together to increase their bond. The more of them we see enjoying each other’s company, the more we’ll believe it when they have that first, awkward, tentative, beautiful kiss.

Give love time to grow. Yeah, this is important. Like any kind of plot or subplot, the love story happens over time. It has its ups and downs, its reversals and its misunderstandings. Having two characters meet in scene one and be making out in scene two only works if scene three is them realizing what a terrible mistake they just made (and scene four is them wondering if it really was a mistake after all, and scene five is…). This is a plot, which means it needs to develop. Which means you need to devote a lot of time to it. Don’t have enough room in your story for that? See tip number one, above.

A lover should never be a prize. Just because you broke up the drug cartel doesn’t mean you get the boy. Saving a woman from zombies doesn’t mean she owes you anything. This is an old, old trope from a bad time and it deserves to die. Both characters in a love story have their own feelings and their own value. They don’t exist just as motivation for the protagonist, and they don’t just fall into bed every time something dramatic happens. In fact, it’s a good general rule–never have a love scene immediately after something traumatic or violent happens. That’s just super creepy.

Love is a two-way sacrifice. Love means both parties giving up something of themselves to be with the loved one. Both of them. A character who drops their entire life just to go chasing after a pretty other isn’t a character, they’re an appendage. If your aspiring wizard stops practicing magic because he met a pretty woman at the library, he’s a dud. If a woman quits her job so she can move to Alaska to marry the salmon fisherman, her story is over. Your characters both need to make choices to be together, or their love feels like a plot detail rather than a story in itself.

Bad Advice: Static Protagonists

Everyone knows that your characters need to go through arcs. They need to change, or grow, or learn a lesson, or discover something about themselves before the story’s over.

Don’t believe it. Plenty of great stories are led by static characters. Most writing guides will insist that every character you create needs to be dynamic and grow over time, but in fact this is a choice (like everything in writing), one you can forego under some circumstances.

There are many different kinds of characters–many varieties of protagonist–and some of them don’t benefit from deep, character driven stories.

Let’s look at a couple kind of characters that benefit from not being so three dimensional:

Aspirational characters don’t–and shouldn’t–develop over the course of a story. These are characters who are held up as paragons of a certain desirable quality. Kind, noble, smarter than the rest of us. Sherlock Holmes never changed, in the original stories. Modern attempts to recreate the character focus on giving him substance abuse problems or neurological impairments. They never improve on the original. Every time they try to make Superman more human, or flawed, the story falls apart. Why? Because Superman isn’t supposed to be human. He’s a symbol of something nobler and more pure, something we aspire to. He has weaknesses, sure, but no movie ends with him accepting that he is helpless before kryptonite, or understanding that he and Lois Lane are never going to be happy together and moving on.

Tragic characters, as well, lack arcs. They start out with a flaw and we watch as that flaw tears them apart. The only lesson they learn is that fate can’t be avoided. In fact the whole point of the story is to show that people can’t change, that they are locked into preordained paths. Think of Oedipus, bound by prophecy–his story is not improved by him learning to love himself. Jay Gatsby, who is defined by his attempts to redefine himself, ends up dead in a swimming pool, because he found that there was something in his heart he couldn’t reinvent.

Badass characters start as their best selves and end there, too. Action movie stars don’t have arcs. Oh, they may discover that they care about the orphan child being hunted by the cartel. But that soft spot in their hearts was always there–it’s never developed beyond one touching moment of recognition. I have a friend who despises the movie 300, because he feels Leonidas starts out as the ultimate warrior… and then simply lives up to his reputation. From the perspective of character-driven drama, sure, 300 is a failure… but does anyone really think it would be made better by giving Leonidas a lengthy subplot where he has to discover the Spartan within?

Static protagonists do not have self-realizations; they simply end the story better informed than they were before. They don’t grow and mature, because we are told from the beginning they’re already at their wisest and best. They may not stop at every station on the Hero’s Journey, but sometimes we don’t need them to.

It’s up to you to decide how much your character needs to develop in the course of your plot. In fact, you will often have to choose between having a more complicated external plot and telling the story of a character’s more human side.

It’s not my position here to suggest that character-driven stories are bad in any way. Simply that they are not the only way of telling a story. Of course, you can have a story about a superhero who fails, and has to learn to live with the fact they aren’t the hero they thought they were. You can have a story about a tragic character who rises above their suffering, and accomplishes something noble even as they watch their doom approach. Sure! Those can be great stories, too! The point I’m trying to make is that arcs, like everything in writing, are choices and you don’t always need them. You can write a book that’s one long character sketch or a series of farcical events with no real plot. Some of the great works of literature don’t go anywhere. There are lots of really terrible books with exquisitely engineered character arcs. As always, it’s up to the writer to choose which rules they want to follow, and which they want to ignore for the sake of the story.

 

Flatness and Feeling: Three Recent Works

Note: The following post contains minor spoilers for the plots of All Systems Red, Ancillary Justice, and Blade Runner 2049.

Probably the major theme of recent science fiction has been the way technology distances us from our own emotions. One of the devices authors and directors use to explore this distancing effect is intentionally flattening the affect of a central protagonist, exploring the world through their unfeeling eyes to question and problematize our own relationship with the world. Flatness is a tool, and like any tool it can be used to greater or worse effect depending on the choices the author makes. I want to explore three recent works and try to see where they succeed in wielding flatness, and where they fail.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, is a novella told from the perspective of Murderbot, a heavily-modified human clone working security for a scientific expedition to an unnamed planet. Murderbot’s emotions have been medically scrubbed, and its main reaction to the world around it is boredom. Even when its clients are endangered and it is forced to protect them, the emotions this creates are awkward and painful to Murderbot, and it acts in ways to escape them. The novella has gotten a lot of hype recently and it’s a nice character sketch but I think it’s the least successful of our three works. Murderbot’s perspective, while compelling, is never really challenged by the story. Almost always, when the humans in the tale act emotionally or with any kind of humanity, they are shown to be foolish and even suicidal for doing so–Murderbot is hardly a Mary Sue, but it does solve every problem in the story through the application of pure logic. Furthermore, anything Murderbot doesn’t care about (which is pretty much everything) is given short shrift here. Early in the story Murderbot fights a giant alien monster. It should be an amazing scene, but it fails–we get Murderbot’s clinical analysis of the creature but no actual description. It can’t even decide if the monster has teeth or cilia. Later on we find out why this planet is special as a setting, and Murderbot dismisses this vital bit of plot information in a couple of sentences. The problem with All Systems Red is that there’s no contrast. We get Murderbot’s grayscale world but nothing else. No visual description at all. The human characters are almost interchangeable and there’s very little interpersonal conflict.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie fares a little better, though I still had problems with it. The main character is the last survivor of a hivemind made of former prisoners of war who have been conditioned to be unfeeling and perfectly loyal soldiers for their own conquerors. The flatness here is leavened–the protagonist is allowed to feel affection for her former officers, and in fact appears to be on a revenge mission (we learn later that it’s much more complicated, and much less sentimental). The action takes place on three different worlds: a marshy planet only seen in flashbacks, a lonely ice world, and a space station with complicated social hierarchies. Leckie does a fair job describing the two planets in compelling detail (the station not as much) and there’s a set piece involving an ice bridge that adds some much needed action to a very cerebral plot. The flatness of the story works against it much of the time, however. Most of the story’s action is described in the briefest possible terms, to make room for long passages of guarded dialogue. The actual plot, which remains mysterious almost until the end of the story, is convoluted and never allowed to evolve organically. We are given mention of aliens and space battles but these are abstracted away, pawns in a five-dimensional chess game where nothing really matters but who wins. The flatness here is a mark of intellectual superiority: the few characters who do show emotion are either mocked or despised for it, while the cold and callous logic of the protagonst and antagonist are celebrated and far more effective. While Murderbot wrestles with its vestiges of humanity, the Ancillary works hard to get rid of hers–she wants very much to be a spaceship again, not a person, and this goal is seen as worthy. This isn’t a failure of the story, mind you. The whole point of Ancillary Justice is that its universe is far too big and impersonal for humanity to run, and it needs to be administrated by beings with greater mental capacity. It’s an interesting theme but one that left this human reader a little cold.

Blade Runner 2049 is the most successful work I want to look at today, one which uses its flatness as a perfect counterpoint to its deep emotional themes. Like most film noir, the movie employs a cold, cynical tone that is betrayed by the deeply human story it wants to tell. Its protagonist, K, is a replicant of a new series, one which is free of human desires. He moves deadpan through a world in crisis, performing a job. A job he has no emotional investment in–to the extent he isn’t even bored by it. He’s been designed from the ground up for flatness and his lack of reaction throughout the film is brilliantly portrayed by Ryan Gosling as both incredibly useful and–to the viewer–emotionally terrifying. All of his relationships are abstracted, through-a-glass-darkly versions of normal human interactions, and his final moments in the film are wonderfully understated. His flatness is wielded here like a blowtorch–he forces the viewer to engage with the things he refuses to touch. His opposite numbers in the film, Luv and Joi (what great names), exist at an even further remove and serve to keep his flatness emotionally grounded. When we see our first real human character in the movie his over-reactions and scenery chewing would almost be funny if they weren’t so heart-breaking, an irruption of feeling the movie seems unable to contain. This is flatness used with precision, by a master.

It’s not entirely fair to compare the two novels to a movie, of course. Blade Runner makes extensive use of its visuals to prop up K’s flatness. The lush colors and surreal set design keep the viewer awake through what could have been a very sleepy first act, definitely, and the star power of the actors compensates a lot for the emotional flatness. Yet I think authors can take a lot of lessons from this movie, all the same. We need to always remember that flatness is a device. Whether we want to praise emotional detachment, like Leckie, or just find it awkward like Wells we need to keep it under control–right up until the moment we need to lose that control and let sentiment overwhelm us.

Plot: The Melodrama Pile-Up

What’s the difference between a soap opera and a Greek tragedy? Both are fictional stories about the suffering of likeable, or at least attractive, heroes. There is an inevitability to their plots–they’re not necessarily formulaic, but everyone can pretty much see where things are headed. Neither of them promises nor delivers a happy ending.

Yet Greek tragedies are held up as being among the finest examples of literature. Soap operas are often derided as trash stories fit only for the most bored and jaded consumers.

I can tell you a soap opera is more dynamic and harder to write than a tragedy. They require bigger character ensembles, more modulation, better pacing. A tragedy is all about sustained affect, a car driving downhill as fast as it can. A soap opera is a rally race, where you need to plan for each stage, every sharp turn well in advance. So why do we roll our eyes when Laura goes into another coma, or Stavros burns down the children’s hospital… but applaud in respect when Oedipus realizes he’s married his mother and then stabs out his own eyes?

Both forms serve the same function: to make you feel pity. The downfall of the characters is unearned, or at least regrettable. The tone is somber, reflective, and bitter. Both forms rely heavily on mood and atmosphere. What separates them is focus.

The story of Oedipus is ridiculous and tawdry, but it’s one story. The play-goer or reader can’t get away from this one man’s journey. On the other hand a soap opera is crammed full of tales of woe. Every character has their own downward arc, and in the best soap operas no one story is valued more highly than any of the others.

When tragedy is singular, and rare, and highlighted, it feels real and strong and relatable. When tragedies are piled atop one another, they suffer from comparison to each other and they become melodrama. Another coma? Another burning hospital? Another husband hypnotized into sleeping with his wife’s younger sister? It becomes self-parodying, often farcical.

When you plot out your story you need to think about how the reader will react to each element, each beat. You need to know how far you can stretch their willingness to feel for your characters. Focusing in on a single character’s misfortune is a powerful tool. It’s tempting to give every side character and extra their own deep, sorrowful backstory, but all that does is dilute your protagonist’s suffering. If everyone is sad, no one’s sadness means anything. If one man is miserable while the world around him is singing in joy, the contrast alone is enough to make him sympathetic.

This isn’t to say that a character’s crisis has to be simple. Complications will arise from your inciting incident, the stakes will pile up, the plot will thicken. And it would be unrealistic to have everyone other than your main character be happy all the time. But focus in as best you can. Drill down on one person’s story at a time. The tighter, the more laser-like in intensity your plot becomes, the more powerful the drama.

Pacing: Good News and Bad

Pacing might be the most important skill a writer can develop. Pacing is the tempo of your story, the sense of time passing, the sense of things happening in a smooth, organic order. Pacing is everything.

Pacing is crucial to plot. It’s how you build suspense–how you make your reader care about what happens, and how you get them to hang on every cliff with you. It’s how you make it feel like your characters earned their victories and how they climb back from failure, one painful inch at a time.

Pacing is crucial to characterization. A protagonist’s arc is entirely dependent on pacing. Go too fast and it feels like they couldn’t possibly have learned all those life lessons overnight. Go too slow and it feels like they’re spinning their wheels, willfully refusing to learn anything.

You keep the reader turning pages with pacing. Your ending only feels satisfying if the pacing was right. So how do you master this vital skill?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad first: there’s no good formula for it. Ignore all the books about screenwriting that tell you what beat should happen at what minute of the movie. That only gets you so far. You need to get a feel for pacing, an intuitive sense of when to speed up and when to slow down. It take practice, and patience, and trial and error. I’ve always said the best way to learn how to write a good book is to write ten bad ones, and this is exactly what I was talking about. Good pacing comes from experience.

But I promised you good news, too. And for once I’m going to admit, there are two easy tricks that can really help with your pacing, and make your story a dozen times better, like, instantly.

The first is modulation. I see this going wrong all the time in bad books, and I feel it’s something that every writer should learn on day one. It’s super easy. Just never do the same thing twice.

If you have a scene (or a section, or a paragraph, depending on your form) of heavy action, the very next scene should be slow, quiet, and personal. Maybe the protagonist needs to go home and lick their wounds and talk to their besty on the phone. Slow it way down. Conversely, after a long scene of dialogue–do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Have something big and dramatic happen. Or give us a lush, stylistically beautiful scene of setting description, with no spoken words at all.

This gives your reader a chance to switch gears. Time to synthesize what they’ve learned. To catch their breath after the big gasp moment. It makes them feel like time has passed, even if plot-wise both scenes happen simultaneously. The tension drops, or mounts, at just the right time.

The corollary to this, though, is you can never let any element of your story disappear for too long. I’m sure you’ve read a story where the character opens the safe and finds a ticking time bomb… and then we cut to three scenes of the scientist talking to the president about string theory. What the hell happened with the bomb? Your readers will wonder if it blew up off screen. They’ll feel like you’re pulling a fast one on them, which breaks them right out of the story. No, modulation means creating a rhythm. It means alternating between two stories at once, maybe one quiet and personal, one loud and world-changing. Bad news again: even modulation, simple as it is, takes some skill and some finesse.

I promised a second trick, and it’s one it took me years to learn. When in doubt about pacing, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answer is to slow things down.

It’s understandable. You want to get to the good stuff, right? You’ve got this amazing story to tell, you want to gallop right to the finish line and not look back. Which is good, it’s great that you’re so excited about what’s going to happen. But if you move too fast, your story will feel cheap. A book should never feel like just a bulleted list of events. This happened, then this, and then we learned that, which made the hero do this… you might as well be writing instructions on how to put together an Ikea bookcase.

If your plot feels mechanical and rote, like the characters are just going through the motions… or conversely, if your characters feel limp, like they’re too generic to actually have a sense of personality–pump the brakes. Take time to take stock, to explore the world you’ve created, a little. Let life flow into the story. Let it unfold naturally, and at its own pace, and it will reward you.

Just don’t forget to modulate. As soon as you blow the readers’ minds, give them a chance to catch up. Not for too long, though. That time bomb is still ticking down, the width of a scene away.