Fiction and the Temporal Advantage

Scott SummersOn Writing, Tips & Learns

Let’s face it: In the face of new media, writing is a hard sell. Your words are competing with flashing lights, cool explosions, awesome sound design, compelling narratives, and the fact that reading is a more demanding hobby that most other leisure activities. And now, the Internet is basically a black hole from which no time can escape.

So what does writing have going for it? The first three are obvious: Books have more detail, are fueled by the imagination, and have more time to pack in the good stuff. You hear it all the time in the book-to-film conversation, right? That book was better than the movie. They shouldn’t have cut that part out. They didn’t even get to the good stuff.

But one thing that writers often overlook is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal: Temporal control.

That’s right, kids. We’re talking about time travel.

So You Want to be a Time Lord

Let’s be clear, when I’m talking about temporal control, I’m not talking about a time travel plot (though time jumping maintains a special place in my heart). Any medium can do Back to the Future. Instead, let’s focus on the kind of paragraph-to-paragraph time dilation that you only get through literary wordplay and storytelling.

For the most part, visual and audio narratives must remain linear. They can move back and forth in time with scene changes and jump cuts, but a flashback requires a bit of setup in order to keep the audience engaged. Language is far more fluid. Here’s an example:

They came in the night. From her dining room window, Emily watched shadows shifting beneath the starlight. She remembered when the came the last time, breaking down the doors, dragging the rotten and disfigured bodies into the streets. They were men — or what was left of them after the plague wrought the flesh from their bones. Those shadows passed her over, knowing Pa was ten years gone this season.

It wouldn’t be like that tonight.

In the other room, the man lying on the couch gave a weak cough. He wasn’t long for this world, but even the dying deserve some solace in their final hours. They would kill him where he slept, before the Reaper took him on to heaven and left his body for the dust.

Somewhere down the block, a door splintered. Emily grabbed a pan from the kitchen and huddled up near the wall. She couldn’t stand for all this killing. Not in her house. Her Pa had died right here, bled out on the cold wood settling beneath her feet. He wouldn’t want that to happen again.

In that passage, we moved from the present, to the recent past, back to the present, and back again to distant past, all inside the main character’s recollection.

That’s the kind of temporal control that makes writing so powerful. As a writer, you can feed details on the fly, where they’ll have the greatest possible impact in the narrative. The confines of the structure are more limiting for other mediums. Writing is more fluid.

That’s some powerful stuff.