Monday, August 2, 2010

What Time Is It? :: Revisions

Time will make fools of us all... or so I am told.  Over the weekend, I went to a 1940's theme party at a friend's and served as a suspect in a murder mystery*. In the course of the murder mystery (one of the ones that comes in a box) we noticed that our characters seemed almost preternaturally aware of the exact time that everything happened.

The dialogue provided was chock full of so many timestamps I was beginning to wonder if Tom Clancy** wrote it:  "At 5:40, I glanced down the corridor and watched the British Spy sneak into the club car. At 5:45, I heard a glass break and at 5:50 the Gendarme arrived..."

It's a trope that goes back to Agatha Christie and we had a lot of fun with it, inserting reasons into our dialogue as to why we happened to know the exact time.  "Well I happened to be glancing at my watch just as I noticed..."

Anyway, it brought to mind some things I'd been thinking about lately regarding telling time and telling stories.

Last week, a friend sent me an interesting link to a Physics Professor's blog trying to use applied mathematics to analyze a scene from Lord of the Rings.  He expended some very pretty math trying to decide how fast Middle Earth's DEW*** beacons could spread the word via mountaintop bonfires from Gondor to Rohan.  Because I'm a geek, I read it and had an opinion about it on several levels. The math is pretty, even if his ignorance of military discipline and Middle Earth geography are aggravating for anyone...  if... you happen... to... um... never mind.  Anyway, you can read his post here if you like that sort of thing.

What I really take away from Professor Allain's examination of the opening scenes of Return of the King isn't really my geeky fit of pique, but the importance of clarity in how much time is passing in a story.  Professor Allain's problem stems from the film's time-compression.  That is to say, it's unclear how long it took for the line of bonfires to carry a message from one kingdom to the next. 

For some reason, a visual medium like film can get away with this sort of thing.  The sun rises and sets in the course of the scene and I take it Peter Jackson wants you to understand that in the compressed "movie time" that it took all night to get the message from Pippin to Aragorn.  This is harder in a book.  I'll even go so far as to say that it's literary suicide for a writer to make a reader stop and wonder how long something took or what the sequence of events was.  This is what makes flashbacks, dream sequences and time travel such dicey story telling tools.

Even though I detest writing from an outline, I think that keeping track of what day it is, what time of day it is, and how much time has passed in the course of your narrative is the strongest argument I can think of for doing so.  I'm pretty good at keeping things linear as I write the first draft.  But when I start revising and events find new homes, it's annoyingly easy to get mixed up. 

As I read a printed manuscript, I use Post-it notes to flag everytime a day passes.  From this I create a timeline (which I wouldn't have to do if I wrote from an outline to begin with, but that's another post) and then go through and correct any time travel issues.

I firmly believe that a story well told doesn't need a Tom Clancy time stamp at the top of every chapter.  And it shouldn't inspire a physics professor to create mathematical formulae to figure out what just happened.  Somewhere between the two, there has to be a happy medium.  Just don't have characters glancing at their watches all the time.


*Apropos of nothing, these parties are one of the reasons I have some of the strange photos you periodically see here.  The "Disco" era pictures are probably best left to the imagination, though...
** Tom and his peers really like to tell us the setting and hour at the top of every scene change: "Bob's Apartment, Washington DC, 0800 GMT" It works for him, but I think it's ultimately a bit of a cheat.
*** DEW "Distant Early Warning" - A string of radar installations and listening posts installed during the Cold War across Alaska and Canada to watch for early signs of attack from the Soviet Union.

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you. The "time stamp" thing works for me in modern poli-sci thrillers, but other than that I find it jarring. There are more elegant ways to indicate time and its passage thereof.



Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).