Timing is Everything, or Nothing
A Session with Mark Gilleo
There are few things as important to a novel as timing, and few things as difficult to put one’s finger on. Timing is often ethereal, intangible, unremarkable, unconsidered. From a writer’s perspective, few things can be as elusive. And not only is proper timing difficult to embrace, poor timing can sink even the most well written story. Whether writing a short story or the next War and Peace, the ultimate use of timing should consider the following : (1) creating suspense (2) aiding the maintenance of readers’ attention (3) minimizing the editing effort.
The first questions I try to answer with regard to writing a novel is: what is the duration of the story? This is not a call to consider word count or number of pages, but rather the period of time in which the story takes place. (Obviously, there is no right or wrong answer to this question.) In my opinion, as a general rule, the longer the duration of the novel, the less important timing is to the progression of the story and its use as an element of suspense. A novel that spans several decades, or even longer, will likely be more driven by the story, the characters, the relationships. Timing is certainly always a component of a tale, but in stories with extended durations, it is rarely the driver.
Exercise 1 Pick one of your favorite novels. Think about the characters, the setting, and the plot. Now ask yourself, what was the duration of the story? If you can identify the duration of the story, did the author use it to his advantage? Did it add to the tension?
For shorter stories – those tales that run their course over the period of hours, days, or weeks – timing becomes a more important element. Suspense is often the natural result of a shorter time-period. And not only can a shorter duration enhance the natural suspense of the story, it can have a secondary effect of helping the writer to remain focused on brevity. A short duration should lend itself to efficient writing. I say “should’ because I believe there is a natural tendency among writers to sabotage ourselves by diluting the suspense we create with timing by adding too much description or narrative.
In order to maximize the use of timing with regard to duration of the story, consider what you are trying to accomplish with your novel. If your story falls into the thriller-suspense-action genre, implementing an abbreviated timeframe can provide a head start on building natural tension before you pound out the first word on the keyboard.
The second item I consider with regard to timing is the season in which the story will take place. (One can certainly argue this is a component of a story’s setting, but there is also a time element which I will focus on here.) Typically, this decision starts with two questions: what season does the story take place, and why?
The choice of a season may seem elementary on the surface, and it can be as simple as it seems. The selection of a season can also come back to haunt a writer later in the story. In order to eliminate the latter, it may help to ask both questions together. In many cases, writers will choose the season that holds some affinity for them. For example, a writer from northern Minnesota may have the natural tendency to want to stage his or her story during the winter. A writer from Miami may prefer a time of year that is a little more tropical. Want your characters to sweat it out through the novel? Aim for summer in Mississippi. Need a cool autumn on the water? Head for the Upper Peninsula.
Often times, there are components of a season that may decide the time of year for you. For example, let’s assume you are writing a book about a murder that takes place during Mardi Gras. That choice determines the time of year. If your Mardi Gras murder mystery has a duration of a week or two, then you have further limited yourself to New Orleans during February and all the associated tidbits that comes with that selection. Sweltering New Orleans heat is no longer an issue. The stench of the summer sewers disappears.
Why does it matter? Let’s assume for a moment that the murder takes place in Boston in February and not in New Orleans. Suddenly the protagonist of the story is no longer pulling his revolver from the waistband of his pants, but he is now pulling the revolver from several layers of winter clothes. (The Miami version of the story would have the same protagonist trying to figure out how to hide the weapon in his Speedo.)
Of course, there are ways to “write around” these hurdles. If you need the protagonist wearing fewer clothes while still being located in Boston in February, you can easily craft a paragraph addressing the “warmest winter on record” or something similar. As a writer, and the creator of the universe, this is perfectly legitimate. The average reader will let several of these “write arounds” pass without even realizing it. The risk is creating too many of them, which the reader then becomes conscious of and subsequently the story takes a credibility hit.
There is also the risk of unneeded editing effort with regard to the ill use of a season in a story. My second novel, Love Thy Neighbor, is set in the winter with the opening scenes involving typical Christmas celebrations in the United States. The protagonist of the novel is returning home to surprise his mother, and he arrives in DC with snow and slush on the ground. For this particular novel, I didn’t intentionally choose winter as the backdrop, but rather worked with winter as the default based upon my selection of the Christmas season (and to a lesser degree, the fact that universities in the US are typically not in session during the holiday season and the protagonist of Love Thy Neighbor was a graduate student.)
Use of the Christmas season in the opening chapters of the book was all good and well until later in the story when I had a character who needed to dispose of a body that wouldn’t be immediately found (I needed the body to be found with some delay, but without being detected in the interim.) My first choice for disposing of the body was to have the character dump the body into the river. However, thanks to my embrace of cold weather as an ongoing theme, the river was now frozen. Thwarted by my own cleverness and love of weather description, I was forced to spend considerable time editing chapters that included references to the weather until I could get a proper workaround. In hindsight, if I were writing that book today, I would just mention in the first chapter that it was winter, see where that took me, and make changes as I needed them. With 20/20 hindsight, if the season, or time of year, is not a driving force in a story, the less time spent dwelling on details about the season the better. As a writer, decide whether you are going to use the time of year to your advantage, or whether the season is irrelevant to the story. If it’s irrelevant, keep it irrelevant. Don’t force the time of year into the story if it doesn’t need to be there. I have read many great books in which the time of year was never mentioned.
Exercise 2 Once again, pick one of your favorite novels, or one that you have read recently. Think about the characters, the setting, and the plot. Now ask yourself, what was the season/time of year? If you can remember the season/time of year, was the story dependent upon the time of year or was it just used for background color?
The third topic with regard to timing is the use of the days of the week within the story. Sadly, and with a slightly red face, I admit that I have spent more time editing manuscripts thanks to the inclusion of days of the week than I have editing any other aspect of my manuscripts. If nothing else, I hope to save time for those who may fall victim to the same trappings.
I will be the first to admit that this problem affects some writers more than others based on the type of plot. Writers who write in a linear fashion, with a single major plot line, and who follow conventional days of the week and sequential turn of events, will run into fewer issues using days of the week. Unfortunately there are writers, myself included, whose writing muse refuses to parcel out the story in such a convenient fashion. I have yet to write a novel where the first chapter written was the first chapter of the completed manuscript. In fact what I intend as the first chapter when I start often ends up as chapter seven, eight or nine.
Given the tendency to write in a non-linear fashion poses real editing hurdles when it comes to the day of the week. In the original manuscript for my novel Sweat, I tried to incorporate days of the week as a key component of the story with the idea that there would be X number of days in the story. By the time I finished the manuscript, I had moved so many chapters that the days of the week no longer made sense. I had references to Tuesday followed by a reference to Monday, followed by a reference to Wednesday. The result was that while the story had only advanced by a single twenty-four hour period, the days of the week had covered eight days when counted sequentially.
This was the beginning of my realization that using days of the week as a meaningful component of a novel was not in my best interest. This is not to say that I avoid using references to days in their entirety. I mention days of the week to provide color and association for readers, but I do not use days of the week as markers within my novels, if I can avoid it. For me, the risk of writing myself into a corner with a timeline that is unsupportable or, even worse, a moving target, just was not worth the time lost in editing.
The final point on timing that I would like to cover is with regard to what I will refer to as the “artificial deadline.” While not everyone uses a common name to describe this phenomenon, I have no doubt that virtually everyone is aware of its existence (this is a common element in one-hour, whodunit television shows where time is limited). The “artificial deadline” and its use to create suspense is easily recognizable in any of its following popular forms:
One hour before a bomb goes off
Two days before someone is killed
Three days before the data will be erased forever
Twenty-four hours before a meteor the size of Brazil hits earth
There are legitimate arguments both for and against the use of the artificial deadlines. Some argue that the use of the artificial deadline is a lazy way to create tension. A substitute for good writing. (I mean, with the exception of a bomb that has a timer—and how many of those are there—knowing the exact time of impending doom is something that rarely happens.) I think a more accurate assessment of the effectiveness of an artificial deadline is: it depends on how it is used. I do not believe that the creation of an artificial deadline is lazy or inappropriate in and of itself. However, I do believe that constant reference to the deadline is best avoided.
As a writer, imagine that you are writing a story where either the story in its entirety or a subcomponent of the story hinges upon X event occurring on, let’s say, Friday. The natural compulsion for many writers, myself included, is to drive that stake into the ground and then remind the reader as the story progresses of the constant countdown to the inevitable X event. This is usually accomplished through a character in the story referring to the inevitable X event in dialogue, effectively reminding the reader of the ticking clock.
Done appropriately, and with moderation, this can be effective. Perhaps more effective, however, is to place the stake in the ground, mark the inevitable X event that is coming, and then omit the countdown. Simply plant the “seed” of tension and then carry on with the business of writing. Write something so compelling, so well crafted that the reader is no longer aware of how much time there is between the action and the inevitable X event, but instead the reader is simply lost in the story, sharing the tension with the characters, without referring to the ticking clock. The goal should be to write something so well that the days should be irrelevant.
Exercise 3 Imagine one of your favorite books or even a movie. (You could even watch a TV show.) How did the writer/creator use an “artificial deadline” to create tension. Did they refer to it repeatedly, or did they “put the stake in the ground” and let the story run from there?
In conclusion, the big question is: Does timing always matter? The short answer is no. Truly great writers have the ability to attract and retain a reader’s attention through the sheer power of great writing. They can ignore the rules, laugh at timing, disregard reality. They have a gift. It’s called magic.
For the rest of us, I would try to summarize the use of timing as this: either use it to your advantage, or, if you are unsure of how to do that effectively, use it to your advantage by making it invisible. Vanquish it to the status of a non-factor. The best books, in my opinion, are filled with tension but when the story ends, I cannot tell you anything memorable about the timing other than reading it was time well spent.
About the Author…
“Some of us spend decades learning how to write. Mark Gilleo is one of those rare naturals – or at least it seems that way,” says Jeff Stein, columnist and National Security Editor of Spytalk. Love Thy Neighbor and Sweat were recognized as finalist and semifinalist, respectively, in the William Faulkner-Wisdom Creative writing competition. Meanwhile, readers are responding enthusiastically to Gilleo’s refined combination of unique, relatable characters and intricate, nuanced plotting. http://markgilleo.com