Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Killing Time: Part One

Imagine a stripper taking the stage, loud music, colored lights, the moment she enters, the stripper drops her dress to reveal herself fully nude.  In that first minute in the spotlight she’s already naked, not dancing, simply standing there with a stern face and she says, “This is my vagina... any questions?”

That’s why fiction – or nonfiction – needs good plotting: to reveal the secret of the story in a gradual, teasing way similar to how we learn most things in real life.  It’s a constant play between denial and gratification.  A sort-of tantric tension.  If the stripper sheds clothing too fast, we don’t crave the ultimate discovery.  Too slow, and we lose interest, overwhelmed by too much tension over too long a period of time.  If the stripper is nude too long, the dance becomes silly, continuing beyond the release of tension.  And if the dancer leaves the stage too quickly after the full reveal, we’re left confused and feeling cheated.

No, the trick is to get naked in a slow, gradual series of smaller reveals.  First the gloves.  Then, the stockings.  Whatever.  But to depict each reveal in a clear enough, slow enough way so the reader appreciates that step in the process, and so the accumulating nakedness builds tension in the audience.

Welcome to 2008.  The one consistent problem I see in most writing students’ work is plotting or pacing.  Sometimes too fast, but more often too slow.  This year I’ll focus on methods you might consider for keeping time and characters in motion throughout your work.  In the real world, time has the nasty habit of passing.  In the fictional world... time needs some help.  This essay will discuss methods for implying that time has passed in a narrative. 

Not many stories are told in real time -- a story that depicts ten minutes told in the ten minutes it would take a reader to consume that story.  A minute-for-minute trade.  No, instead fiction condenses time, covering days or centuries in the short time it takes to read.  The simplest method is to blurt out the jump ahead or flashback.  Consider how many movies begin or end with a single-card stating:  “One Year Later...”  Or, “Ten years ago...”  Here are big blunt signposts to make sure we’re not lost in time, and we can assemble the linear narrative despite how the plot is presented in a nonlinear way.

Sure, go ahead.  Go with the tried and true phrases, “Two hours later, Stephanie still had not called...”  Or, “After days of driving, they arrived at a lonely cabin...”  Better yet, there’s always the Space Break, but that’s not as clear to a reader.  An inch of white page between one paragraph and the next might imply any amount of time.

Beyond that, consider some other ways to imply time passing, or to jump your reader around in linear time.  Check out your favorite films and watch for the device that collapses time – so often the musical montage where we see the young couple in fragments of romantic encounters, or fixing and furnishing a new home or struggling to survive grueling college courses.

One effective way to kill time is to run two parallel plotlines, one present and one placed in the past.  As you cut back and forth between them, you enter each plot at a point after the point where you last exited it to cut to the alternate plot.  For an example, watch the film “Dead Again.”  Each time you shift, past to present to past to present, you take a step forward in time – skipping the boring parts where a character sleeps or folds laundry.  Over the course of a book, this works great, but in a single story or scene or chapter, it can take too much time.

In future essays we’ll talk about other methods of killing time – going to Big Voice or going On the Body among others – but here I’d like you to consider the old tradition that writer’s call the “Information Dump.”  This is the passage where the author lapses into the detail or history of something specific.  It’s an aside or tangent that lifts us from the immediate plot and teaches something about the French aristocracy, or in my book Survivor, about cleaning stains.  All that precious research, here’s where you can shovel it right onto the page.  Between each important action or plot point, you simply cut in a serving of factual fodder.

Of course, this is a balancing act.  You’re not writing a book about the French aristocracy.  You need to keep your facts tight and contained.  The moment the trivia starts to slow the plot, you’ve added too much.  But in the right amounts, Information Dumps do so much for your story.  First, they imply that time has passed.  Each time you cut to nonfiction information, you can cut back to the present scene at a later point.  Each time you cut back to your character he’s moved to a new task, a new room, a new romance. 

Second, factual information builds your authority or your narrator’s.  It demonstrates that you’ve done your research.  If a reader can trust you about the French aristocracy, they can trust you about the big plot twist.

Third, an Information Dump allows you to portray the character’s state of mind.  You can depict a character’s aspirations or concerns by the facts they summon and obsess over.

Fourth, facts occur as a different texture of narrative, to contrast with the fictional storytelling voice.  This can be jargon and medical language, or second-person instructive language, i..e. “To clean up broken glass, just blot the fragments with a slice of soft white bread.”  And every time you change texture, you keep the reader engaged.  Remember, most storytelling uses descriptive voice, “Benjamin ate the cake.”  Any time you can alternate with instructive voice, “Turn right at Alder Street” you can vary the tone of the narrative and keep it more dynamic, rich and compelling.

Consider also that your nonfiction factoids must never compete with your larger story.  Keep your facts interesting, self-contained and easily understood.  And keep them all “in character” with your narration.  Don’t give a character knowledge that her past wouldn’t include.  The biggest joy in writing “Invisible Monsters” was the simple statement that Shannon had a billion undergraduate college credits; this allowed her to offer facts about almost everything yet still seem believable.  

Also, at the moment you inject the facts into the story, don’t bother to explain how the character knows this or that.  Just stick in the fact – either you’ve already explained the character’s past education, or you’ll explain that education as part of the on-going discovery process.  If you inject the fact, plus the source, you risk taking the reader too far out of the present plot.  What you’re doing in a story is mimicking real life, and we seldom perceive each thought coupled with a full awareness of how we came to first perceive that particular concept.  In short, we tend to think:  “The sun is bright.”  Not:  “The sun is bright because Mrs. Francisco in third grade made us read this book called ‘Our Solar System’ which explained that brightness is caused by the collapse of hydrogen atoms in a gigantic furnace of nuclear fusion...”

No, just allow your facts to occur as facts.  Don’t undermine the reality of your character’s world. 

For practice, watch some of your favorite films and take note how they imply time passing.  Read some fiction, and look for Information Dumps that create authority, imply state of mind, and control the pace of the plot.  Science fiction is notorious for these dumps, maybe because a largely male audience seems to need the authority of factoids, and craves the kind of fine-print statistics you’ll find in the Business and Sports sections of the newspaper.

Beyond that, build a list of truly interesting facts that your character could spout, or mull in his or her mind.  Again, make each fact self-contained.  And keep them brief and engaging.

And welcome to 2008, if you do nothing else in January – please – make a list of the goals you’ll accomplish in the next 12 months.  Then, share those goals with as many people as possible.  Please, expect more from yourself than you think will be possible.  Use this year to become someone bigger, smarter, happier than you ever imagined.

I’ll Shut Up Now....

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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