This week in a memoir writing class I teach, after some discussion about where to begin a story, I’ve been thinking once again about timing in a story, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.
The timing issue requires careful thought. Initial drafts of a story often take on a detailed chronological structure, but as writers continue to get into the “aboutness”
of story, they must decide whether they’ve started the story too early, which is usually the case, or perhaps, as is rarely the case, too late. A story, like Goldilock’s soup,
must be just right. It needs to start at exactly the right moment, and the best strategy is in the beginning of action, or at the first crisis moment. The Greeks called this “In Medias Res”
which means “in the middle of things” and finding that exact moment evolves from those early drafts that clarify the “heart of the story
unfolding on the page.
|Photo Credit – Jan Bowman – October 2011
Writers get into trouble by starting a story with the main character getting out of bed, perhaps after a (choose one): restless night, sexual or romantic encounter, nightmare, phone call, turning off a loud alarm clock, or oversleeping, etc. Next we can find our main character in his or her pajamas in the bathroom with more than enough description of what goes on in there. Then we might find him or her getting dressed, eating breakfast, traveling to work or where ever. Just writing this kind of tedium, even broadly here as I have done as an example, is boring to me and to you as a reader. Inquiring minds don’t want to know and don’t care about this kind of detail UNLESS it really is essential to what happens and how it happens.
Writers, like Olympic swimmers, must dive as far as they can into the deep water of the action and swim like mad, if story is to hold the interest of readers. And the beginning use of time is – quite literally – just the beginning of the decisions writers face when pacing, when using time effectively throughout the story. Similar decisions must be made in the middle and at end of the story. Writers need to ask themselves if they’ve tried to cover too much time or not enough. They need to be mindful about using too much space to tell back story or using flashbacks or memories. These bits of information may require skillful weaving into the existing structure of story and too many such detours pull the reader out of the forward motion of the story.
Writers must decide how much time is enough time to tell a particular story. Spreading out events with too much time spent on non-essential details results in a boring story. Readers will find themselves skipping large blocks of text and if that text is at the beginning, more often than not, they will stop reading.
I am reminded that Elmore Leonard said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: