“Even under ideal conditions people have trouble locating their car keys in a pocket, finding their cell phone, and Pinning the Tail on the Donkey – but I’d bet everyone can find and push the snooze button from 3 feet away, in about 1.7 seconds, eyes closed, first time, every time.”
Coming down to near the end of these truths, I find myself hard-pressed to link them to aspects of writing. For this one, I settled on time.
Time: I’ve mentioned time problems in stories in other posts but I wanted to discuss my three Mallory Petersen action mysteries. Now, you’re saying, “But Steve, you only have two Petersen mysteries published.” True, but at the time of this writing, I’ve completed the first draft of the third.
In Beta, I had a time problem with putting in enough action to fill each day. The story starts on Sunday night and lasts just over a week. Each day I had to make sure something relevant occurred. I didn’t want wasted time. Also, I had to make sure that what all did occur lasted for the entire day. For instance, the story has Mallory traveling to the Quad Cities to search for a missing girl. On her first full day she visits several businesses. For research, I drove the route she took and stopped at the places along the way to talk to people at the businesses I wanted to use. At the first I met an uncaring receptionist who probably threw my card away when I left. At another I met a flighty secretary who didn’t understand the purpose of my visit. (Both ended up in the story.) However, after all my driving, and even allowing time for the visits, Mallory’s quest ended around noon. I needed it to last most of the day. To solve the problem, I added scenes where she could use her taekwondo skills, meet some oddballs, and her actions resulted in long conversations with the police. Put in slow traffic and I ate up time.
In Alpha, the time problem presented itself in the days before the climactic scene. Again, the main thrust of the story lasts about a week but there was a period of two days where Mallory was stuck in a homicide investigator’s house trying to avoid the bad guys. Not much action there and I rushed through the hours. This happened over a weekend. I knew, though, I had to get her out of the house come Monday morning. She had responsibilities other than the police operation to attend to. Actually, this story, because I had an outline when I started the rewrite, didn’t have too many time problems, but I still paid attention to the down times.
In the third book, Delta, I had a huge time problem. Without giving away too much of the plot, Mallory is kidnapped and held for a week. When she is rescued, she spends another ten days in isolation. As I mentioned, the first draft is completed but when I start the rewrites I will devote concentrated attention on these two weeks. I want to make sure there is activity, without letting repetition sink the book into doldrums. I have a couple options and more research into the situation through which Mallory suffers may solve the problem and, I’m hoping, give me a spark of creativity to strengthen the scenes.
For the fourth book, Gamma, I want to have the story occur within one day. So I will have to focus even more minutely at time. Matthew Reilly writes books that cover one day, three days at most but he puts so much nail biting action you think you’ve spent a month with the main character. I love his books.
Time is tricky and writers must be aware of the pitfalls. I mentioned in another post about a book featuring a serial killer. The author didn’t keep track of time and this was one of the major problems in the book. In one scene, he left a character staring out a window. The scene changed and when it returned to the previous character, she was still at the window. There wasn’t a sense that the intervening scene was happening at the same time as the previous. In other places, a day would last a long time. Yet, farther on, days would pass with nothing happening when, logically, there should be. This, along with other problems made for a mess of a story.
Writers can slow down time or lengthen it. This is especially true in action scenes. Falling off a cliff can seemingly last a long time, but gunshots and bullets flying may be quick. Don’t forget dialogue can also be used to slow or speed up time.
Writers also have to let the readers know when time has passed. I’ve read several murder mysteries where weeks and months go by until the next crime. This is okay, as long as the writers shows and explains it. In the above poorly written book, I never comprehended the passage of time. I became lost. (Actually, I was lost way before time became an issue. I wish I could detail the myriad, tragic, and humorous other problems this book had because it would make for a multiple part blog on how NOT to write a book. However, because this book may someday get rewritten and published one, I won’t damage the author’s perseverance by delving too deep.)
Be aware of time, not only the time of day or night, but the passing seconds, minutes, and hours. I certainly did, especially on the long graveyard shifts I used to work.