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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 15: More on Story-Time

As we’ve seen, the world of story exists outside of real time; that may be one of the key sources of its power. Any time we hear or read a story— if the enchantment is strong enough— we may leave the realm of ordinary life, where the clock ticks on and a hour passes unnoticed; we may enter the story-world, where a hundred years pass between the moment Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on the spindle and the moment when she is awakened by the prince’s kiss, or where in an instant a twig grows into a tree.

Re-read a couple of stories you like and consider how the events take place in time. How long does the whole story take up? Do all the events happen in a short period of time, or are they spread out over years? What would happen if the story-events were compressed, or spread out over a longer period?

Now choose some material to make a story, either from stories you have read or from your own invention, or both. What events will happen in your story? How much time will it take for these events to occur? An hour? A day? A lifetime? If you feel like it, write a draft of the story.

What do you notice in doing this?

Take a look at some stories you like and examine them for the beginning/middle/end structure. Where does the tale start? How does it develop? Where does it end?

Now play around with changing the beginning or the middle or the end of one of the tales. What do you notice?

Choose some story material and play around with ordering it different ways. What happens if you decide to begin with this material? What happens if you choose some different material to begin with?

If you like, make several different story-plans using the same material. And then, if you like, take one and write the story.

In the previous lesson, we considered the idea that we have to decide how much story-time to devote to each event in the story. Another way to say this is that we need to consider how fast events are going to happen; we might think of this as the pace of the story. Are there events we want to speed through because they aren’t important? Are there events we want to spend a lot of time with because they are?
The amount of time we ask our readers to spend on each event in a story creates a kind of large-scale rhythm for the story. Naturally we have no control over exactly how each reader reads: some may savor every word; others may speed-read; still others may skip entire sections. But we can control, to some degree, the experience that reasonably attentive readers will have as they make their way through our story.

If we ask them to spend more or less the same amount of time on every event, that will create one kind of large-scale rhythm. If, on the other hand, we write in such a way that some events take only a moment to process while others take longer, we will create a more varied, less predictable kind of rhythm. I believe that writers who can vary the pace of a story are more likely to keep their readers’ interest.

Varying the Pace: Report vs. Storytelling
When we simply recount one event after another, as we often do in ordinary conversation, we are reporting (just like newspaper reporters). Every event gets the same amount of emphasis. For example, in conversation with a baseball-loving friend, I might say: “Hey, Kevin Millar made two errors in the game last night, and the Sox were losing; and then he hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to win the game.”

With these sentences I have communicated something, passed on some information—but I haven’t told a story. What about if I said this instead?—

The Sox were playing the A’s the other night, and it was a tight game. Both pitchers were sharp, especially Arroyo. But in the fourth inning Kevin Millar made a horrendous throwing error, and the A’s scored a run. Then in the seventh he made another error, and the A’s scored again. So going into the bottom of the ninth, the Sox were losing 2-1. Manny’s up first, he strikes out looking. One down. Then comes Ortiz. He draws a walk. And then Millar comes up. He fouls off one pitch. Then another. A ball. Another foul. The pitcher’s throwing nothing but fastballs, and Millar keeps fouling them off. He must’ve fouled off about eight pitches. And then he lines one right into center field, and everybody in the park is watching and praying…and it’s a home run! A walk-off home run for Millar and the Sox win, 3-2. Can you believe it?

What’s the difference between these two versions of the same events?

The first one is a report; the second is a story. And it’s a story because it has some rhythm to it: I’ve chosen to recount some events at a slower pace than others. And that creates suspense, anticipation, drama.

Think about something that happened to you, or to someone you know—an ordinary incident is fine. Now, as if you were talking to someone, report that happening or series of happenings. Now take the same events and turn them into a small story, concentrating on varying the pace.

What did you notice in doing this?

When considering story movement and pace, it can be helpful to think about the movement from one event to the next as taking place via a step or via a leap.

With stepwise movement, we proceed from one event to another one that is, so to speak, just a step away: The fairy godmother appears; the fairy godmother asks, “How can I help you, my child?”

With a leaping movement, we proceed from one event to the next by leaping over a number of intervening steps: The fairy godmother appears; then we see Cinderella leaving for the ball in her ball gown and glass slippers.

A story told entirely by steps would be boring; one told entirely by leaps would leave readers completely disoriented. Skilled writers make choices, all the way through a story, as to whether they want the next event to occur via a step or a leap.

Reread a favorite story and notice whether the events are connected by steps or leaps. Consider what might happen to the story if steps were left out—or added.

Take one of your own stories (a practice story, if you like) and examine it for steps and leaps. Should there be more steps, or fewer? What would happen if you took a bigger leap in a certain place? If you like, try rewriting the story.
What did you notice in doing this?

A story, like a piece of music, happens in time; and it is in time that it is shaped. Through steps and leaps it makes a kind of design in our minds. You may want to consider the kind of shape the stories you enjoy make.

Traditional tales often have the shape of a circle, or a spiral, rather than the linear plot-based shape we tend to expect of a story.

Some writers like to make use of a frame story, and to tell many different stories within it. (Perhaps the most elaborate example of this is The Arabian Nights . Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and the Decameron of Boccaccio are other famous examples.)

Other writers like to link stories by using the same characters in different stories. (Dickens made use of this approach in The Pickwick Papers ; the contemporary Irish writer Maeve Binchy used it in many of her books, such as The Lilac Bus. )

If the idea of stories making a “shape” has any appeal for you, you may want to examine some stories you like for the way they are shaped in time.

Story-Time and Emphasis
We’ve seen earlier than we can slow down story-time to encourage our readers to “stay” with one event more than others. Another way to put this is that we emphasize this particular event because we want readers to understand that it’s important.

We can slow down story-time to create other kinds of emphasis, too. For example, we might want our readers to spend more time with a particular character, so they can get to know him. We might want to create a particular atmosphere for our story. Or we might want to emphasize something because it helps develop the theme of our story. (See Story Lesson 8 to review theme.)

Take a look at one of your practice stories and think about which events or other material you want to emphasize. To create this emphasis, you spend more story-time there, adding details, slowing down the action, and so on. Revise your story creating the emphasis you intend. Now re-read the story. What do you think of it now? Take a different story and do the same thing, or stay with your first story and revise it to create a different emphasis. What happens?

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