How do we move our writing and characters in time and space without slowing our readers down and certainly without confusing them? We must learn to stop doing what I call “taking the reader down the hall,” filling in the whole journey, every bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling and every crack in the floor covering. Instead, we must allow key images from our scenes to make the time and space transitions and at other times to use short time words and phrases to signal changes.
It’s an art learned from writing and reading poetry where narration is at a minimum. It is an art also learned by listening to what you have written and hearing the places that words are not necessary. It is an art learned by understanding how to use dialog to do some of the transition work.
In one of my favorite flash fiction stories, “Indian Casino” by David Schuman (reprinted in the anthology You Have Time for This, which is well worth the read), a big jump in time and place occurs when the narrator indulges his son’s request to go to an Indian Casino at 2:30 AM:
My son wakes me in the middle of the night. This is unusual because he is a heavy sleeper–he once slept through a hailstorm that left pockmarks on the hood of the car and two crushed robins in the backyard.
“We need to go to the casino,” he says. “I had a dream.”
I mumble something about it being two-thirty in the morning but he is unimpressed.
“Mom was in the dream,” he says, and hands me my pants. His mother, my wife, has been dead for a year and three months.
The river takes an hour to get to, and there’s the casino, garish against a dingy dawn sky. Beyond the flashing lights, a barge glides past on the river.
“The river takes an hour to get to” is an elegant transition. We don’t have to go with the two out into the car, watch them put their seat belts on and turn the corner to the highway; we don’t need to see the scenery along the way to the casino. “The river takes a hour to get to and there’s the casino, garish against a dingy dawn sky” keeps us focused on the father and son’s mission.
In Jim Heynen’s story flash story “What Happened During the Ice Storm” we can study another kind of transition in time. The story is four paragraphs long. Paragraph one starts,” One winter there was a freezing rain.” Paragraph two begins, “Some farmers went ice-skating down the gravel roads with clubs to harvest the pheasants that sat helplessly in the roadside ditches. The third paragraph starts, “The boys stood still in the icy rain.” And the fourth paragraph begins, “Then one of the boys said Shh.”
We’ve moved from one winter’s ice storm to the action of some farmers to the boys who stood still to the dialog that introduces the action that is the point of the story. Shh said one of the boys. He takes off his coat and covers two of the birds. The other boys follow suit. Their action is opposite to the farmers. And probably unwelcome by them, but the reader cheers. One, some, boys stood still, then one. Each transition a kind of quantitative image.
Sometimes transitions are easy because the structure of a piece of writing includes them. For instance, the how-to structure entails presenting steps in consecutive order; the steps themselves make the transitions. Fiction writer Lorrie Moore’s piece “How to Become a Writer” is interesting to look at in these terms.
First, try to be something, anything, else.
Show it to your mom (in this case a haiku)
In your high school English class…decide faces are important.
Write a villanelle about pores.
And so on as the steps accumulate and evoke how a writer feels, dreams of doing something else, can’t do anything else, and is often a misfit.
Sometimes we time stamp paragraphs when we move ahead: “Seattle, Saturday Morning” or “Atlanta, July 1893.” I am not a fan of the phrases “fast forward” or “rewind.” I feel the writer imposing on the story. Dates, seasons, days of the week or months of the year hold images and details that are helpful in keeping a flow without the reader having to be reminded that a writer is writing the story.
Other times we embed a time change by describing something that has changed because of the seasons: a tree in one scene in full leaf not bare, a car sparkling in the warm sun after having been washed is now covered in tree pollen or perhaps snow.
A useful thing for you to do as a writer is to re-read stories you admire or chapters in novels you have enjoyed and take note of scene changes in time and or space and how that change registers with you the reader but keeps you in the story rather than wondering how you got where the author has brought you.
Here are links to further reading on making transitions:
Here is a list of useful books with chapters about moving characters and scenes:
- The Art and Craft of Storytelling: A Comprehensive Guide to Classic Writing Techniques by Nancy Lamb, Chapter 6: “The Space-Time Continuum: Moving Forward (And Backward) Through Your Story”
- Turning Life Into Fiction by Robin Hemley, Chapter 3: “Focusing Real Life”
- 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel by Jane Smiley, Chapter 9: “The Circle of the Novel”
- What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, p. 188 (Write a Story Using a Small Unit of Time), p. 193 (“Transportation: Getting There Isn’t Have the Fun — It’s Boring”)
- Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich, Chapter 4: Plot, section titled “Time Sequence and Plot”
- The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, Chapter 7: “Plotting”