Master of Time and Space

Time and space imageryI firmly believe that everything around us is a type of illusion. Our spirit or soul, or whatever it is, exists (read “is trapped”) within a matrix of matter and energy, which are themselves too complex to really be understood, as quantum physics shows us.

So here we are. Damn it. What we perceive as time and space are primal aspects of the grand illusion.

As an expression of our perception of the world, our literature—and in fact language in general—also treat time and space as basic ideas. In writing, to move gracefully through time and space, to use transitions that is, is an indication of a skilled writer.

Let’s say I have a character sitting in a room, and now that a conversation in the room has finished, I would like for the character to leave the room, go downstairs, get in a car, and drive to a town 40 miles away. In that town, I want the character to wake up the next day and look at the ocean. I need to move this character through space and then through time. How can I do this?

Oftentimes, the word “then” is useful. Yes, it is useful, utilitarian even, prosaic in its functional ability to proceed. It is also inelegant, unimaginative, and clumsy when repeated. In a similar vein, we might cite such functional words and phrases as “afterward”, “after [the protagonist did something]”, “the next day”, “a few minutes later”—you get the idea, I suppose.

So useful. So functional. So dull.

Do I, therefore, write without these words and phrases? Hell no, I use them all the time. Avoiding them might be possible, and it might always make the writing more graceful and interesting, but frankly, it can be really hard to come up with alternatives. In the first paragraph up above, I might have written “I need to move this character through space and subsequently through time”, avoiding the word “then”. I actually like the second version much better, but it took the effort to actively focus on that word to come up with the alternative.

Transitions I find to be almost inevitably dull on the first pass. I think this may partly be because when I’m writing a first draft, the greatest concern is at the level of broad action or ideas, simply getting the basic events down on the page. When thinking at that level (should he drive to the town or take a train? should the house be near enough to see the ocean or is it farther away?), almost any transition will do as long as it moves the thing along.

Afterward [did you notice that one?], if I’m the kind of writer who takes the trouble and cares, when I’m revising I might shift my attention to transitions. Because they are already functional, and certainly not terrible, it would be easy to pay no attention to them. In my experience, it can also take a remarkable amount of time and effort to produce something the reader will surely never know I did.

Here’s an example: Henry and Belle sat for a while on the couch, each waiting to see whether the conversation might start back up. After a few minutes, Henry stood up yawning and left.

You probably know I’m going to focus on the phrase “After a few minutes”. It’s working, so why fool with it? Because I’m a serious writer and this is my art. That’s why. So what I might do in this case is go back into the previous sentence for ideas. Of all the nouns or ideas in that sentence, let’s randomly take the word “conversation”. Suppose Henry is thinking about the conversation he had with Belle, which seems to be over. We don’t see that conversation here, but since we are just making all this up, we can go into Henry’s thoughts for a few seconds, as he sits silently remembering a bit of their conversation. Henry had already been losing interest as she told him in detail about her father’s work as an accountant.

The very best transition is like a bridge, with a foot on each side. One foot of this bridge is the phrase “she told him”, referring back to the noun “conversation”, and the other foot is the phrase “been losing interest”, looking ahead to his yawning (and personally, I’d cite the bit about the accountant as a yawn inducement). So let’s put it all together, with a slight change to make it flow.

Henry and Belle sat for a while on the couch, each waiting to see whether the conversation might start back up. Henry had already been losing interest as she told him in detail about her father’s work as an accountant. Now he stood up yawning and left.

OK, I could probably do better, but it’s just a quick example. My point is that it took a bit of work, but it flows a little better, gives a little more connection between the sitting and talking and the getting up to leave. When this kind of thing is well done, the reader will read easily through and never know how hard you worked. This is true of all writing, not just fiction, as I used to try to teach my science writing students.

Longer transitions can be much more effort. I think of the beginning of a chapter as potentially such a spot. The idea of transitions also applies to logical connections of ideas, so that the mind of the reader is not forced to jump abruptly to something that seems unconnected. But because literature can also involve the pleasure of surprise, a sudden jump in subject may be the very thing we want.

Chocolate, though, chocolate is real. That’s not an illusion.

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