What I Know After Eight Weeks

How time works in fiction

Well, it’s been a couple of weeks since week 7, which paradoxically is related to the topic of today’s post anyway. I’ve done some consulting work, I’ve got one of next year’s clients underway, and I’ve had a play staged last night at the Rupert Mountain Theaterfest, which was terrific. Thanks to Matthew and Vance for inhabiting those characters so fully, and to Diane for outstanding direction.

But I also had a few days last week to immerse myself back in Cale’s world. One of the things I’ve been wondering about for the past few weeks is how I was going to get them from summer to winter without you seeing it. And that leads me to today’s Chautauqua, on the expansion and compression of time in fiction.

Every beginning fiction writer has heard somebody say “Show, Don’t Tell,” which is a complete misunderstanding of what that reader would like to say but doesn’t know how. What they’re trying to say is “don’t be bland.” That is, don’t say something like “She was very happy.” “He was furious.” Bleh. When people say “show, don’t tell,” what they really mean as readers is that they’re bored by an unimaginative portrayal. And the easiest way they can think to remedy that is to show action instead of summary.

Let’s put some technical terms on the table. Instead of “show” or action, writers often talk about being in scene, portraying some circumstance as though the reader were watching it. Instead of “tell” or summarizing, writers often talk about exposition, describing or explaining something more remotely instead of showing it directly in scene. And being in scene is certainly one way to make your writing less bland and more specific, but it’s not the only way.

I think the differentiation that matters more is the purposeful expansion and compression of time. The diagram at the top of this post shows how compression waves (like sounds and explosions) work. In the compression phases, a lot of information is jammed right up close together; in the rarefaction phases, a similar amount of information is dispersed over a greater length. And this, I think, is a great analogy for how writers of traditional chronological fiction handle time. Sometimes, we spend pages and pages describing events that happen over the course of five minutes. It takes longer to read than it did in the actual story event. We pack pages full with seconds. And sometimes, we cover months or years in a paragraph, allowing time to relax and pass us by without regarding every instant of it.

So in the novel I’m in now, I’ve been fretting for a couple of weeks about the hinge that I knew had to happen in the middle of the story. I spent the first 96 pages describing three weeks, late June to early July, much of which occurred on the Nebraska farm where Cale had grown up and where he knew he no longer belonged. The next five pages covered roughly an equal amount of time, about four weeks. Then twenty pages on the three weeks after that. The time-to-page ratio had three major stanzas: 24 pages per week for the first, about a page a week for the second, and then seven pages per week for the third.

Even within that, of course, there are microcycles of compression and rarefaction. There were five-minute conversations that took three pages all by themselves, followed by an elided day or two. Rhythms have rhythms within them, as Charlie Watts knew so well.

Anyway, by this point, on the middle of page 123, we were roughly at Labor Day, and the second half of the book wasn’t really going to start until near Christmas. How would I build a hinge to lead us from Section 1 to Section 2 of the book?

I could do it simply by closing a chapter and starting a new one. I’ve certainly done it that way before. For instance, in Trailing Spouse, the chapter called “During” ended when Sarasa was nine; the next page, the chapter called “After,” started the day after her thirteenth birthday. The ratio of time-to-page was infinity, four years divided by zero pages. Quite literally, we went with one story with a group of characters to another story with the same group of characters. But I didn’t feel with this story that I wanted that kind of hard closure to a moment; I wanted instead to have continuity, but in a relaxed way. So here’s how I moved three months in a page:

The fall went from gray and foggy to gray and rainy, all fifty shades. I got smarter with my daily study, got stronger with my ongoing physical therapy, and loved Sammi more and more through our shared enthusiasms. And I hadn’t gone to a faculty senate meeting or a travel committee meeting since May; their own layers of gray had been lifted from my life, and I luxuriated in the pleasures of pure curiosity. 

Sammi had fallen back into fervor for her own dissertation research. The recruiters from Philadelphia’s Hog Island Shipyard collecting their commission for every human they lured north in the 1920s to work ten hour days, six day weeks, for 35¢ per hour. Thousands of Black workers themselves, and their families, finding that wage (and that safety) far more promising than continued life in Alabama or Mississippi. The foodways and language habits and religious patterns that migrated north along with them. The other desperate workers from Poland and Slovakia and Ireland that they fought for jobs and neighborhoods, tribal warfare imported from the homeland to be just as bitter in that new world.

Ray had brought in her best crop ever, 189 bushels per acre, but the price had dropped down just below six dollars from a spring high of $7.20. Even at that, though, she’d made $450,000 for the season, netting nearly $50,000. If you calculated her hours plus Jay’s hours plus Walker’s hours, they’d made about $7.70 per hour for the year’s work. Plus cancer.

More importantly, she’d sold the farm. AgReserves, the giant land-investment arm of the Latter-Day Saints, had outbid all of the locals, with a final sale price of $3080 per acre for the raw land, plus another $340,000 for improvements—wellhead, pumphouse, barns and storage. All at once, Ray had a check in her hands for $1,572,000. And she’d lost all of her local friends. All those farmers who’d banded together for generations turned their backs on her—she was walking away from the land, walking away from heritage, and selling it not to another local family but to the giant, despised Mormon ag machine. She was a traitor in every way, and they cut her dead. And if you asked any one of them, in the sleepless hours of the night, they’d have all done the same thing she did.

Her combine that she’d paid $650,000 for two years earlier received no bids at auction. Her neighbors passed on the chance for a good machine at a good price, just to spite her. She ended up selling it wholesale back to the equipment dealer for $200,000, should have got double that from another farm operation and it would have still been a good deal. The smaller equipment, the tractors and trailers and wagons and mowers, the aging backhoe, got bundled into a single lot, sold on an online auction for $65,000 to someone from Iowa who had no local grudges and recognized a hell of a bargain. They’d sold the old cars and whatnot in a lump as well to a local vehicle auction. They’d drive west in Jay’s year-old pickup, and figure out what else they’d need once they got out here.

The house would be torn down, probably replaced by a jobsite trailer for a farm manager. Maybe some temp housing for seasonal labor. 

The movers were collecting their furniture on December 1st, and she and her family would arrive here four days later, the movers two days after that. They’d found a house to rent in Indianola, on what had once been dairy pasture but now reclaimed for wetlands and ocean birds. “Gotta have space for the dogs,” she’d said, but I knew that it was Ray herself who’d feel penned in by my neighborhood..

Yeah, that’s “exposition.” Yeah, it’s “telling” rather than “showing.” But it remains precise, because it has precise work to do. It’s a transitional phrase that gets us from the first half of the book (Cale on Ray’s ground) to the second half (Ray on Cale’s ground). It sets the reader up to now engage in the same relationship in reversed terms, without a hard border wall between them. It is a rarefaction period that will be followed by a new cycle of compression.

We talked a couple of months ago about the ways that writers can use spaces (between words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books) to give readers space to regard and consolidate what they’ve just encountered. But another tool in the rhythm section is purposeful compression and rarefaction in the pace of the story.

Every time I do this, I learn something new. I can’t imagine anything more fun.

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