Monday, September 9, 2019

The Ticking Clock

I remember thinking when I was a kid that stories were just a segment of the characters lives. You could think of an author picking a beginning point of the story at some key event, finding a good end point, and just giving the details of what happened in between. But as I began to write my own stories, I discovered that this isn’t the case at all. It may be true of the beginning and ending, but it’s that middle stuff that gets you. When outlining a story, there are some key things that have to occur at various places in a book. The setup for the story always occurs at the beginning, even if you have to rip it out of the middle of the sequential order or even after the end of the story. The reader has to understand what is going on and why it is important. Then the characters have to be seen doing their thing. This is where the reader really starts to enjoy living in this world we’ve created, but it only goes on for about the second quarter of the book. Then it all falls apart. The world that the reader has been enjoying is in danger. And then we tell how the threat was dealt with, for good or for ill. These may not occur sequentially along a timeline, but we must put them in this order in the story.

But you know all of that. What I’ve noticed recently is that there are some things that really are in sequential order. I tend to think of these things as the tick of a clock. Suppose our story begins with a massive explosion on Monday. As the story unfolds, the characters are going to move into the activities of Tuesday. These are different activities than would be in the story if the explosion occurred on Friday and they moved into the activities of Saturday. There are also activities that occur every day, like getting out of bed, or making coffee in the morning, or fixing lunch. We don’t think about these activities much because they usually aren’t key to the story, but we hang our story off of them as we move along. Let me see if I can explain this.

Suppose we had the exciting explosion to pull the reader into our story, but now the outline calls for setup. We want to establish that the protagonist is impacted by this explosion in some way. It happened on Monday, let’s say in the afternoon. What’s on his schedule on Monday afternoon? He’s driving home from work. Traffic is a mess because people are looking at the fire. Maybe he receives a phone call telling him that he needs to return to work because of this. The story progresses, but his normal activities are a constant. These ticks of the clock are those things he would’ve been doing if not for the event he is impacted by. In the story, we are establishing that he is an investigator who looks into explosions like this, but the clock is ticking forward, and he would normally be in bed. Because of the explosion he isn’t in bed, but he is tired after having had a long day already. The clock ticks forward to Tuesday morning. We’re still doing setup and we want to establish that he is a single father. We don’t have him cancel a trip to an amusement park for the kids, instead we look at the clock and have him trying to find someone to take his kids to school.

What I find interesting about these ticks of the clock is that they flow naturally into the story. It’s almost like we don’t have to make them up because they are just part of who the character is. On the one hand we’re looking at our outline and making up stuff that fits the outline, but on the other we are just watching the clock and writing down what is occurring at each tick. It’s that blend of the two that makes the story.

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