In this chapter, Kristina Stanley from Fictionary and JoEllen Nordstrom discusses the timing of a scene and its significance when writing a story.
In the previous chapter, we discussed the differences between action scenes and sequel scenes. In this one, we will be talking about the significance of a scene’s timing.
Timing for a scene is very similar to point of view or location. You want to anchor your reader as soon as you can. So, when you enter a scene, does the reader know what time of day it is, how much time has passed since the previous scene, or if the scene occurs on a particular date? Timing can mean different things, and that’s okay. All your reader needs to know is what’s important for your story.
The quicker the reader understands when the scene occurs, the quicker they’ll be drawn into the story. You don’t want them confused about how much time has passed since the last scene. You also don’t want to focus on timing so much that it’s what every scene is about: “It’s Tuesday at four o’clock.” You want to vary how you enter a scene so the story doesn’t become repetitive.
Timing is not something you only need to worry about at the beginning of a scene. If you have a flashback, getting in and out of it also counts as timing.
A flashback is like a scene within a scene, and you need to anchor the reader when you have one.
How to establish timing
So, how does a writer communicate the timing of a scene to the reader? First of all, it depends on the type of story you’re writing. If you’re writing a first-person story that tells a person’s life in chronological order, one scene always follows the next. This makes things a little easier because you don’t need to specify the time. A great example of this is the show 24, where the story happens in 24 hours. The scenes occur in sequential order, and the timing is
obvious from the structure.
If you’re writing a historical or time travel novel, you can put dates in the heading, like September 20, 1577.
Right away, the reader thinks, Oh, we’ve gone back in time. The dates are also important if you’re following a historical trend where you’re jumping 10 years or 15 years between key events.
You can also communicate timing in other ways. For example, you can say something like “later that night” so the reader knows it’s the same day. You can use thoughts, too. A character might think, I can’t believe it’s been two weeks since I talked to him. You can also use actions: “I grabbed a flashlight and ran into the backyard.” Okay, the reader thinks, it’s nighttime because it’s dark.
The final way to communicate timing is through dialogue. A character might say, “You haven’t called me in six months. What’s up with that?” Now we know six months have gone by, and we also know the character is a little testy about it.
Making a timing list
The first step to identifying and correcting timing issues is to make a list of the timing of every scene. If you can’t tell when a scene is happening, that’s a problem. You want to make sure the transitions from scene to scene are smooth and the story flows without confusing the reader.
Making such a list also helps you identify plot holes. For example, you might think, I know that city, and there’s no way that character could have gotten from place a to place b in one hour. So, you’ve established the scene’s timing, but there’s a problem with it because it doesn’t make sense within the context of the story.
Not only should the timing be clear, but it should make sense to the reader, too.
If you’re not using a tool like Fictionary, a timing list is critical. It helps you make sure that all your scenes are anchored in time in a way that makes sense in terms of the overall story. It also helps you vary how timing is communicated in each scene. For example, if you’ve entered a scene with “later that night” or “earlier that morning” several times in the book, the list helps you spot that pattern so you can change things up here and there.
Making a timing list may seem time-consuming, but it will make it much easier to identify issues in your manuscript and weaknesses in your writing so you don’t make the same mistakes in the future.
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