How to Create a Narrative Clock

18 Nov
If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful

If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, the new collection of linked stories by Judy Chicurel, tells the coming-of-age-story of a young woman on Long Island in 1972 in the midst of drugs and Vietnam.

If you had to boil my MFA experience down to one lesson about craft, it would be this: give every story a clock. That piece of advice came from the program’s director, Tom Grimes, who had been a close friend of the infamous director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Frank Conroy, and so the advice had the feeling of something inescapably essential and true. The problem was that I had no idea how to do it. As a result, like many writers, I struggled to know when to end a story. So, it’s useful to pay attention to writers who know how to set the timer for their own work.

A great clock can be found in Judy Chicurel’s collection of linked stories, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You GoYou can read a sample chapter from the book here.

How the Novel Works

In this interview with Tom Grimes’ in The Austin Chronicle, he explains how the clock works: “it starts ticking when dramatic action happens” and the clock stops “when the dramatic action ends, regardless of what it is. The clock’s out of time, so you can’t add overtime.” So, the clock is connected to dramatic action, which seems obvious and easy until you try it.

Sometimes, what is needed is an artificial clock, one that you consciously set at the beginning of a story or chapter. Judy Chicurel does this at the very beginning of her chapter, “My Country Right or Wrong,” in the description of Mitch:

I had to talk quickly, though, because once Mitch reached a certain point in his drinking it would be useless to try and get his opinion on anything. The good thing was, the drunker he got, he wouldn’t remember most of what we’d talked about so he wouldn’t be able to repeat it to anyone else we knew. The trick was to get his wisdom on the subject before he reached “the click,” “that place between the last drink you should have had and the last drink you actually drank. You know, the one you’re still tasting the next morning, while your head’s exploding and you’re sitting around waiting for the room to blow up,” he once explained to me.

This is the type of clock that George Saunders has said he uses: “there is a clock ticking during internal monologue, and so you can’t just yap it up.” In this case, Chicurel’s narrator must finish her yapping—say what she needs to say—before Mitch becomes too drunk. The clock has started ticking.

We know the clock will stop ticking when Mitch is too drunk to talk or remember anything. The question is how do we get there? If Mitch simply sits and drinks until he becomes incoherent and then the narrator leaves, we’re likely to feel disappointed in the way that we’re often disappointed when expected things play out in expected ways.

So, it’s interesting to see how Chicurel interrupts an expected chain of events. About halfway through the chapter, her narrator is watching Mitch carefully: “He raised his glass and drained it. I stared into Mitch’s face. His eyes still looked okay.” Then Mitch “licked the dregs of his glass and signaled to Len for another.” He’s getting drunker and talking about awful things that happened to Vietnam vets, and that’s when Chicurel introduces something unexpected: a bunch of construction workers who tell Mitch they don’t appreciate the way he’s running down America. An argument ensues, which Mitch wins, but winning it involves getting off his bar stool in order to fight and rolling up his pant leg to reveal his wooden leg. The scene ends with the bartender settling everyone down and pouring a round of drinks:

When he began making Mitch’s boilermaker, Mitch put up his hand and shook his head, “no.” He threw some bills on the bar and picked up his jacket with the bottle of Gordon’s in the pocket and began walking toward the door that led to the rooms in the hotel.

The clock has stopped ticking. Mitch is about to drink himself beyond “the click,” as promised at the beginning of the chapter. What is unexpected is how he got to that point: leaving the bar after an argument and finishing his drinking alone, rather than yapping it up at the bar.

In short, Chicurel has not only set a clock, but she found a way to make it stop ticking in a surprising way.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a ticking clock using If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel as a model:

  1. Identify the ongoing action. A clock often involves something anticipated by the characters. This could be someone who walks in the door (or doesn’t, as in Waiting for Godot). It can also be a significant event (which is how every sporting event in the world works, with the audience waiting for the last great play). In both cases, the ongoing action is what happens in the meantime, what the characters are doing while waiting for the anticipated thing. This ongoing action could be purposeful and active, like someone trying to defuse a bomb before the timer runs out. The ongoing action can also be less purposeful and less active, like characters sitting around, talking.
  2. Set the clock. The clock is whatever will put an end to the ongoing action: someone arrives, an event occurs, a timer runs out. Inexperienced writers often use the timer that is most readily available: the course of a day. Their chapters and stories begin in the morning and end when the character goes to bed. The key is to find some other way of ending the action. Chicurel uses the effects of alcohol. In other words, the ongoing action ends when her character has had enough (or more than enough). How can you use that criteria for a clock: when will your character have had enough of whatever is happening?
  3. Notice the clock ticking. Chicurel does this by showing Mitch finishing his drink and ordering a new one. In a sporting event, we check the game clock to see how much time is left. If we’re waiting for someone, we watch the door. Make your characters aware that the clock is ticking, and give them an opportunity to check the time in whatever way is appropriate for your ongoing action.
  4. Introduce something unexpected. If your characters are watching the clock, find a way to make them forget it. We’ve all had the real-life experience of saying, “Oh, look at the time!” (and not in an ironic way). The key is to use the elements available to you given your ongoing action. Chicurel’s characters are drinking in a bar, and so she uses other patrons of the bar as interrupters. How can you identify some element of the ongoing action, some detail that exists in the background, and bring it to the foreground? When this happens, you may be able to distract your characters from the ticking clock.
  5. Stop the clock. No matter the distraction, the clock should still stop ticking. The alarm should ring. This moment becomes especially interesting when it interrupts something: the ongoing action or the unexpected interrupter of that action. Just because the characters have forgotten the clock doesn’t mean you, the writer, have. Experiment with ways to bring the clock back into the story.

Good luck!

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3 Responses to “How to Create a Narrative Clock”

  1. wee1one November 29, 2014 at 8:02 p11 #

    I have been considering how to start a short story I want to write – I have a single image in my head that I would love to build a story around. This idea of the clock (something I have often heard but not dissected like this before) has really allowed me to formulate what action I need, and to put a timeline on the story. I can’t wait to start writing it – thanks!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Judy Chicurel | Read to Write Stories - November 20, 2014

    […] To read an excerpt from If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go and an exercise on creating a narrative clock, click here. […]

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