How to Move Through Time and Space

How to Move Between Past and Present

Story: “The Midwife” by Erin Pringle-Toungate, published at Glint Literary Journal

The trouble with blocking the past and present into separate chunks, set off by space breaks, is that the structure can begin to feel unwieldy. To avoid that problem, Pringle-Toungate does two things.

How to Use Transitions to Move Through Time

 Essay: “His Living Room’s a Jungle” by Victor Giannini, published at Narratively

There are hundreds of ways to transition from one moment in time to another, but in almost all of them, the transition works like a chain link: the transitional phrase touches upon a phrase or idea that precedes it and also a phrase or idea that follows it. In “His Room’s a Jungle,” Victor Giannini uses at least three different kinds of chain link.

How to Take Your Characters for a Drive

Novel: Above the East China Sea by Sarah Bird, published by Knopf

At some point in almost every story, characters will move from one place to another. This change in scene ought to be simple, but it can be one of the most aggravating problems writers face. Too often, we try to mimic the actual experience of driving or walking, the way our minds wander across subject and time. Not infrequently, we use a car ride as an opportunity to insert backstory. Maybe this works—and if it does, that’s great. But if it doesn’t—if the reader begins to skim—then perhaps a more succinct strategy is required.

How to Create Speed in Flash Fiction

Story: “Hot N’ Spicy” by Juliana Goodman, published in BLACKBERRY

Anyone who’s tried to write flash fiction knows how fast it must move. There’s no time for context or explanation. You’re illuminating a few minutes or seconds of a character’s story, and, if it works, the readers feel as though they’ve peered into Borges’aleph and seen a much larger world. But how do you create that dizzying sense of speed?

How to Stretch Present Action

Novel: Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen, published by Graywolf

The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action. This is often where the most interesting parts of any novel lie. The difference is that Allen has found a way to direct our attention to them.

How to Create a Narrative Clock

Novel: If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel, published by Putnam

A narrative clock “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.

How to Incorporate the Internet into Your Fiction

Novel: 10:04 by Ben Lerner, published by Faber & Faber

Odds are, if you’re a living, breathing writer, then you have a smart phone. You’re probably on it more than you’d like, checking Facebook and Twitter and doing research via Wikipedia. And yet how often does any of this technology show up in our writing?

How to Manipulate Chronology to Build Character

Novel: Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Chronology is something most writers and readers take for granted. Time moves forward, and so does narrative. There are exceptions, of course. Memory isn’t constrained by the inexorable march of time. It can leap backward at will, or against it—and can even get stuck in the past. But we understand memory to be unusual, unlike the rest of our lives, which move forward. This fact highlights the extraordinary achievement of fictions that move differently. Most writers will never attempt such ambitious structures. But it can be useful to try them in miniature.

How to Put a Mind into Conversation with Itself

Novel: Call Me Home by Megan Kruse, published by Hawthorne Books

Dialogue involving only one person might seem, on its face, impossible. In plays, a character can talk to no one, and there are terms for this: monologue, soliloquy, or (if the character is talking to the audience) aside. This can be accomplished in prose through narration. After all, first-person narration is really just a series of scenes with bits of soliloquy in between. But that kind of narration still suggests a single speaker, and this isn’t always the case. We have many voices in our heads. Some belong to other people, but others are different versions of ourselves, and these versions can, at times, talk to one another.

How to Jump Out of Scene into Backstory

Novel: Seeing Off the Johns by Rene S. Perez II, published by Cinco Puntos

Some famous writer or another once said that stories and novels don’t portray a life but, rather, a glimpse of one part of the life that suggests the entirety of the whole. This is all well and good until you try it. You find yourself wondering, “Which snapshot is the right one?” or “What part of my life suggests the whole thing? I hope it’s not the part where I forgot to put on deodorant.” It can be an impossible question to answer. A better question might be this: How can a particular scene or moment reveal the constant process of change that is part of any life?

How to Add Interiority in the Midst of Suspense

Novel: The Good Daughter by Alexandra Burt

The death note for any work of fiction is just that—a single note. When a novel or story is doing just one thing at a time, readers will get bored and walk away. Good fiction, then, juggles multiple elements at once. There are large-scale ways of doing this (multiple points of view, multiple timeframes), but it’s also possible to juggle elements on a sentence and paragraph level. Even when writers are moving between the big building blocks of POV and time, they’re also doing the same thing in small ways because those small shifts are what keep a reader engaged. After all, readers read pages and chapters one sentence at a time, and so writers must hold their attention on that level.

How a Character’s Past Can Inform the Present Action

Stories: My Life as an Animal by Laurie Stone

Here is one way to think about conflict: A character has a desire (like, say, wanting to eat a really good sandwich), but something stands in the way of satisfying that desire (there are no good sandwiches, only Subway). The story becomes about that character’s effort to overcome the obstacle in order to obtain the desired thing (the quest for the sandwich). There is nothing wrong with this structure, clearly, since it’s the basis of any number of famous stories and novels. That said, it has a simplicity that can feel false. In real life, we often act in ways that takes us away from the thing we desire. Or, we have conflicting desires. When this is the case in a story, a different structure is needed than the “Quest for the Sandwich” narrative.


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