Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Playing with Time

Mitchell Wiesjahn
            Writers are effectively the masters of time because we can determine how long events transpire and can essentially revert to the past or even fast-forward to the future with minimal effort. It’s a powerful responsibility that we shoulder, and even some of us forget or are possibly afraid of using our superpowers in our works. I’m here to tell you that manipulating time to your advantage is easy once you understand how to make a timeline for your own story.
            Let’s start with a simple question you will probably ask yourself before you write your novel, or you may have written it and now you can revise with this in mind: When does your story begin and how long do the story events take? Let me bring in two examples of a video game and a book that have a very specific time frame for their stories. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One’s stories take place within a very specific three-day timeline. Despite the many differences these stories share, they both are wrapped around a very short time span, but Zelda writers and Whitehead are not constrained by this timeline at all because they know how to extend the boundaries of this time, with Whitehead using irregular flashbacks and Majora’s Mask actually making the player the master of time by constantly reverting back to the first day in the story to start from a different objective and effectively building to more than four different stories despite being trapped in a three-day cycle.
What you can take from my examples is that shifts in time meaningfully change the story in interesting ways. In Zone One, the protagonist often finds his thoughts shifting to his past in the apocalypse and we get a better sense of his character’s development and trauma that occurs from the zombie outbreak, while in Majora’s Mask the hero Link is unable to rectify the crimes the Skull Kid has wrought on the four regions in the game and so Link has to use his Ocarina to extend the timeframe. When you take into account how long your story will take place, you will be able to do what Link does with his Ocarina: bend time to work for you.
While your story doesn’t need to be as tight as three days, you should be aware of what your story’s timeline will do to your characters. Consider, for example, a time frame of fifty years. If the story is set within the first twenty, what will the other thirty years do for the story’s plot and how will the character grow in those thirty years? We all age obviously, and we will experience a lot of life changing events throughout our lifetimes, so mastering time involves creating the life changing events and still trying to hold up to the major story. Considering the example again, if the character was the exact same person, this wouldn’t make sense. If the character was the same, time is not being used to effectively portray the character and just isn’t a realistic depiction. Keeping the story real is important, and while it may seem intimidating, you should just remember that you aren’t the same person you were 5, 10, or even 20 years ago. Getting to know your different selves could help you build a character and his or her different selves throughout the many different timelines you may use within your stories.
So we’ve talked about the linear framing of timeline, but now we should focus on how to mess with time to structure your story differently. In the cases of the stories above, it was an integral part of their being to be set in a three-day timeline that jumps into the past on occasion, but they still progress forward. Your own story may not feel right to you, and maybe you can’t pinpoint why. You should now ask yourself this: Does my story have to go from Time A to Time B? If your work really only picks up near the middle of your story and the beginning seems to drag at some points, you might need to redo the order. You’ve probably been told to start in media res, or starting in the middle or the action, and in the above scenario, it just seems to be that as a time master, you really need to cut the middle and paste it at the beginning, and you’re following that rule now. If that beginning is so important to you, don’t you think you might explain it another way? You could explain it as a flashback, or a character may just reiterate the beginning instead, but that way you have reworked your story into something that is not only more compelling, it also gives the story a unique twist. Consider another book, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin; the story switches between the present and the past every chapter. This gives us insight into the Anarchist society of the planet Anarres during the past segments, and the present gives us the anarchist look into the planet Urras. The past in the story leads to the present, while the present in a way brings us to a point before the past segment begins. The story’s beginning, in media res, actually would have made for a climax if the story was told chronologically, but the way it intros brings readers into the action and disorients them, helping to make for an intriguing tale.
            Copying this style may not be the way to go about writing a story all the time, but beginning in the heat of the action and using time manipulation to back track will likely lead to an interesting starting point for a story. While you may not be comfortable with using time to build an intriguing story now, eventually these things will be learned from simply reading books or playing games like the ones above. Watching someone else manipulate time is surely the best route to figuring it out for yourself. You will learn what other authors do to make successful transitions in time, and hopefully they will help you become an excellent master of time.
            Consider checking these articles out for more information:

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Flexible Chapter Outlines

Kathryn Page Camp
I’m not going to get involved in the controversy between plotters and pantsers. Or maybe I’ll say this much. Every writer is different, and you should do what works for you.
My own approach lies somewhere in the middle. I use a brief chapter-by-chapter outline, and I give myself permission to change it. This may or may not work for you, but if you are having trouble finding your optimal approach, maybe you will want to try it.
The picture at the top of this post shows the first half of my two-page outline for Desert Jewels, a middle grade novel about a Japanese American girl living in California when World War II breaks out. The second column includes just enough information to jog my memory about the major events covered by that chapter.
Although I’ve used chapter outlines for all of my recent manuscripts, the actual format varies based on the book. Dates were very important in Desert Jewels, and it has no chapter titles. My current work-in-progress, Creating Esther, does have chapter titles and relies less on specific dates, although I did add them to Part III. The outline for the first two parts of that manuscript looks like this:
As I write, I add, delete, or rearrange chapters. My original Desert Jewels outline contained four parts: Berkeley (my protagonist’s original home), Tanforan (the first camp she was sent to), Topaz (her second camp), and Chicago (where she ended up after her release). For any particular draft, I start at the beginning and write until I get to the end. When I completed Part III in the first draft of Desert Jewels, I realized that my protagonist’s release was the perfect stopping point. Since I give myself permission to change my outline when the story tells me to, I simply eliminated Part IV.
In a later draft, I added an epilogue because my beta readers said they wanted to know what happened to my protagonist and her friends after they left Topaz. But that one-chapter epilogue isn’t anything like my original Part IV would have been.
This flexibility does have some disadvantages. If I make changes in the middle of a draft, I may have to go back and revise events, settings, and so on that occurred earlier. And if I am eliminating or revising something that was in a previous draft, I may have to jump ahead to make sure I catch all the inconsistencies before I forget them. But this approach is the one that works best for me.
If you have a writing approach that works for you, don’t let anyone tell you that you are doing it wrong. But if you haven’t found it yet, experiment until you do.
That’s how I found mine.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Plotters v. Pantsers

Once you know what structure is, how do you achieve it? To put it into writing slang, most authors are either plotters (creating structure in advance through outlines) or pantsers (developing the story “by the seat of their pants” as they write). This turns into an all-out war among authors who believe that his or her method is best.

Here are quotes from three successful plotters:

John Grisham: Outlines are crucial. . . . The outlining process is no fun, but it forces the writer to see the entire story.

Jon Franklin: In telling yourself you can’t outline, what you’re really saying is that you can’t think your story through, and if that’s actually the case—which I seriously doubt—then you’d better give up your writing ambitions before you become successful enough for people to discover that you don’t know what you are talking about.

J.K. Rowling: It took me a long, hard five years to complete The Philosopher’s Stone. The reason so much time slipped by was because, from that very first idea, I envisioned a series of seven books—each one charting a year of Harry’s life whilst he is a student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And I wanted to fully sketch the plots of all the stories and get the essential characteristics of my principal characters before I actually started writing the books in detail.

And here are quotes from three successful pantsers:

Stephen King: I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

E.L. Doctorow: It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Ernest Hemingway: (Responding to the question, “Do you know what is going to happen when you write a story?”) Almost never. I start to make it up and have happen what would have to happen as it goes along.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?


The John Grisham quote comes from a March 1, 2006 interview with Slushpile, which can be found at

The Jon Franklin quote comes from page 111 of his Writing for Story (Plume, 1994).

The J.K. Rowling quote can be found at, which lists the quote as coming from a November 3, 2001 interview with

The Stephen King quote comes from page 163 of his On Writing (Pocket Books, 2001).

The E.L. Doctorow quote can be found at and various other places on the Internet. Wikiquote attributes it to a 1988 interview with Writers at Work.

The Ernest Hemingway quote comes from page 41 of Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips (Scribner, 2004).

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

What is Structure?

Notre Dame Cathedral, Bayeux, France

Documentation Center, Nuremberg, Germany

Writing a story is like assembling a building. The two structures pictured above are both made of stone, but they look very different.* They also had different purposes. One was built to worship God and the other was built to worship the Nazis. Similarly, writers can use the same story elements to create vastly different tales.

But both buildings and stories must have a structure if they are to succeed. Without it, buildings will crumble and stories will lose their readers.

Here is Jon Franklin’s explanation of structure. These quotes are from pages 92–93 and 99 of Writing for Story (Plume, 1994).

The most fundamental truth about the cosmos is that big things are composed of little ones. Quarks combine to form intermediate particles; intermediate particles fuse into protons, neutrons and electrons, which become atoms, which snap together into molecules, which combine into rocks and clouds and so on, and so on, and so on, until we have planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies, galactic clusters, clusters of clusters, and ultimately the universe.

This is not just a matter of physics. Stones and bricks form buttresses and walls, which enclose rooms and chambers, and so on unto Winchester Cathedral. Likewise atoms make molecules, which compose organelles, which form cells, which become organs, which combine into men and women, who organize themselves into societies. Everywhere you look big things are constructed from littler ones, and those from littler ones yet.

The principle applies equally in what we call the arts. Plays are composed of acts, which, in turn, are conglomerations of scenes. Great symphonies are amalgams of movements, poems are composed of stanzas, and stories are structures of . . . well, that’s what this chapter is about.  

That structure is pivotal to storycraft is obvious, or at least it should be, but if you’ve been steeped in the mysteriousness of art (as most of us have) it’s difficult to think about writing in those terms. They seem too abstract and reductionistic to have any emotional relevance, too alien to have any appeal. So there is a natural tendency to turn away.

Don’t. For it is here, in the coldly logical prefrontal realm of the mind and not the heart, that the secrets of the masters are kept. He who would comprehend stories, no less than he who would understand universes or temples, must first grasp the nature of their component parts.

As we look closely at structures, whether they be physical or artistic, natural or manmade, we soon notice something rather odd and very important. The big things often don’t relate to one another the way the littles ones do.

The forces that allow mortar to stick bricks together, for instance, are different from those that keep arches and flying buttresses stable; the laws of psychology that cement a family are not quite the same as those that solidify nations.

* * *

A story is constructed in this fashion. Clusters of simple images form focuses, which in turn are joined by simple transitions to form larger focuses. Those larger focuses then combine to form still larger focuses that are glued together with increasingly complex transitions that guide the reader through changing times, moods, subjects, and characters.

Ultimately, the focuses combine to form several “major” focuses that compose the principle structural subunits of stories . . .

Or, if you want a shorter explanation, try this definition by James Scott Bell:

Simply put, structure is what assembles the parts of a story in a way that makes them accessible to readers. It is the orderly arrangement of story material for the benefit of the audience. (Plot & Structure, pg. 22, Writers Digest Books, 2004.)

You wouldn’t want to live in a house without supports to hold it up. Readers don’t want stories without structure, either.

So stay tune to this month’s posts about structuring your story.


* The pictures are © 2015 by Kathryn Page Camp. Used by permission.