Timing Is the Bane of My Existence

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


Lots of writing-advice books talk about the challenge of figuring out what’s going to happen in your novel.

Many fewer of them — by which I mean, none that I remember reading — talk about the challenge of figuring out when it’s going to happen.

I’m not sure I’ve ever written a book where I didn’t need to worry about this. It was an obvious problem when I was writing the Onyx Court books, especially the ones that dealt directly with specific historical events; if I wanted to incorporate a lunar eclipse or a Fenian bombing into my story, then I had to shuffle my non-historical plot elements around until things lined up properly. This hit its nadir with the fourth book, when not only did I need to account for lunar eclipses and Fenian bombings and the opening of a new stretch of the Underground, but also had to deal with events I had made up for previous books. A certain ghost needs to show up? There are a limited number of dates on which it would make sense for him to do that, and oh look, none of them suit the structure of my plot as originally planned. My choices were 1) give up on using the ghost, 2) give up on having the date of his appearance have any basis in logic, or 3) rearrange my plot.

I went with #3, tearing my hair out the whole way.

But even if you aren’t dealing with historical events, timing can and will trip you up. If it takes an hour to get across the city, how do you ensure your characters arrive where they need to be before it’s too late/don’t arrive too soon and screw everything up? How many days does it take a horseback rider to travel two hundred miles, and how does that get altered by weather and terrain and all the rest of it? If Character A calls Character B on the phone/contacts her via telepathy/otherwise interacts with her at a distance, then given the plot strands you were writing for each character, where are they and what are they doing when the contact happens? How many days, weeks, or months have gone by since the story began, and does that mean the seasons have changed, so that the romantic ride through the park would be taking place in knee-deep snow? Sorry, you can’t have the characters seeing anything by moonlight; based on what you said a few chapters ago it’s the new moon now/it should be a waning quarter and the moon won’t have risen yet/that doesn’t actually line up with the tides you just described in the preceding paragraph.

Timing. I tell ya.

Sure, you can ignore this. Just like you can ignore countless other issues of verisimilitude. But do that too much and your story starts to feel like it’s taking place on a Hollywood set — like all those TV shows set in American cities where mysteriously it never seems to snow, because they’re all filmed in LA or Vancouver. You cheat your characters out of some of their reality, if the weather or the season or the length of day never affects their lives, if the places they live or travel through have no sense of scale, if the actions they take seem to occupy timeless moments that don’t impinge on the world around them.

All of these are good reasons to roll up your sleeves and do the work. But it’s cold comfort when your manuscript is full of square brackets marking the fact that you have no idea how long your protagonist has been traveling or sitting in a particular place, and what that means for the natural world she’s supposed to be studying. 😛