Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Time and Your Protagonist

Have you noticed how time is handled in novels? It’s very interesting how a minute can last for two or three pages and a span of years can be covered in a sentence. What gives? How does an author choose which moments to dwell on and which ones to skim over?

Time is something we all know. There are twenty-four hours in a day, seven days in a week, and four weeks in a month. Part of the time you’re asleep and part of the time you’re awake. Those waking hours are filled with pretty mundane stuff. We exercise, eat, shower, go to work, come home, watch TV, read a book, go to bed and then the next day we do it all over again. These are the “comb-your-hair” moments in our lives, moments that everyone has but they are boring and no one wants to read about them. So, how does a writer pick which scenes to draw out and which ones to skim over?

A writer picks the emotional moments to dwell on, times of the heart. This can be warm-fuzzy moments; or it can be heart-thumping, on-the-edge-of-your-seat moments. Albert Einstein once said, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than an hour.”

To apply this to your writing, take a look at the following moment--
A nurse places an infant wrapped in a soft, velour blanket into the waiting arms of a joyful new momma, who is ready to take her new little one home from the hospital. The proud papa stands beside mother and child, love beaming from his eyes as he takes in the scene he thought he’d never experience. He had no idea how powerful the love of being a parent could be until now.

That’s a soft, warm-fuzzy moment full of emotion. You weren’t sure who the main character was until feelings came into play, the feelings of the father. This scene could go much slower as the father sets his eyes on that perfect child, describing each detail and how the infant looks like his wife, or his mother. This is a time to slow the scene down and focus on what’s in Papa’s heart.

Let’s try the heart-thumping, on-the-edge-of-your-seat moment--
A nurse comes into the hospital room with no baby in her arms. George notices a concerned look on her face, but says nothing to his wife, Marsha. The nurse asks if Marsha noticed the baby having trouble breathing at her last feeding. Shock pales Marsha’s face as she tries to think. She shakes her head and looks to George; her eyes framed with fear. As George takes Marsha’s hand, the nurse explains to the couple that their baby girl is having respiratory problems and a specialist has been called to examine her. They should know more soon. With that, the nurse leaves. The room spins as George fights the nausea churning his stomach. Marsha bursts into tears. George cradles her in his arms as he fears their dream of a family is in danger.

Okay, so we’ve put George on the stove, haven’t we? His minutes will be hours as he waits to learn what is happening to his child. He’s not having the usual “comb-your-hair” day. He is full of fear worried about the fate of his child. It doesn’t matter that he got out of bed that morning and had a bowl of oatmeal before going to the hospital. No, the moment to write about is this moment that is full of emotion.

In the first scene the emotion was different. Emotional moments--whether they are soft, warm and fuzzy or heart-thumping, on-the-edge-of-your-seat--are the times to write about through your protagonist’s feelings.

Now, should every scene be filled with tension and conflict? We’ll discuss this next Wednesday.

May your writing muse be with you…

8 comments:

  1. This one is so important, I think. And it ties back in with your post about character perspective too. What will you spend your "time" thinking about/acting on.

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  2. You're right, L.T. It is important. Thanks for making the connection with character perspective. :)

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  3. Elizabeth, you've tweeted it? I've got to get on Tweeter. I hope you had some good responses.

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  4. Time is so relative - it's fun to play around with different ways of handling it in the story :)

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  5. Jemi, so true. I'm working on a romantic suspense right now and it's amazing how much time is spent on the tender moments opposed to the tense life-threatening moments that call for shorter sentences. Fun, definitely.

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  6. Great post, Kathi. Being able to mess with time is one of my favorite things about writing. I especially like making it slow down so I can experience everything.

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  7. Carol, thanks! Nice to know I'm not the only one who likes to play around with time. Now if only we could do the same with the time in our own lives. I'd really like to sleep less. ;)

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