Friday, September 4, 2009

Guest Post: James Maxey on Freezing Time

Editor's Note: James Maxey is the author of over 60 short stories and eight novels, including the Dragon Age series and Nobody Gets the Girl. A graduate of Odyssey Writing Workshop and member of the speculative-fiction writers’ group Codex, he is a regular speaker on the fantasy and science-fiction convention circuit. He blogs about his writing at The Prophet and the Dragon and about most everything else (including politics, economics, science and religion) at Jawbone of an Ass. In the following post, James discusses a narrative technique that can lend added oomph to your writing.

I'm working on a new novel; in the opening paragraph, the narrator gets thrown out of a window. In real life, getting thrown out of a window is a fairly brief event. You fly out, you land a second later, the whole thing is done before you can blink.

In the novel, however, I spend three paragraphs getting my character to the ground. In the first paragraph, the character seems to hang frozen in mid-air as I describe the earth far below him. (The window is in a very tall building.) The next paragraph gives us the sensory experience of his fall, with the wind whistling past, his throat aching as he screams his lungs out. In the third paragraph, the character thinks about the person who threw him from the window, and we discover why he's plummeting in the first place.

Finally, he hits. Total words taken to get the character to the ground: 325. He's tossed from the window on page 1, and hits the ground on page 2.

I am, by nature, a writer who respects sequential time. I don't use a lot of flashbacks (with the notable exception of my novel Bitterwood, which has four). I like to start at the beginning, end at my end and keep the middle in the middle. This sounds obvious, but plenty of writers get bored by this approach, and kick you into the story right in the middle, or even right at the end. As my body of published work has grown (four novels, a dozen or so short stories), I find myself striving to keep my own storytelling as straightforward and simple as possible. I want my readers to pay attention to the characters and the plotlines; I don't want them to have to take notes and draw charts attempting to piece together a fractured timeline.

While I avoid flashbacks, I'm a big fan of slowing or freezing time. Since I write adventure fiction, I'm frequently confronted with the paradox of action: Often the briefest of the events are the ones you most want to draw out. A fight scene might last, in real time, a dozen seconds. If you just write about a fight blow by blow, trying to capture the swiftness of the action, it can be over before the reader has really engaged with what's happening. It will reflect the actual real world speed, but won't capture the sense of excitement. In order to make the reader feel the tension of the moment, to really get their blood pumping, it's frequently necessary to slow things down.

Film makers know this, of course. If you've ever watched MythBusters, you've no doubt seen the actual length of time an explosion takes to vaporize something. In one episode, they blow up a dump truck. It takes a fraction of a second. The truck is there, you blink, the truck is gone. So, in a movie when something gets blown up, especially if it's a climactic explosion, it's almost always in slow motion. Filmmakers aren't going to spend days plotting out and planning an explosion just to let it flash by quicker than the audience can see it, and audiences wouldn't stand for it if they did. They want the moment to last.

A writer gains a great deal of power once he learns that a reader is willing to linger a while within a single second. Of course, a filmmaker just has to run the film slower. Writers have to learn other tricks. I have two that I use frequently.

The first method of stretching a second is to fully imagine it in all its sensory glory. If a character has just punched another character in the gut, you obviously have a visual you can build upon. Adding sound to the moment is pretty easy. But why stop there? This is a moment filled with physical sensations. The sense of touch is frequently forgotten by writers who hurry through a moment. A punch is just two characters touching each other. The punchee obviously feels something, but so does the puncher. The whole body is involved; if you hit something with genuine violence, you don't just get experience it in your knuckles. The impact spreads through your shoulder, through your spine. It can knock you off your balance, or make you aware of just how firmly you've managed to plant yourself.

And, of course, there's smell. Hit someone, knock their breath out of them, and that breath is going somewhere, and it's going to smell like something. If the fight has gone on more than a few seconds, everyone involved is sweating. If blood is drawn, that has a distinct aroma.

I can think of ways to invoke taste as well, especially in the guy on the receiving end, but I'll stop before I cross a boundary of good taste.

Perhaps you don't write a lot of fight scenes. The advice "the whole body is involved, and if you hit something with genuine violence, you don't just get experience it in your knuckles" doesn't seem to apply to writing your romance novel. No problem. Swap the word "hit" with "kiss," "violence" with "passion," and "knuckles" with "lips."

To a point, the more sensory detail you pour into a moment in time, the more real it will seem. There is, of course, a point of diminishing returns. You don't want to heighten the sensory load of every moment; you'd just wind up bogging down the story. You want to save the details for the stuff you think is really important.

Which leads, of course, to a second thing you can use to help pace your action sequences: meaning. When my character is falling from the window, it's an opportunity for me to have him reflect on his relationship with the woman who just tossed him to his apparent doom. I've frozen the moment not so he can think about the weather, but so that he can think about the other important character in the book and bring some meaning to the moment.

In my most recent published novel, Dragonseed, I have a fight between Hex, a dragon, and Bitterwood, a dragonslayer. In the previous book, the two had been uneasy allies, united by a desire to aid a friend they had in common. Now that their common friend isn't around, Bitterwood reverts to his dragon-hating roots and tries his best to kill Hex. But it's not an instantaneous decision. He draws his bow, takes aim, then experiences an internal debate about whether or not to take the shot. Time is frozen so I can delve more deeply into thoughts that, in all likelihood, flash by in a fraction of a second. The action itself -- taking aim with an arrow and letting it fly -- fills only seconds. But the tension of the moment is allowed to linger, to give the reader time to experience their own feelings about the actions about to unfold. I have two protagonists about to enter a fight with at least one of them intending it be a fight to the death. The reader needs a moment to dread what's about to happen or perhaps to root for a certain outcome.

One final word of caution: When you freeze time, make sure you know when to restart it. You only have a certain number of words before the reader forgets the original moment. If you throw a character out the window then write a thousand words before he reaches the ground, it's likely they'll have forgotten he was in the air in the first place. How do you know how long is too long? I wish there was an easy formula to pass along. The truth is that while you can learn about various pacing techniques by reading about them, you aren't going to discover what works for you until you employ the writer's most valuable tool: your butt. Sit down and write a few dozen stories, listen to what readers tell you about them, then write a few dozen more. Eventually, you'll figure out which techniques accomplish what you want.

A numb butt seems like a fair trade to gain the mastery of the flow of time.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


Mr. Cavin said...

A climatic explosion? What an interesting tropic of conversation!

Loren Eaton said...

Lotsa good, practical writing stuff here ...

Unknown said...

Great post. I'm looking forward to trying this technique!

For anyone who's interested, Maxey's Odyssey lecture on strong openings is also worth checking out:

Loren Eaton said...

I really liked that lecture.

Mr. Cavin said...

"...good, practical writing stuff..."

Oh, I agree with it totally! (Weather or not James chooses to temperate with climate puns.)

Loren Eaton said...

Oh, goodness. Missed that one totally. Fixing ...

ollwen said...

Really cool advice here. Good cautions as well. Overuse of this was what made James Fenimore Cooper almost unbearable to me (at least as a high schooler).

Loren Eaton said...

I've never read any Cooper, although I believe he's pretty much ignored bt the academy today. I have no idea whether or not it's justified.

James Maxey said...

Oops! I didn't get the "climatic" versus "climactic" typo until just now. It reminds me of when I launched my blog saying I was a uniformed yahoo instead of an uninformed yahoo.

Loren Eaton said...

Well, if it makes you feel any better, I missed it, too. Twice.