By Barry Willis
What are you working on? A news report? A press release? Corporate in-house communications? A short story? A novel?
Each genre of writing has a timeframe, its temporal setting—for news, product reviews, press releases, and nearly all corporate writing; the timeframe is the present. Anything else—celebrity profiles, short stories, screenplays and stage plays, novels—can have any sort of timeframe you wish. A story about a Civil War soldier can be told in the present tense, as if it’s a thriller happening now, or as a musty, mostly forgotten detail from the distance past. As a writer, you have the almost Godlike power to reinterpret the past or invent the future. How you choose to do it will determine what sort of audience your work attracts, and maybe, how much success you’ll have as a careerist in this business.
Shakespeare chose to make the assassination of Roman emperor Julius Caesar a very in-the-moment experience for theatergoers of his time, even though the original events were 1600 years earlier. Most works of historical fiction do something similar, as opposed to histories, which are often tracts of dry facts laid end-to-end in chronological order so that readers may glean some concept of how long the discussed events lasted, how one led to the next, and how they jointly determined the future.
What sort of period you are trying to cover? A few hours? Days? Years? Or will you shift from one to another as the narrative demands? Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place in one night; Hamlet encompasses a few weeks. They both work beautifully. The implied length of your story’s action isn’t nearly as important as keeping your readers engaged. “What happens next?” is the driving force of all entertainment. If you get your readers to stay with you page after page, you’ve scaled one of the biggest barriers most writers ever face.
You’ll find that story concept often determines timespan, and opening and end points. You’ll also find that playing with the chronological order of events can make your writing more engaging. News stories can be dry as dust or juicy as a burst watermelon depending on the time perspective—a riot at City Hall could be buried deep in a chronological report of a meeting of the City Council or could break out as a blockbuster headline (“Police Halt Riot at City Hall”).
Select the most important elements that you’re working with and how you want to frame them: “ . . . Item 14 on the council’s agenda had an unexpected result. Townspeople became enraged when the council voted 4-3 to halt repairs to the city’s faltering waste treatment plant . . .” or “ . . . At last night’s meeting, a negative vote on improving the city’s ailing waste treatment plant provoked a spontaneous protest by residents sick of the smell . . .” or “ . . . Police were called when frustration reached the boiling point for citizens at last night’s City Council meeting . . .” There’s a strong dramatic difference in each recitation of the same information.
Timeframe for writers is an extremely elastic concept. You may cover the entirety of the Hundred Years War in one sentence, or you may take a clue from Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato, who filled the first forty or so pages of his novel The Angel of Darkness with descriptions of what his main character encounters and feels as he walks down a city street—in this case, events that take almost as long to read about as to experience in real life. Time may be your biggest aggravation—as in having to meet a deadline—but as a pliable element, it’s among the most useful instruments in the writer’s gig bag.