Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the twenty-third chapter, “When the World Goes Loopy, You Can Become a Master of Time and Space”. You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Section V: How to Use Writerly Tricks to Gain Unstoppable Powers
When the World Goes Loopy, You Can Become a Master of Time and Space
My favorite moment in Starcrash—the low-budget Star Wars knockoff—comes when Christopher Plummer shouts in an operatic voice, “Imperial battleship, halt the flow of time!” But long before the Emperor used this power against the evil Count Zarth Arn, every novelist already possessed this same ability.
Anyone who writes a story has total control over the passage of time. You get to show us the events you want us to see, in the order you want us to see them. You can spend a dozen pages on a single moment in someone’s life, or let a hundred years pass in a paragraph. This mastery of the past and future is wondrous at the best of times, but it’s especially therapeutic when the world is a giant obscene mess. When the world feels like it’s moving too fast and too slow, and we’re living in the future as well as the past, we have no way to control any of it—unless you have a blank document handy.
Many of my favorite authors, from David Mitchell to N.K. Jemisin, play consciously with both structure and time. And for my money, remixing a story’s timelines is one of the most satisfying aspects of writing. Structure can be a thing of beauty and a source of narrative pleasure, just as much as the snappiest dialogue or the most heartfelt character moment. And there’s no storytelling tool more powerful than controlling the shape of the story itself.
A lot of writing experts will tell you that there’s really only one type of structure that a story can have, the “three-act structure.” And I’ve always thought this is true, as far as it goes: every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But pretty much all of my favorite stories screw around with the order of events, or come shaped like puzzle-boxes, or have seven separate “third acts.” Like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, which jump around in time, or Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which intersperses two timelines that slowly converge.
Time is the one drug that absolutely everyone is hooked on. And fiction is the only place to get a really potent hit.
Why do you write like you’re running in and out of time?
One of my favorite things about the musical Hamilton is how tricksy its pacing is. The Battle of Monmouth is dealt with in a few lines, and the song “Right Hand Man” covers a huge swathe of events. But in other songs, a single conversation is allowed to unspool in real-time, and the party where Alexander Hamilton meets the Schuyler sisters is shown twice, from two different points of view.
This is nothing compared to the trickery that prose can accomplish.
A novel or short story can slow things down until we see every tiny detail of a scene, with a clarity that might never exist anywhere else. Even down to the dust motes swirling in a shaft of light from a half-open window, and the plate of glistening sticky buns that are right in the middle of toppling onto the floor. Prose fiction also has the ability to summarize, carrying you through a long period of time without feeling like you’re skipping over anything. (“Every day for six months, she taught him to read the bones and to taste the subtle variations in the flavor of human blood.”)
A few years ago, I went to an event where Kim Stanley Robinson said this ability to elapse time, to create a feeling of living through something in just a few lines, is the greatest advantage of prose fiction over other media.
And it’s true: other media have their own ways of trying to highlight a particular moment, or to show visually that time is passing, but when a narrator tells you about a long stretch of time, it’s uniquely potent. Montages always feel clunky by comparison, and so do slow dissolves. Likewise, no other medium can keep you in a single instant the way that prose can. A comic-book artist might draw a gorgeous two-page spread of a single image, but they can’t prevent you from glancing at it and then turning the page to see the next word balloon.
Your use of time, to a huge extent, shapes the meaning of your story. Things that you choose to linger over automatically take on more meaning and emotional significance, especially if we’re seeing them through the eyes of someone who cares about them (or hates them.) You can make us believe that two people have deepened their relationship over a long period of time, without forcing us to watch every conversation about where to have lunch.
To some extent, being aware of the passage of time in your story is a matter of just not boring the reader by plodding forward. But keeping a finger on the pitch control of the universe is also a way to infuse everything with greater meaning and excitement—and also a good start on one of the toughest aspects of writing: pace.
Every novel I’ve ever written has dragged in the middle, at least according to my beta readers. I always get to a certain point in the story and then want to poke around and explore my fictional world, and have lots of meandering conversations about nothing in particular.
I never solved these problems by cutting out all the conversations, or the exploration. Instead, I combined two or three scenes into one, or tightened them up, or found ways to make a static scene feel more dynamic. Instead of showing someone getting out of their car, walking inside a building and getting in the elevator, I jump straight to them walking inside their apartment.
A lot of pacing is just creating the sense that something is happening, even if that “something” is just “we’re caught in the rain without an umbrella.” A sequence where someone buys a hat can feel fast-moving and exciting, if we care enough about the hat in question, and if each moment of the hat-buying has something interesting going on. And if nothing feels repetitive or redundant. Conversely, you could write a giant battle scene, involving countless decapitations and betrayals and reversals, that feels as though nothing is really happening. “Oh, another decapitation. Yawn—wake me when someone buys a hat.”
And as long as suspense is building, and the reader can tell that the walls are slowly closing in on the characters, we can put up with a lot of slow scenes. Watching two people argue about whether Kant’s universal law truly applies to the entire universe (including places where cause-and-effect operate quite differently) can be downright thrilling, if you know there’s a monster sneaking up on them. Or if they’re having this debate while breaking into an evil fortress.
Most people I know read for feels, as much as for clever plot twists or awesome fight scenes. And these things all make each other more interesting and punchy, so to speak.
Nothing feels like an “event” if there’s no emotional significance or weight to any of it. (See above, re: decapitations.) You can wrap big emotional scenes inside, or around, big plot developments.
Also, the more balls you can keep in the air, the faster the pace will feel, because the reader will be aware of all the other balls over your head while you’re catching one of them.
Another reason your pacing might feel wonky, incidentally: things might not be happening too quickly or too slowly, but just at the wrong time or in the wrong order. So many times, I’ve realized that the problem with a story was that the characters learned a key piece of information too early, sapping the story of its urgency or moving it toward the climax too soon. Or a key event happened in the middle of a dozen other things, rather than when it would have the most impact.
This is one reason why I always outline a story or novel after I’ve written one or two complete drafts. I think about the turning points in the story, and try to space them out so that each turning point has enough time to sink in, before the status quo gets turned upside down.
I’ll even assign a word count target to each section of a book, to ensure that nothing is overstaying its welcome. Like, if I want a novel to be 100,000 words total, then I can’t spend more than 20,000 words on the journey from one place to another, and I may have to cut or tighten some of my favorite scenes. This technique probably won’t work for everyone, but I find it imposes a certain amount of discipline and forces me to think about what percentage of a book’s running length I want to spend on a particular place or series of events. If something is one-fifth of the story, it should only be one-fifth of the book.
This is just one of the ways that structure can help you clarify what matters in your story.
Structure can be tremendously healing
Your structure is a chance to build something meaningful into the foundations of your novel. It shapes the experience of the readers and characters. A cool structure can help you highlight things in your story, create more suspense, or just make sure that you build to a really awesome conclusion where everything comes together just right. For example, in The Sparrow, the two alternating timelines add more significance to each other.
Different types of structure also mean different things. A book that starts out with the characters as children and then follows them linearly into adulthood will feel very different than one which offers childhood flashbacks in the middle of their adult lives. In the former case, you see how their upbringing shaped them, and it becomes the literal beginning of the story, whereas the latter structure lets you juxtapose events from the two time periods.
And the ability to juxtapose events that happened years apart, or in two different worlds, is one of the great benefits of a conscious approach to structure. Placing someone’s infancy directly alongside their old age lets you draw connections, create resonances, or show the things that have shaped this person’s life more clearly. You can use juxtaposition and the ability to rewind and fast-forward, to show the things that your characters are willfully overlooking, or to increase the weirdness and surrealism in your story.
Juxtaposition is the heart of irony, and playfulness, and meta narration. You can create a frame around everything that’s happening, with the help of a strong narrator, to show not just what’s happening, but why. Like with the party where Hamilton meets Eliza and Angelica, you
can show the same event from multiple angles, or different perspectives. You can have a tight focus on one tiny thing—and then pull way back, and show the bigger picture.
The frame around your story is often the most political part, too, because it’s about excluding some things and highlighting others. And oppressive ideologies often depend on keeping a paranoiacally narrow frame, so you don’t see who’s been left out of the picture, or so you don’t grasp the larger historical context behind a grindingly awful system.
I also find structure beautiful in its own right. Thinking about structure can be tremendously soothing, like creating a puzzle box, or building a scale model of Versailles. One of my favorite things to do, in a short story or a novel, is to put something game-changing at the exact midpoint, and then make the first half and the second half mirror each other. If the ending feels like a reflection of the beginning, then this symmetry can add to the sense that you’ve gone somewhere, and come back again.
I’m also a big fan of time jumps, where a dozen years pass between chapters, and of false climaxes, where events reach a narrative peak only to subside again. I also adore a structure in which there’s one central event, which we don’t get to see until the very end of the story, but we can tell that we’re getting closer and closer to it, even as we jump around in time.
And to return to pacing, most stories need to have a sense of “rising action.” For the climax to have any impact, it has to feel like the tension has been ratcheted up and up, until the story finally gets to the point where everything is at a crisis. I usually feel like every story has a point where it stops pushing uphill, and starts rolling downhill. Events are spiraling out of control, or everything that’s happened up till now has built up an unstoppable amount of momentum. The characters will do whatever it takes to get answers, or to solve their problems, and things are generally in motion and speeding up.
So a good structure will not only let the reader know what the big turning points in the story are, but show how the consequences of those turning points are piling up. This is a big part of why I say the ending is the beginning. Once you have an ending that you love, that feels like it pays off the themes and the character arcs of your whole story, then you can go back and shape all that raw material into something where every moment serves to build up power that you can discharge at the end.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.