Plotting a Mystery: Time
Using time to outline a novel
It’s still summer. In between picnics, parties, and vacations, who has time to write?
Like last month, I maintain the premise that summer fun interferes with pen-to-paper time. That’s why I’m discussing writing methods rather than actual writing. In June, I offered ideas about using seasons as a way to get started. This month, I’m blogging about using time to organize an outline. These summer blog posts are helping me begin a new novel, and to repeat what I said last month, the two things I first must establish are season and time.
By “seasons,” I refer to either a season of life or a time of year. For example, a character may be in an early or late season of her life; or, a story can take place during a specific time of year such as spring or autumn.
What do I mean by time?
One of the many wonderful things about writing is that the writer plays god. Time, seasons, characters, words all belong to the writer. What’s not to love about that? But upon whom much is given, much is expected. Controlling time is too important to neglect. A writer should know what timeline works for her story. Will the narrative take place during the course of a day? A week? A month? A year? One hundred years?
Further, will the story be linear, as in moving forward in time according to twenty-four-hour days? Or will time move forward and back, incorporating flashbacks as part of the narrative? (Note: I don’t mean backstory, which is discussed below. Flashbacks should be compelling and advance the narrative forward, even though they’re in the past. Backstory is neutral; it reveals motivation or other details and its use should be limited.) Also, will twenty-four-hour days exist? For example, in the Harry Potter world, spells such as the Arresto Momentum affected time. A writer must know how time will exist when building her world upon the page.
The questions surrounding how a writer may use time are never-ending. (Oh, the irony!) How will your novel incorporate time? This is a question that should be answered before writing begins.
In June, I allowed myself to daydream and develop a season for my character. She’s in the autumn of life but the story takes place in spring. During July, I will ground myself to create a timeline: What will happen on each day of my story? The narrative will take place during the course of about six months, which means it will move from spring to end-of-summer. I will be specific about what happens on each day; I will allow for time hops forward, use no flashbacks, and little backstory. My outline will be time-driven rather than plot or character driven; the story will move forward according to days so I can drop plot-points into it. (I have done it the other way; that is, develop events first and then plug them into a timeline, but that’s harder for me.)
The great thing about creating a timeline is that it needs no special or expensive software. It doesn’t even necessitate a computer. It’s a perfect exercise for enjoying a summer day. I use a legal pad and a pen—it’s that simple! I can work on it on the patio, on the boat, or even an airplane. It will take time to create my outline based upon time—and the time to start is now!
The Key to Backstory
“Do not ‘download' background information all at once; it slows the momentum of your plot. Rather, weave backstory into the narrative.” When I was working toward my master’s degree, I heard that directive more than once—every student heard it. I think that was our professor’s most-used advice.
Incorporating backstory is an ongoing issue for writers. But it’s one thing to be told to weave it into the narrative, it’s another to actually do it. How should background information be incorporated into a story? How much is too much? When is it appropriate? Given that I’ve had a two-and-a-half-year drill about backstory best-practices, my advice is to create an outline. For pantsers that’s a no-go, but for plotters it’s practical and helpful information. An effective outline shows where backstory—which reveals motivation or purpose—is a natural fit. And the more one practices at incorporating backstory, the better and easier it gets.
A detailed outline using time to pace a novel is effective for a) knowing when to incorporate backstory; and b) knowing how much backstory to use. Remember that backstory isn’t flashback. One is neutral and drags down the plot if overused; the other should advance the plot even though it takes place in the past.
Next month, I’ll discuss plot ascension for a mystery novel.
Happy mid-summer—and happy outlining!
Blog Shout Out: Valerie Biel
Valerie is the dynamo who writes this blog plus wonderful books; she also works as a writing presenter and community volunteer. In a recent blog post, she offered an update about challenging her comfort zone. She wanted to stretch her creativity, and she discovered that small things mattered as much as big things. She asked for input from other writers regarding “Never Did THIS Before,” and here’s mine:
1.This summer, I’ve caught up with friends from the past. Never before have I spoken to so many who knew me more than twenty years ago. It has been a tsunami of revelation and it has changed my perspective; I have reconnected with people who remind me of who I am and they’re helping me meet goals. Is it possible to look to the past to move forward? I certainly have never done that before!
2.Write a screenplay. I've never done that before, either. While there’s much I’d like to say about it, I’m staying mum for now. I’ll keep you posted about the process.