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Folks, it’s good to be back. We’ve taken our off-season seriously, trained hard, put on 15 pounds of muscle, and now we’re here to deliver! It’s about time Season 6 of Fiction School kicks off!
It actually IS about time. This episode, I mean. We spend a few minutes catching up on all the changes–Jody’s move from a very podunk town to a sort-of podunk town, and Tommy’s journey to the family sawmill in upstate New York, wherein he probably becomes the first human to ever podcast from a truck stop. And Baker, who’s still toiling away in the dungeon office, vacuuming the cobwebs off the mixer board to bring these lovely thoughts on writing to your ears.
On the show, we talk about ways time leaps can help a story or make it look gimmicky, why character development matters more when time shifts, and ways that effective flashbacks and time jumps can surprise and engage a reader.
- Jody says she used to be a writer who used time in a straightforward way, always chronological; but in writing her first thriller, Watch Me, she began thinking about how playing with time and manipulating it can be very helpful for a story.
- Tommy tears away the scab of the old Team Jody wounds, undoing all the healing of the off-season.
- He advocates for experimenting in story drafts–play with time and timeframe stuff. Even if it doesn’t make it into the final draft, it helps you know your final story better.
- Baker talks about his more common use of time being to slow down or speed up the moment, using sentence length or levels of description to make the scene be longer or shorter than real time, but he hasn’t really done a lot of non-linear writing.
- Must be that Alabama backwoods oral storytelling tradition he comes from, and dagnabit Tater, get out from under the porch!
- A reader can get a little annoyed with time jumps and time manipulation, if it’s not done well, or done superfluously. It’s a dicey game.
- It’s also about losing the reader, or annoying them. Will they be willing to go down the rabbit hole of time experiments in a story? Tommy says they will, if the story is good enough.
- Tommy: Write the thing as if your auidence is smarter than you are. It’s about engaging the reader and giving them a clever challenge.
- Baker talks about the time jumps in Manchester by the Sea and Inside Llewyn Davis, and how confused a relative was with the time jumps. If the reader isn’t savvy enough, or engaged enough to work with the story, it becomes confusing.
- Tommy went to see Transformers, not some highfalutin movie. They had time jumps in that movie, too, but they were lazy to Tommy, so it made the plot look foolish and thin. Tommy says you have to earn the right to time jump by having a rich, complicated story that needs time jumps, not one that jumps just to jump.
- Jody had a professor that explains time jumps and flashbacks as something that have to be worthwhile. There has to be something of value, some question in that flashback or time jump, that illuminates the character in the present.
- The character has to be interesting enough in the present for us to care about their life in a diffferent time.
- One good model of time jumping that Jody has liked is In a Dark Dark Wood–a character in hospital, flashing to other parts of life while they can’t move.
- It’s kind of easier to do a time shift in film, because it’s obvious with visual cues. On the page, for us writers, it can be clunky. Jody’s trying to use simple headings, “Now” and “Then.”
- However, the confusion can be an interesting element, giving the reader a “A ha!” moment.
- Tommy mentions Gone Girl as another book that uses time jumps and purposeful confusion.
- Baker mentions Lewis Nordan and the magic word he used to efficiently move time around. Trust the reader with a few solid signals and don’t worry about too much hand-holding.
- Don’t rely on gimmicks like time jumps, though, Tommy says. The story has to be solid enough for the reader to be willing to go along with flashback and flashforwards.
- Jody mentions Tana French as another great writer who writes effective stories and plots and uses time jumps well.
- Tommy asks about writing a scene that feels like it’s in slow motion. Baker loves doing that, or trying that, especially in moments of action; Jody likes it in moments of high emotion.
- Then Tommy undoes a button on his shirt for some reason, so we stop the show ASAP. He must be about to take one of those $7 showers at the truck stop. We’re awesome at endings.
- By the way, if you’ve read this far, please go listen to the podcast. ALL the way until the end. Especially if you’re on Team Jody.