Thursday, November 29, 2012

Is your story in time or out-of-step?

I watched a film the other night that was, by all accounts, a remarkably close adaptation of a book written by a very famous historical novelist who shall, in the interests of not incurring a libel action, remain nameless.

Why I mention it here is that, of its many plot holes, the worst (in my very humble opinion) were the numerous and very blatant ones relating to the passage of time. I don't mean the silly anachronisms such as seeing a plane flying over while watching Heathcliff doing his Jack Torrance impersonation (read The Shining) or the inevitable nerdy IMDB comment such as 'in the bathroom scene, the tube of toothpaste in the jar referred to a brand that didn't appear until 3 years later’. No, what I'm referring to is the way in which time is concertinaed for one party and then stretched for another.

A simple example. Let's look at the opposite of the well-known film, Home Alone which concentrated on the antics of the child left behind after his family flew to France for vacation. Suppose, instead, we remake the film about the holiday and ignore the child’s perspective. After an hour and a half of Francophonic antics, the family returns home to find the forgotten child sitting on the sofa watching telly. The End.

Wait! What does the kid do for a couple of weeks? How does he cope? What does he eat? What if Social Services or the Police find out he's there on his own?

This is a pretty obvious case but it does happen as proven by my film from the other night. Story forks (where principal characters go off and do different things for a significant period of time) make for interesting reading – they’re a valuable device for widening a book’s backdrop. However, they must be handled properly and the only way to avoid falling into a time-warp is to carefully consider every character and their situations. Can you account for what happens to them during the period of the fork?

I faced a similar situation in my novel, The Road. The book spans 9 years and has a number of principal characters, each of whom has their own perspective and experiences during this period. I didn't want to get into the situation where there were contradictions in my story so I put all the main data onto a spreadsheet. The far left-hand column contained the names of the characters and the subsequent columns the years and their seasons - one column per season.

I then went through and wrote the chapter numbers where a particularly character appeared in the appropriate cells. At the end, I had a map of the book which showed the progression of the protagonists through the 9-year period. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were a few minor anomalies. I went back, rewrote the affected chapters and then updated my timeline. At the end, I had a complex tale that spanned nearly a decade but which I knew with complete confidence would hold water if challenged.

There's a definite argument for either creating such a spreadsheet as you write or even in advance of typing the first word. Personally I find that trying to pre-empt the book cramps my style and I'd far rather 'get things down' than get bogged down with trying to avoid reinventing the Tardis. That’s just my preference.

Ultimately you should leave the plot holes to Hollywood (they do them so well). Your book needs to be perfect so take time out to create that timeline.

Clive West is co-owner of indie publisher Any Subject Books and you can see more about them on their website or on Facebook. He has written a full-length novel called The Road and also a collection of short stories called Hobson's Choice. Both are available in Kindle format and the anthology is also published in paperback format.


  1. This drives me NUTS. "Live Free Or Die Hard" is the worst I think I've ever seen in this regard. They hop in a car one minute and hop out 400 miles away, through traffic, an hour later. I spend a LOT of time in my novels mapping out where everyone is and how long various forms of travel take. I might get everything else wrong, but unless there is a black hole in the area, the laws of time ain't gettin' broken!

    Good post!

  2. Thanks, John.

    Don't forget the famous, "Ye canna' break the laws of fuzzics, Jim" (just before Einsteinian mathematics gets stuffed firmly in the one day filing cabinet).

    Sounds like your book's something that might interest me - I'll keep an eye out for it. Perhaps you'd do likewise with mine.