Handling time elements

Here is a blog entry from the past about thinking of the story in chapters. And it also includes a markup of The War of Words, which points out the time elements in narrative writing. I have noticed that many beginning writers don’t organize the time elements. Think about time in the story. In the markup you will see I have pointed out the time elements, which are usually included at the beginning of a paragraph.

I’m attaching my markup of the “War of Words.”


Note that I’ve penciled in some flags to indicate the time elements. Here’s why I’m so insistent that you notice these time flags. If you don’t know you need them to write the story, you will fail to gather them in the reporting stage. It’s very important to keep track of time in a long reported piece. And even in a short one, as you saw when Joyce Carol Oates wrote about Muhammad Ali’s boxing career.

The point is, you need to know how stories are written and constructed so you can gather the materials, ask the questions that enable you to write a good story. You want to get the materials assembled before you write. So you research the story with an eye to satisfying two important necessities: the time element (and then what happened, and then what happened) and the theme (why are you telling me about this).

As for analyzing the story in terms of the Six-Box model, there’s no perfect answer. The important thing is to see how the story evolves section by section. In the New Yorker, these sections are indicated by spaces and big capital letters. These sections are like chapters of a book, and could  be given titles. (The Titanic story is broken up with sub-heads in this way.) It’s a good thing to think of your story as having chapters, because if you rough out the titles of the sections, that helps you do the reporting.

In my story about the care of the mentally disabled, I already have certain big themes that I will develop in the reporting stage. 1) The horrors of big institutions are exposed in a 1966 book and a 1972 television story. 2) In reaction parents of intellectually disabled children start building their own institutions. 3) In 1999 the Supreme Court issues the Olmsted decision that creates the long waiting lists for what are called Home and Community Based Services. 4) Parents are increasingly concerned that bureaucrats are making arbitrary decisions about how government benefits are spent, and are challenging the policies.

Now I have four chapters, each based on action and reaction, cause and effect. I have a reporting plan and that will be foundation of the story plan. You can’t write what you don’t report.

The form of the story should start when you do the reporting. You should constantly be asking “What’s the story about?” But you should also be thinking about the order of the narrative. Not just how it begins, but how it ends.

In the case of the “War of Words,” the ending is the exile of the central character. The writer wanted to ask how this brave poet and journalist ended up in Norway. Many writers start out with their ending, their arrival point, clearly in mind. Sometimes, but not always. I once wrote a story that started with the funeral of my central character, then went back in time and took the story forward until I arrived back at the funeral. The end circles back to the beginning. Not an unusual tactic.  Here’s the story:  The Transformation of Robert Campbell.





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