In this generally wet, cool, yet temperate climate, there are only so many paddling-pool days in a child’s—and therefore in a parent’s—lifetime. By the same token, there are a limited number of snowman days, too. Such events require the happy coincidence of time and weather conditions, meaning, particularly for working parents, it has to be the weekend.
Today is one such day, but we won’t be getting out and filling the paddling pool (wading pool) – from wherever in the basement it might be stuffed. Even my younger one is past such childish things, apparently. There will be no impatient donning of swimming costumes to join a giggle of friends in the back garden, no water fights or squealing under the cold water of a hosepipe. Oh both children are out and about, but without me.
It sets off a nostalgic mood. In a neighbouring garden, I see bunting, party food set out on bright tablecloths, a toddler’s party. I can hear the happy shouts, and I remember when such back-yard fun was enough, before birthdays required pizza-fuelled pool / paint-balling / trampolining / go-carting / rollerblading events. Times have gone; time has changed.
Okay, I have to stop. They are good (if messy) kids, getting on with friendship groups, their studies, and they are good company. If I can persuade them to talk with me more than five minutes. They are healthy, praise be… Blessed? Undoubtedly.
Still, one of the things I like to do in this blog is to draw on life lessons and think about how these might inform writing – or vice-versa, how writing might inform life.
So here’s one: How do we show passing time in writing? That is to say without a big card being held up saying ‘Five Years Later’, without even mentioning the ‘T word’. Or to put it another way, whilst aligning with the time-honoured ‘showing not telling’ tenet.
I have struggled with this recently, needing to summarise, for example, a roughly eighteen-month period within a short chapter, then setting something across a roughly three-month period. During this, I have to, variously, show a hero scared, bored, stimulated and curious, and then scared again (to put it in simplified terms).
For the summary, I have tried out the ‘montage shots’ approach, a sequence of juxtaposed scenes snatched from the overall time period. It’s one we recognise from filmmaking, e.g.: here’s the couple meeting; lower the lights and they’re deep in conversation at a restaurant table; a burst of spring colour and we’re at their wedding; a baby’s cry and here comes the infant; Oh no, the music slows and they’re looking tired, are bickering… And so on.
Showing a character bored is hard because the writing cannot drag along in real time with little happening, thus also boring the reader. I have tried using examples of behaviour. Because thinking about it, boredom can be a surprisingly restive mood. There are many things one could actually be doing, but chooses not to. There are items and pastimes picked up and quickly put back down, ideas for distraction rejected, and excuses made. Then the body language: bodies slump or wriggle with dissatisfaction; chins are supported in hands (okay, there is a risk of cliché)…
Here are a few other techniques for me to consider
The aftermath – you have not presented the party, date, even death, but you can skip to the legions of dirty glasses and the shambling hangover the next day. Or to the new body beside you in bed. Or the melancholy drabness of the funeral…
Time passing at different speeds – e.g. I recently read Helen Dunmore’s novel Your Blue-eyed Boy. The main character Simone takes almost the whole of one chapter to reminisce over love letters about a past boyfriend. Then ‘Only ten minutes have passed’ begins the next chapter, as her husband knocks at the bathroom door. Time can slow when we’re lost in reverie, or worried like Simone. It’s slower for children, too. Yet when you’re having fun, or focus on a goal, it seems to go quicker. Who hasn’t looked at their watch amazed at how the time has flashed by?
Flashbacks – a way of ‘filling in’ the reader on a crucial past occurrence that impacts the present, but without taking them through the entire history of events. Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, is famously set on a single day, but the memories that come back to Clarissa Dalloway (and others), the ones that affect her, have shaped her, are crucial. Flashbacks cannot be too long (in my view), in case the reader loses track, or they lose dramatic significance. They tend also to need a trigger, a person a character hasn’t seen in years (like Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway), a sensory cue of taste or smell (such as Proust’s famous madelein).
I guess that’s what I have just done, a woman in her forties gazing out a window, a children’s party triggering a memory of when her own were small (hey, am I a cliché too?! Guess so.)
Say it – You may even, dare I venture, consider a bit of ‘telling not showing’, to move the story along. Is that so sacrilegious? Particularly if it moves you through the dull or redundant, avoids tracts of expository dialogue? The trick, surely, is to avoid a large quantity of telling at any given point, particularly upfront.
“It’s the middle of March. In the schoolroom windows Easter tulips are beginning to bloom.” And later “It’s Sunday evening. There’s a fire in the fireplace; the drapes are drawn against the heavy November darkness.” In these chapter openings in her novel Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood isn’t making us guess the season, month, or day; it’s upfront, and the description is minimalist. There’s an adolescent’s view of passing time, and a representation of how time plays tricks on us, too. The huge chunks of what we have forgotten (or do not wish to remember). On the other hand, a slow Sunday at home can seem an age in your teens (a lest, pre-today’s technology they did – tech perhaps being another way to denote different times).
But we’re back to Sundays…
What techniques to show passing time do you think work well, as a reader or as a writer?
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