Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 250 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOUR CO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This month: TIME AS WE KNOW IT. Good timing is an important element of good storytelling.When I think back on the various snippets of wisdom I've been given about the writing profession, the best probably came from a high school teacher who simply said, "Always start your story in the right place."
Whether you're writing your first plot or your twentieth, of course, that's not always the easiest advice to follow. What is, exactly, "the right place"? And how do you know that a different place wouldn't work better?
One thing for certain is that the longer you stare at a blank page or computer screen, desperately trying to summon the words to leap out of your brain and nicely splat themselves into sentences, the greater likelihood that you're trying too hard to force an unworkable chronology. Your subconscious already knows this and yet you stubbornly forge ahead and fight with it, convinced that there's absolutely no other logical point for the action to begin and the dynamics to get underway.
If you're like most writers starting a new project, you've already mapped out most of the storyline in your head. Where that storyline is going to commence, however, is ironically compounded by the fact that you-its creator-not only possess all the "backstory" on the characters you're going to use but also know how and where they'll ultimately end up.
To illustrate the conundrum that results, I like to use the example of arranged marriages, wherein both parties are told everything there is to know about each other and, like it or not, that this relationship is destined for the altar. At what point, then, should these two people be allowed to actually meet? Will they be introduced at childhood or a scant ten minutes before the formal ceremony? What other influences will impact the anticipation/dread of that meeting? Will they be kept in the dark about the arrangement and (1) fall in love with each other on their own or (2) resent having a life partner not of their personal choosing?
The journey that your fiction takes follows the very same path, the difference being that the readers themselves have been designated the "other half" in an arrangement which you, the author, have decreed. Do you want them to meet your main character as a young girl and move through the chapters as she evolves into a stunning beauty whom they can't help but fall madly in love with by THE END? Or is their first sight of her going to be in a dark alley where she's standing over a murder victim and whistling "Que Sera Sera"? Certainly the latter would give them plenty of pause to wonder what, exactly, they had just gotten themselves into when they committed themselves to reading this book through to the last page.
As my high school teacher was wont to remind us, "Timing makes all the difference."
Starting your story in the right place is predicated on an appreciation of how the different variations of "time as a template" can significantly affect the structure and complexity of the same story. If the method you're using on your current object keeps resulting in mental cul-de-sacs, a different approach may be just the ticket you need to greenlight the plot and get it past page 1.
LINEAR: The most often-used formula of storytelling is "linear time." In linear time, as in real life, events happen chronologically. Example: Walter wakes up on a Thursday, eats his breakfast, catches the Metro, heads toward his office, and finds an antique brass lamp tucked in the bottom drawer of his desk that wasn't there the day before. Where would you start this story? Certainly the hook/leading question involves the mysterious appearance of the brass lamp. Since the story presumably revolves around Walter's unexpected discovery, it would seem logical to introduce that discovery as early as possible. On the other hand, showing that Walter's life has been pretty routine and boring up until the time he opens his drawer helps to establish a before and after contrast. Whether the lamp (1) has magical powers, (2) is stolen loot that was stashed for safekeeping, or (3) is a gift from a secret admirer in the typing pool, Walter's life will not be the same at the end of the story as it was when the story began. The trick with linear storytelling is determining just how much "pre-story" a reader really needs in order to understand the main event.
BOOKENDS: In the "bookend" method of storycrafting, the bulk of the plot is told in the form of one big flashback. Remember the film "Titanic"? At the beginning of the movie, we meet the elderly Rose in conjunction with the salvage operations of the famous ship. The middle of this movie focuses on all of the past events leading up to and including its collision with the iceberg. The film concludes in the present with elderly Rose.
Even though we are familiar with the oceanliner's real-life fate with destiny, what we don't know are all of the individual stories of heroism and cowardice among the characters on board. The biggest disadvantage with bookends, of course (and especially in adventure stories), is that no matter what the danger is, we still know for a fact that the lead character (in this case, Rose) lived to tell about it. Let's apply this to the story of Walter and the brass lamp. In a bookend version, Walter is now a grandfather living a comfortable life in a mansion in Kentucky. His grandchildren come to play and ride his horses. One of them picks the brass lamp off a shelf and is instantly warned by Grandpa Walter that the lamp has dangerous powers. We then flashback to the past to learn exactly what those powers are and how Walter himself came to be a wealthy man. Was it because of the lamp or in spite of it? Inquiring minds want to know.
PARALLEL TIME: Several years ago, Gwyneth Paltrow starred in "Sliding Doors," a story in which her character's life is played out in two parallel dimensions which split off from the initial premise of catching or missing a certain train. How a seemingly random incident such as this can result in two entirely different outcomes for the heroine is a good example of the concept of parallel time. Mystery stories are another popular place where this method is used; for instance, showing what each of the various suspects were doing during the very same timeframe.
Parallel universe storytelling can be complicated to carry off effectively but does offer many intriguing possibilities. Let's say that we try this with a Good Walter/Bad Walter scenario. The Good Walter finds the lamp, discovers its enchanted properties, and uses his wishes to benefit his friends and community. The Bad Walter, however, uses the same lamp's powers to get rich, get girlfriends, and get back at other people. This could be a wonderful classroom exercise for exploring morality issues and pointing up the consequences of selfish actions. At the end of the Good Walter story, his selflessness and compassion reap their own reward in terms of recognition and happiness. The Bad Walter, however, brings only ruin and misery upon himself.
THE MAYPOLE: The most complex device for storytelling has already been given several names: serpentine, spiral, wraparound and corkscrew. "Maypole," however, is my own term for it and conjures the English image of a tall pole with colorful streamers, around which merrymakers frolic. Their respective proximity to the pole itself depends on how many times they circle it and whether it's always in the same direction. In a maypole fashion of plot development, there are multiple flashbacks and multiple points of view, each revolving around one central event, object or theme.
Let's say that in the Walter story the maypole is the lamp itself and that Walter is not its first owner. The plot then weaves back and forth among the prior owners, incorporating flashbacks and futuristic sequences of what actually happened to them and what they wanted to have happen instead. Maypoles are very tricky to handle well. Why? Because if you don't know where your characters are at all times and what they're doing, they could literally collide and tie themselves into knots!