Of Time and Orientation

If you write a novel with a linear structure and only one POV character–no skipping off for flashbacks, for alternate points of view or “meanwhile back at the ranch” segments–keeping the temporal continuity is simple.   First this, then that, then the next thing, and the solid singular POV keeps even the writer perfectly oriented to what happened in what order.   Well, it’s simple if you write it straight front to back (rather than, for instance, quickly jotting down juicy scene 235A, which erupts into your brain one day as the perfect solution to this other kink in the sequence), because any deviation in the order of writing the simple linear one-POV character story can trip you up.

If you write books with multiple POV characters, the simplest way to do that is rather like Virginia Woolf in Waves, where each scene has a section for each of the POV characters…they’re all at the same boarding school, or dance, or country house, and these settings follow one another without much confusion. For awhile.  Because people do not go through life in lockstep, and so after awhile the reader must decide if Susan in the country is being shown contemporaneously to Jinny in the city or if one of them is in daylight in early summer and the other late at night in autumn, and therefore the next section may be someone else in winter.  Or not.

Adding multiple POVs who are not in the same place–and the same place can be different planet where the time and season are, well, different–and the characters travel around,  across vast distances that involve light years (and depending on the mode of transportation, involve some seriously squirrelly physics, including determinedly faux-physics)–and some of the POV characters may be temporally disabled at the moment (for example, just coming out of anesthesia or a blow to the head or having been kept confined in a way that did not allow them to maintain awareness of date and time)  the responsibility of the writer to keep the reader oriented to place, time, and person gets to be more and more onerous.   For example…science fiction.   Where such shenanigans are not uncommon (and great fun to play with until you’re staring at a scene that may belong in chapter 5, or chapter 6, depending on when the person who is disoriented gets oriented again and starts making sense to his or her companion.

Both COLD WELCOME and INTO THE FIRE presented time-marking challenges.   Consider: Vatta books present me with, at a minimum, three Vatta characters and a Dunbarger character who all “deserve” POV sections.   Ky is the primary, but Stella, Grace, and Rafe are substantial plot-generating characters as well.   COLD WELCOME is the sixth Vatta book, and as groups of books grow, so does the introduction of more characters…and potential minor POV sections.   New locations also show up, and more travel.  In my own brain, the fantasy books tend to run fairly smoothly in terms of temporal order, though there may be two “lines” if travel divides POVs (events in the North and events in Aarenis are completely separated, in terms of who knows what, in the winter,  and there’s a news lag in the summer.)   But the SF books, reacting to the realities of time and space, are more complicated, as the “play space” is more complicated.

COLD WELCOME had a temporal problem that none of us saw until the very last revision.   (Found it–you don’t have to.)   It had minor temporal problems resulting in part from moving things around in the middle third of the book for one kind of plot reason, and failing to change the temporal markers right at the time of the move.   Those are fixed, too.  I think.  INTO THE FIRE has had another set of temporal problems, increased by the brain-fog that has continued to dog me any time I don’t get enough sleep.  Getting all the parts in order requires that the writer be able to see the story as a whole, and see the parts separately, and move the parts into place (if they’re not)  deftly and smoothly, also writing the connections–the transitions–that enable readers to stay oriented even as they move from one POV character to another, one place to another, and skip (at times) a few days during which characters are catching their breaths and nothing much happens otherwise.

With SF, I use notes to myself at the chapter heads and changes of scene, most of which are removed in revision, though some stay as a quick reference for readers…a dateline, as it were, so that readers know we’ve just gone from Rafe on Nexus to Rafe on Cascadia Station, or Ky on Vanguard II, or Stella on Slotter Kay or wherever she is.  My own notes wouldn’t be much help (I just ran into one questioning whether a scene belonged in chapter 5 or 6.   Yup, that same scene referred to above.   Because this was an unusual year, health wise, I didn’t write in chapters of a definite size, but wrote most of the book without breaks–with no internal references at all other than the notes to myself.   Bad idea; I won’t be doing that again.   It didn’t make the book weaker, but it’s taken time at the end to go in and assign chapter numbers and breaks, making sure that they made sense and we didn’t have 500 word chapters and 15,000 word chapters (which makes rough reading for readers, usually.)  When combined with the tangles resulting from “writing the scene that hijacks the brain” now and then, it’s made organizing the final version difficult.

I still don’t know where that scene goes, but today I WILL get it nailed down.

Stuff beyond Chapter 6 is nailed down.   It’s just that one…scene…that’s still not sliding into place and going CLICK.


5 thoughts on “Of Time and Orientation

  1. Maybe I’m weird, but the only time I miss paragraph/chapter breaks is when the prose doesn’t make it clear that time or perspective is changing. A 15,000 word chapter would be just fine. If the book is good (like yours are), then I only put it down when real life interrupts, anyway.

    Anxiously waiting for Cold Welcome to appear in my mailbox next month!

    1. Butterwaffle: I don’t think it’s weird at all–you may not need the same spatial/temporal cues that others do when changing point-of-view, location, or time. After all, I wrote most of this book without chapter breaks. But some readers like fairly even-sized chapters, so they know (if they start a new chapter in the evening, for instance) that they’ll come to a good break in a short time. Others like more definite cues, find it easier to stay oriented. It can all be done in the writing itself…except that with multiple viewpoints running, especially when the characters are far apart but the time sequence matters, it’s really hard to fit that in without some kind of definite marker. It can become infodump, and if you need infodump, it should be as quick and easy to swallow as possible. And it’s a matter of personal preference, too.

      So for me, a “dateline” that says THIS PLACE, Day 14, and then the text starts with “Charlie opened his box and pulled out the stack of mail. Something slid out from between magazines, advertising, and letters, and fell with a clatter on the floor. A key to one of the lockboxes: someone had sent a package too big to fit in his box…” is better reading than “Charlie reminded himself that he was still in New Grummich, and it was the 14th day after he’d arrived, as he headed for the post office…” It certainly varies from book to book, and from character to character.

    2. Even if one can read a book first time through without it being divided into chapters, they are welcome landmarks when dipping back into an old favorite.

      Stammel’s last chapter in Limits of Power is a tour-de-force of the writer’s craft, and the extent of what it embraces (from what he did in one location to the aftermath in another) affects the reader’s emotional response. It did mine. If a chapter break had come earlier – if that one chapter had been two – then the book would have been the poorer for it, and also without the chapter break where it does come the book would have been poorer.

  2. The background things you tell about in these posts make the experience of reading the book richer for me. Thanks.

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