Timing is Everything

Like the classic joke goes, "In comedy, timing is...



I'm reading the last in the Shadowmarch tetralogy by Tad Williams, SHADOWHEART. It's a less than stellar name and most people don't know that a four-book series is a tetralogy1, but Tad Williams is the reason I write fantasy--the reason2. So we're going to give him a pass on that.

I have to admit, though, between Williams and Martin, I'm starting to get worn out on epic fantasy. Their stories are the epitome of epic, but frankly, there are characters whose chapters are fundamental to the resolution of the entire thing and I could care less. There are just too many people. As I wade through this lofty tome, after having consumed the three before it, I find myself impatient for the end. I want that long-awaited climax and resolution of the various characters I've come to care about. And having to read through yet another chapter of a character I don't care about where content that I know well is repeated (and repeated) in internal dialogue is getting frustrating.

That is not so much the focus on today's writing, just an observance. Perhaps that's why my word counts have been shrinking. Not so much an intent to cowtow to the industry and its word limits, but the desire to tell a more compact and immediate tale. I will ponder this in the future and see if that's the case.

No, the focus of today's telling is timing. This is crucial in any work, and the more characters you introduce, the more difficult it can be to align character actions to further the plot but to remain consistent with the story's own chronology.

Specifically, there are two characters who will influence other characters who will influence other characters. They finally make their trip to Southmarch and I am enthused becomes here comes the domino that will set the whole chain a falling! Woo hoo! Here it comes.

...but it doesn't come. Now granted, this is an epic fantasy, so while characters A and B swim across the bay to the nearby island, the author can focus on characters C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J without losing any time in the total advancement of the story. It can maintain the preferred pacing of this rumbling epic without losing track of the domino that is about to set the chain falling.

But then Character E gets another chapter. And then Character H gets two more chapters. Too many things are happening. Why haven't we gone back to characters A and B?

Well, the obvious thing is that when next we see them they won't still be swimming across the bay. They will have done other, irrelevant things necessary for their trip but unnecessary for the enjoyment of the reader.

That doesn't happen. In fact, when we finally return to characters A and B, they are finishing their swim across the bay. This is offensive to anyone paying attention. Some stories may play loosely with the passage of time, but most don't. So unless you're slip-streaming back and forth, be mindful of your timeline. When characters begin moving at different speeds, the reader can see the hand of the author in the story. You're this giant distracting thing like a boom mic that falls into frame. You're holding onto the characters while their legs turn so you can have the plot play out how you want.

And that's a funny thing. While you're the author, when a reader invests, the story becomes theirs. They don't want to see your hands in their stories mucking everything up. You need to be invisible. You are the mirror in which your readers see your story. There may be glass and silver there, but all they see is themselves.


...is everything.

1 Instead of a tetralogy, people try to call it a quadrology.

2 I can tell you plenty of influences, but I know when the light bulb turned on. I was thirteen or so reading the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy and knew this is what I wanted to do. No hemming or hawing. Tad Williams showed me the path.