It’s all in the Timing

It’s time for part eight of the Deep POV implementation experiment. For the past three blogs I’ve been exploring a different ‘error category’ every time, and this week it’s time for the last category. Please step up: Timing issues! The basic premise here is that as human beings we see things in a linear order events – we are slaves to time no less! So if we’re writing prose which is right in the head of the lead character, we also need to write in this linear fashion. Easy right? Well, it’s probably a bit harder than you might think.

As already alluded to, this is part of a series of blogs where I’m applying the principles outlined by Marcy Kennedy in her fantastic book: A Busy Writer’s Guide to Deep POV. The further I go with this, the more I step into line, and it’s absolutely changing both the way I write and also the way I read! Thanks Marcy.

Series recap

  • The first blog considered whether deep POV was necessary in my writing at all;
  • The second then asked how many perspectives were optimal;
  • The third looks at some of the statistics from the deep POV interrogation of Mandestroy (and also compares with FU);
  • The fourth blog looks at the effect of the deep POV edit on those same statistics (most notably sentence length);
  • The fifth covered the age old problem of “showing vs telling”;
  • The sixth covered POV errors;
  • And two months ago we tackled “depth issues“.

So, it’s time for our final area of investigation. Timing issues.

What are timing issues?

I’ve sort of given the game away above, but principally, when writing in Deep POV, the words on the page have to reflect the passage of thoughts in our protagonist’s head. We are right in that head, and so we must obey what’s going on in there.

Now, I explained above that we think of things in a linear fashion, and we can only therefore put them on  the page in a linear fashion. But this isn’t a very good explanation. For example, we all know that lots of things can happen at the same time, and the human mind is more than capable of keeping hold of this fact (some minds more than others…) So what do we actually mean then?

Well, the linear requirement refers specifically to the principle of cause and effect. What we want is to see events as they unravel, witnessing the cause before seeing the effect. As humans, we may second guess such causal occurrences, but fundamentally we only see them occurring in a proper linear fashion. So that’s what should be on the page.

This linear sequencing can also be on two very polar levels: a micro sentence structure level; and a wider plot level. Let’s consider the micro level first. Here’s an example:

He lunged for the ball as it fell to the ground.

So what’s happening here? Well, a ball is falling to the ground, and presumably he is lunging to catch it. If the lunge has nothing to do with the ball, then they should probably not be together in the same sentence!

But the order is all wrong. The ball should fall to the ground, and the reaction will be to lunge and catch it. That’s what should be on the page. Fortunately, this is a simple fix:

The ball fell towards the ground and he lunged for it.

We’re now getting our information in the correct order, and that means the reader’s brain will have to do less connecting up the dots, and hence the reading experience is better. It may seem small, but the effect of these errors is to slow the pace down. This is usually a bad thing.

Larger scale timing errors occur where the reader is fed information that the protagonist doesn’t yet know – usually to build up some tension. Here’s an example from a book I’m currently reading:

Luckily I passed out before I vomited. I hate vomiting.

Here, the book is first person, and the protagonist is telling us they passed out. Fine. They then tell us they vomited while they passed out (I think), but how did they know this? I can only conclude that this is written by the protagonist from a point in the future when they are still alive, and this very fact actually takes some of the tension out of the story. At least they don’t die, right?

This is probably a slightly harsh one to point out, and it may be that I’ve misinterpreted the intention. It’s also a good book, but I thought I’d put it down simply because it jumped out at me.

A more obvious fail is this:

Little did he know that misfortune was just around the corner.

This is a blatant attempt at tension building, but it actually has the opposite effect. You’ve been yanked out of the protagonist’s head to be given this bit of information by an unnamed entity – most likely the author. I’ve done this before, and now I see the problem, it makes me cry!

Is this a big problem for me?

In Mandestroy there were 125 timing issues, and this equates to about 4.1%. This makes it my second lightest error category, though still big enough.

The majority culprit is the dreaded use of the word ‘as’ (see above), and there are 74 instances of this error. There are then a handful of other errors related to other culprits such as ‘before’ and ‘after’.

There is of course a risk that I haven’t picked everything up, and I think this is a category in which that could easily be the case. The wider plot timing errors will not necessarily have easy errors to pick up on, so I’ll just have to trust that these aren’t kicking about.

All in all though, I don’t think this is something I’m too bad at. And I definitely now keep a beady eye out for that cheeky ‘as’ word these days. That was a useful lesson.


Some vintage examples

Exhibit A

As Kantal left the forge-room, Jeb hissed in his ear.

This was an example from the ‘depth’ issues blog a couple of month’s ago. I asked then whether you could spot the timing error, and here it is. The cheeky ‘as’ word right at the beginning.

Which came first? The hissing or the leaving? Probably the leaving, and the hissing came while Kantal was leaving the forge room. So if the leaving is the cause, then this must come first. This is what it got corrected to:

He left the forge-room, but Jeb caught him on his way out.

So we see that the ‘as’ issue is relatively easy to sort out, though it is a bit more than a simple search and replace.

Exhibit B

Kantal let the odd-ball weave his magic, calming himself as he watched on.

Another one from the previous blog on depth issues. And the culprit is … the ‘as’ word again! That’s a naughty little word, isn’t it? This is the corrected sentence:

He concentrated on managing his breathing while the odd-ball wove his magic.

Interestingly I’ve used the word ‘while’ here which is kind of the same thing as ‘as’ in this context. So is this still a Deep POV issue? It’s not obvious, but I think that because the two events here are independent – the odd-ball weaves his magic and Kantal calms his breathing – I suspect it’s probably okay. Then again, if the facts are separate, aren’t they better off being in separate sentences? Whoops…

Exhibit C

This is a pretty awful sentence:

The pressure evaporated, and it was as if the moons suddenly illuminated the sky; Kantal had barely noticed the depth of the night.

Interestingly, our old friend ‘as’ is in here and I’ve flagged that as an error. But in this circumstance, I don’t think it actually is an error. The offending word here is actually ‘suddenly’, though it’s not clear that this is a direct issue. But reading the sentence back, it is all backwards as-well as being terrible. This should be the thought process:

“Hang on, it’s dark outside. Why is it dark? Because it’s deep night of course. It was dusk when we arrived. Damn, how long have we been here?”

See how this follows the path of the mind. Much nicer. What I actually changed it to, though, was this:

The pressure evaporated, and his mind spun with relief. It was full night now, and a clear one too. Cold.

I like that too.

Exhibit D

Here’s one to show that it’s not always ‘as’ that causes the issues:

At least, no answer came before the screams went up.

Err… So, no answer came, and then the screams went up, and then the answer came. Why not write it like this?

The screams went up, and only then did his prince respond.

And now it’s linear. Much better.

Exhibit E

For exhibit E I’ve included another example from a couple of months ago. But in this case, I’m going to include the corrected sentence. This was exhibit B in the depth blog, and the corrected version was:

His shoulders sagged as he took in the sight before him.

So he took in the sights and his shoulders sagged as a consequence. But because of the naughty little ‘as’ word, I’ve inadvertently put in a Deep POV error! Whoops.

This highlights that this process can never be perfect, and that I’d have to keep going round in a vicious correcting loop to get it all absolutely perfect with 100% confidence. Even I’m not that pedantic.


In conclusion

This isn’t something I was terrible at (in the grand scheme of my terrible habits), but bad enough for sure. And like the depth investigation before it, I was shocked at how big an impact such small changes could have. Even if Deep POV is not for me, the work I’ve been through in this exercise will stay with me forever. Priceless.

Until next time…

Next time we’re almost at the end of the journey, so it’s time to reflect. I hope to see you then!

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