Warping the Universe for Fun and Profit

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Beginning in 1905 with a series of papers and little fanfare, Albert Einstein turned the Universe on its head. The notion of time and space being fixed, separate entities, he deduced, is all wrong. He envisioned “spacetime” as a single thing in his special and general theories of relativity. Better yet, spacetime flexes and bends and warps with gravity. And if all matter exerts a gravitational force, my time is not your time and your time is not mine.

This radical idea still boggles the mind today, but Einstein did the math, and observations and experiments have since proven him correct. So here’s a tool, courtesy of Uncle Albert, for all of you arriving late to work. Your boss glares and grumbles. Just say, “Dude! Einstein held that time is variable according to mass. You think you’re smarter than Einstein?” That should work.

Good writing, like Einstein and the rest of the Universe, ignores absolute, by-the-clock timekeeping, and good writers understood this principle long before Einstein was born. You cannot keep a readable pace in storytelling if you actually write an accurate pace. You must bend time and space to your will.

Here’s an example from my guidebook Great Danger: A Writer’s Guide to Building Suspense.

Your protagonist drives to Orlando International, checks her bags, boards her flight, waits, flies to Atlanta, waits, eats chicken fingers, wonders what kind of chickens have fingers, waits some more, catches a connecting flight, and arrives at London’s Heathrow Airport the next day. This takes eighteen hours. Guess what? Unless that long sequence of real-life drudgery somehow is integral to the story, as if, say, a mobster watches her every move, and takes the seat right behind her, nobody cares. Most of us have endured the Atlanta airport and don’t want to think about it. Write the entire scene in a line or two, or not at all.

Upon her arrival at Heathrow, a gunfight breaks out in baggage claim, and rages for two minutes. This is what we came for and stuck around for. Milk this section for five pages, eight pages, ten pages. Describe it in minute detail. The whistling of a bullet past her face, plucking at her collar, can take place in a microsecond, but can be described in an entire paragraph.

An obvious exception to that rule would be if something story-wise happens during that otherwise unimportant trans-Atlantic flight. If something happens, the flight becomes important. Maybe it’s not physical action. Maybe it’s internal, a self-reflection. Either way, it’s plot-developing or character-developing. Maybe your protagonist watches a young mother nursing a baby, and the scene tears at her because of the loss of her own child. That would be a story element worthy of description. Not the little bag of peanuts the flight attendant brings. Unless someone chokes on the peanuts.

Another exception occurs when the mundane details create a setting new to the reader, because then they are not mundane to that reader. They become new and exciting. If you write about flying from Atlanta to Heathrow and your target audience is a previously uncontacted naked tribe from deep within the Amazon rainforest, your readers may have seen the giant birds high in the sky but have no knowledge of airplanes other than that. If you skip the details—the pilots and passengers and peanuts—the reader would be mystified. Those details explain what it actually means to fly, and the reader would be fascinated. Similarly, details of the workings of 19th-century whaling ship might fascinate us.

Don’t bore; make that your mantra. Real life can be boring. You cannot. Think of a favorite epic. Even a multi-generational saga skips years, maybe decades, at a time but dwells upon the critical moments, the ones that move the story. The terror-of-the-gunfight moments. The night-of-passion moments. The slipping-on-a-banana-peel moments. Not the watching-Harlem-Globetrotters-on-Gilligan’s-Island moments (unless they drive a character to insanity or murder). If the flight across the ocean moves the character but not the story, keep it short or nonexistent.

But hard and fast rules in writing tend not to exist (other than “don’t bore”). Brevity can highlight the story of years. Watch Orson Welles’s breakfast montage in Citizen Kane. Brief shots, separated by a dizzying spin-cycle of images, tell the story in seconds of a marriage souring across decades. Great, spacetime-warp stuff. No doubt Einstein, sitting in the darkened theater and munching handfuls of popcorn, shouted, “That! That’s vat I’m talkin’ about!”

Play with time and space. Einstein toiled long and hard to grant you that license, so acknowledge it, embrace it, and bend the Universe to your will. It’s the only way to write.

       (originally published on www.Floridawriters.net)

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