The Time and Perspective Paradox

When reading a great book, I sometimes wonder – how did the author weave all those different elements together? Because let me tell you, it takes a lot of effort to write a story that is effortless to read. There are so many decisions to be made. Getting one decision wrong can cause the whole carefully constructed story to come tumbling down. And changing something can fix one problem, and cause a bunch of new problems. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Image of people playing Jenga.
Photo by Gustavo Fring on

Some things come out of the writing

There are story aspects that develop as we write. The theme, the characters’ and narrator’s motivations, the inciting incident, and the stakes, often fall into this category. By the end of the first draft, these elements are usually becoming clear. Which means that much of what we’ve written will have to be rewritten, to fit with what we now know.

Some decisions must be made

Other elements require a great deal of thought and planning. Or in my case, thought, planning, and a trial and error approach. These include timeline and point of view, also called perspective. The timeline covers whether the story happens over one, or multiple, time periods. And the order in which events are revealed. Point of view is made up of several elements. These include the identity of the narrator, which character or characters they follow, and the tense in which they are telling the story. 

The author has to decide whether the narrator’s knowledge of the story is omniscient or limited. Omniscient means it includes all the characters. Limited means the narrator follows an individual character, or a small group of characters.

They also have to decide whether we are seeing events as they unfold, or the narrator is recounting something that’s already happened. This tells us whether the narrator should be one of the characters, or an external narrator. And which writing tense to use.

Every change has an impact

Whether the decision is a conscious one, or something that becomes clear over time, it can cause a cascade of changes. The decision to alter any one of these factors will impact others.

But the timeline and perspective, in particular, are tricky to change. They both affect every part of the book. And changing one will often mean changing the other as well. In other words, rewriting everything in the story. 

But without exploring different options, how can we find the best way to tell the story?

Construction, deconstruction and reconstruction

I attended some training recently where an author explained that to complete a book quickly, authors need to make all the key decisions before they start writing. And stick with those decisions throughout. The problem with this approach is that you don’t know what you don’t know. As the story develops, there may be new possibilities we weren’t aware of before. From a reader perspective, I can’t see any benefit in an author reining in their imagination.

To give you an example, the author may have known from the start roughly what was going to happen. But they didn’t necessarily know when and how the main character would find out what happened. Or when they wanted the reader to find out. This is the difference between the timeline of events, and the timeline of the narration. So the narrator may now have the wrong point of view to be an effective storyteller. Sticking with the original decision would mean rewriting or excluding great ideas, to fit in with the narrator.

Many authors, myself included, complete only the first draft based on the original decisions. And then we deconstruct that draft. We consider whether the story is being told in the best possible way, given what we have learned during the writing process. We make new decisions, and rewrite based on what we believe will result in the best story. This is an iterative process; it happens as many times as needed, until every aspect of the story works with every other aspect.

It’s not quick but it allows the story to develop beyond our initial idea, and to surprise us.

What do you think? Do you prefer stories that are predictable, or do you like a few surprises?

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