Today I’m going to work on what Antonya Nelson calls the “clock” of the story. This is basically the amount of time in which the story takes place, a time-frame that’s frequently built into the conceit of the story itself. I find that this can be a difficult concept to execute successfully. I can’t count how many stories I’ve read—including those from other new writers and those I’ve written myself—that don’t know where to start and where to end. Novice writers frequently come into the action far too early and leave way too later.
In order to help make the concept of a clock a little easier to work with, I’ll look at a couple of examples from other media.
My all-time favorite movie is the original, 1939 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The film begins with a flying saucer appearing above Earth and landing in Washington D.C. The story follows an extra-terrestrial on his mission to impart an important message to the human race and the the story arc finds its’ natural conclusion with the delivering of that message and the departure of the flying saucer. This one feels pretty intuitive, this alien story begins with his arrival and ends with his departure.
What about something a little more complicated? Let’s take To Kill a Mockingbird, a story that follows the main character—Scout—through her coming of age and the maturation of her sense of morality. It begins with her playing childish games with her friend and brother, harassing and dehumanizing the mysterious Boo Radley. But in the end, she learns empathy. She’s not playing games, she has grown and learned to be kind to someone as ostracized as Boo. So her clock can be described and taking place between childhood and adulthood, apathy to empathy. Instead of being determined by events, the clock of To Kill a Mockingbird traces the emotional and psychological time-line of its’ narrator.
Let’s try one more. The anime TV show Cowboy Bebob revolves around an ex-gangster named Spike. His is a journey of redemption and we meet him traveling with his partner as a bounty hunter. He is, for all intents a purposes, alone, running from his past and from meaningful connection. The series ends with him having developed a kind of familial relationship with the people on his ship and, in order to protect them, facing the gangsters of his past. This is a redemption story, going from avoidance to facing the things that caused him fear.
With these examples in mind, it’s easier to think of potential clocks for Gloria’s arc. She opens the story stressed and resentful of the path her life has taken. She regrets leaving school, she resents the place she lives, and she’s unsatisfied with her lot in life. This can go one of two ways. Either she learns to love and accept her life or she leaves her family behind. Since I’m not writing Aesop’s Fables over here, I’m not feeling the first ending. So this week I’m going to try writing the final scene for a story in which my protagonist decides to change her life and has to cope with that decision.
The bench was far too hot for sitting, Gloria had tried. Then she’d tried pulling her poncho out of her suitcase and putting it down, but it was still scalding. Whoever decided to make metal bus benches in the desert deserved to be fired. And so she stood, the sun set her skin on fire, her feet ached in her sandals. The Greyhound would be there any minute. It would take her up to Palm Springs and then down to L.A. where she could stay with her mom while enrolling in Santa Monica College. She could find a job at a coffee shop or restaurant. She could apply to transfer to UCLA, take those last few classes, go to grad school. She could spend her nights watching a telescope and tracking the speed with which the star’s lights reached her. She could measure stellar parallax, calculate the motion and discover something wonderful. A new asteroid, a new galaxy, and new process with her name attached to it. All she had to do was catch that bus. Easy.
There was still time Still time to follow the dream she’d had since she was a kid. To have a career, to be strong and independent and respected. Still time to be happy.
And there was still time for Ash to stop her. To come running down the road in those ratty sneakers stained red from dirt and the overalls that Gloria had longed to throw away for years. To kiss her and take her hand and lead her home to her baby girl. To make promises to pay more attention to her and encourage Gloria to take classes online instead. There was still time for Ash to prove she couldn’t live without her.
There was still time and Gloria waited.