Last night I spent 4 hours online picking out a medicine cabinet, lights, and faucets for our bathtub and sinks for the remodelers to install next week. Since my husband fell asleep before I made my final selections, I thoughtfully printed off copies of the spec sheets and photos of my first and second choices in case he wanted some real input in the decision. (He never cares, but he likes to be consulted.)
I stapled together the ones that were meant as a group so there would be no confusion, totaled up the prices, including tax, and double-checked everything to make sure my presentation would be professional and my preference would be obvious. That’s when things fell apart.
What I failed to notice in my 4 hour analysis of bathroom fixtures was that even though both my first and second choice were available on the 22nd—which I interpreted as meaning they were in stock since yesterday was the 22nd —it said 3/22/10, not 2/22/10. That one little number difference meant I could wait a month and hope the installers would still be available, or I could pick out a third choice.
To relate this to writing, therefore keeping this post from being a whiny rant, I’d like to stress the importance of timeframes in a story. Just as the bathroom remodeling could not be done the way I envisioned it within the time our contractor had allowed, our stories will not be believable if the plot couldn’t happen within the period the story spans. (If you’ve ever watched the show 24, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Sorry you 24 fans—I used to be one of you.)
I noticed this problem in my own novel when I realized the protagonist’s dog grew from a tiny puppy to a hulking 70-pounder within 3 months. No, he wasn’t on steroids; I forgot his age and what type of dog he was and made him fit the story needs.
Readers are smart. They catch things writers miss. Maybe it’s because we “know” what’s happening, so we overlook the inconsistencies, but errors in the timeframe will ruin the flow of a story. Take time to figure out the timeline and make sure the scenes are in order. Having Christmas dinner and then a scene with Christmas Eve is fine if you intend it as a flashback, but if it’s just an oversight, your story will lose credibility. (No, I didn’t do that. There were a few other scenes out of order though.)
Timeframes must also be considered when selecting the proper tense to use. Present, past, and future tenses are pretty easy to understand, but can still confuse the reader when shifts in the tense are made improperly. Due to the complexity of many stories, you may also need to use progressive or perfect tenses. They can be a bit tricky, and are hard to explain, so rather than go into detail myself, here’s an excellent site that will clarify how to handle shifts in tense within a story:
http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/601/08/ Verb Tense Consistency
Here’s a site that talks about adhering to believable time lines, and other important things writers need to understand. It’s pretty deep, but has lots of gems to think about:
How do you keep track of the timelines in your stories? What other types of inconsistencies annoy you as a reader? Do you know of any quick-growing dogs that I could give my protagonist?