Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.

This one’s just a quick thought before we all lunge into the holiday season.

Time is a tricky thing in stories. Oh, you’ve got the usual narrative time issues like skipping a few days here or there or going into a flashback, and I’ve prattled on about those a few times. There’s also continuity issues with time. Who knew what and when, was she with him at the same time she was with her, and how did he know that when he hadn’t met her yet–we’ve all dealt with these issues. Well, hopefully you’ve dealt with them…

I wanted to talk about a different aspect of time, though.

Time, and the passage of time in a story, tells us about characters. It gives us an insight when Yakko can shrug off losing a piece of jewelry after a long sigh but Dot is still crying about it two months later. It really tells us something when Wakko can’t remember what he had for breakfast yesterday and Marco can recite every item on the table from breakfast on his fourth birthday. If it takes Bob six months to hit the point where he’ll compromise his morals and Rob breaks after six hours, you know who you want to be trapped in the Andes with. How long something has an effect–or doesn’t have an effect–on someone tells us subtle thing about them that register just as much as any monologue they’re about to spiel out.

I was reading for a screenplay contest recently and came across an example of this in one script. On the off chance the contest entrant is reading this (slim, but let’s be polite), I’m going to tweak a few facts and relate the set-up more than the story. It was just such a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

We begin, as the header tells us, in May of 1999 as a stranger arrives in town. A local woman is mourning the death of her daughter, and she goes to the cemetary to set flowers on the grave. We see on the tombstone that her daughter died just over a month ago, in early April of ’99. That night, when she breaks down in tears over dinner, her husband sighs and tells her she has to get over it and it’s time she moved on.

When we see her in town the next day, most folks she meets are a bit stand-offish to her. Eventually she finds the stranger, they become friends and after another twenty pages or so she confesses how miserable she’s been since her daughter died… just over a year ago.

A quick check confirms both of the dates I’ve already mentioned to you. So which is the mistake? Was “year” supposed to be “month” or was one of the earlier dates wrong? Well, a few pages later she’s talking with a priest and the one year figure comes up again. So the problem was in the earlier dates, apparently.

A harmless typo, you say?

Well, here’s the thing. Her husband came across as kind of a jerk, didn’t he? His own daughter’s dead a month and he’s already telling his wife to move on? It didn’t matter how long she was supposed to be dead. All we have is the words on the page, and those words make us interpret and judge things in a certain way.

Look at this scene when you know it’s a year and suddenly the husband’s a much more sympathetic character. He’s barely recovered from one loss and is dealing with a wife it looks like he might lose to her own grief. Same with those townspeople. They seem a bit cold to ignore a grieving mother, but it’s a bit understandable why many of them might be put off by a woman who’s been grieving for close to thirteen months.

All that messed up in the story because of a single digit.

What this means for us as writers is that we need to be really, really careful with time and dates. They need to be double and triple-checked. Unlike a typoed word, I can’t tell if a date is wrong or not. “Birthday cale” is an easy-to-spot mistake, but “2005” is not.

Y’see, Timmy, the immediate, unconscious timelines those dates and times create are something we can all key into, and we can relate to them (and make judgements off them) almost immediately. They set up certain assumptions and conceptions about characters, and if they’re the wrong ones it can land your script in that big pile on the left.

So, as the Doctor always says, please be careful when you play with time.

Come back next week at our usual bat-time, and you can listen to me prattle on about characters.

Until then, go write. And have a Happy Thanksgiving.

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