Establishing the right time setting is a critical step in creating a successful story. But too limited a timeframe can seal off the narrative possibilities.
I learned this the hard way while trying to wrap up a recent short story. Everything had gone well to that point. The opening had come in the proverbial flash of inspiration: A young, married woman runs over a cat belonging to the boy across the street. The conflict made itself instantly apparent: Let the boy’s extreme emotional reaction play into the woman’s fears of starting a family. And I knew just how to tease out telling details over a period of development in which the tension would mount inexorably: The boy’s behavior grows increasingly frightening, while the protagonist’s husband trivializes the matter—even as he presses her to think about conceiving.
And the perfect touch, as far as I was concerned, was that all the preceding would take place over a taut twenty-four hours, by the end of which every thematic angle would be examined and every loose end tied up.
So much for planning. Three-quarters of the way through the story, I sensed the piece was choking on its own fumes. What I needed was a way to get from the climactic scene, in which the boy breaks into the woman’s house, to the resolution. My many false steps centered on direct or indirect interaction between these two characters. Does the woman eventually confront the boy? Does she call the police and observe either from up close or afar whatever might transpire? Does she enlist the aid of her husband—that unhelpful, uncaring cad?
Plainly, none of these would work. But that didn’t stop me from trying them anyway. And sure enough, with each succeeding attempt, I seemed to be in ever greater danger of suffocating the story for good.
So I stopped and took a break. The problem, I realized, was that my narrative was too confined. By imposing that artificial and unnecessary twenty-four-hour timeframe, I was cutting off the story’s supply of air. The intersection of ideas—the danger posed by the boy’s behavior, the unknowns of starting one’s own family—required the space that would let these two notions play out to their respective conclusions, with one emerging as the preeminent, if you will, point of the story. It wasn’t the literal resolution that mattered—who cares what happens to the crazy kid from across the street?—but the larger, thematic resolution: How does the woman decide to engage the complicated issue she faces?
The solution: Set the ending of the story several weeks after its central events, and, for good measure, throw in a brief, embedded flashback.
I constructed a new scene in which the woman and her husband are driving home from a visit to her doctor. The woman recalls a cruel practical joke she played as a child on her mother (this is the embedded flashback) and wonders if this is simply how all children behave. I also dispensed with the insignificant details of the repercussions for the boy by only vaguely alluding to police and social workers. And finally, I revealed the woman’s pregnancy: In the car, approaching home, she looks down to the ultrasound photos she holds in her hands.
Here’s how the transition out of the limited timeframe of the main part of story and the embedded flashback were executed:
[Julia] wanted to look ahead but kept turning back, in search of something that might tell her about the future. She thought of her mother’s pouch-like straw bag on the front seat of the old car, left there when the woman had run back into the house to get something. Julia, accompanying her on some ordinary errand, had waited, and watched as a glistening brown wasp fell through the open window and began to pick its way across the bag’s patterned weave. It investigated the small dark crevices where the strands gapped, inserting its twitching body into each, and then simply slipped inside the bag itself, in which her mother’s compact, Kleenex, and lipstick were gathered.
She didn’t know what brought this to mind, this scene from some long-ago morning when she was a girl. Maybe it was the trees at the top of their street now, and the smell of the leaves and flowers and fertile soil that came through the open windows of Mike’s Lexus as he made the turn and brought them to the lip of the hill. A smell of late spring, like that morning in the old car. After debating it, Julia had said nothing to her mother, thinking, maybe secretly hoping, that she would reach into the bag, searching blindly with groping fingers for the lipstick tube ...
And here’s where the reader learns the vital fact of the main character’s impending motherhood, and, only incidentally, what happens to the boy:
A pattern emerged over the next week: dinner, wine, up the stairs, she on her back, he on top, as dutiful as you were supposed to be when the cycle accommodates. Doing the right thing. They would never leave their children behind for a selfish vacation of their own. They would never create an environment that gave birth to such behavior. They would never be in a position where police and social workers and a court would have to intervene to set things right. No, no, no. Neither of them acknowledged it; the words were never spoken. But now, nine weeks later, their complicity in the mission was undeniable. It was no accident, and the evidence was in her hands ...
Julia peered down at the curling printouts she had been given ...
By taking the conclusion out of the immediate present and setting it nine weeks hence, I was able to supply the oxygen the story needed to become a fuller, rounder, more satisfying read. Much more satisfying for this writer: The story’s eventual publication.