Nebraska Stumps Newton; Three Types of Literary Time

Anyone who’s ever driven across Nebraska knows that Newton was wrong. Not about gravity, of course. Gravity is still a thing (sort of), but about his notions of absolute space and time. Newton believed that both space and time were the intrinsic scaffolding of the universe, that they were present even in the theoretical absence of anything else, like some sort of invisible graph paper and silently ticking stopwatch. In his words:

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external…”

Leibniz thought this was a pile of horseshit, and ever since Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the consensus has swung heavily toward Leibniz. Of course, if Newton had just bothered to drive across Nebraska, he would have understood that, despite the neat longitudinal grid of the map, the distance between Omaha and Ogallala expands until it is nearly infinite, while the time you get to spend in Las Vegas when you finally cross the country is always criminally short.

Things are even more complex inside the pages of a fantasy novel (or any novel, for that matter) where we encounter not just expanding and contracting time, but three simultaneously occurring and overlapping time frames.


Time Frame One: Book Time. This is the time frame experienced by the characters inside the story. If the main character wakes up in the morning and is pecked to death by penguins that afternoon, the book covers about eight hours.

Time Frame Two: Reading Time. The duration of Book Time need not match the time a reader must spend, ass in chair, reading the book. An eight hundred page novel could cover a single hour (probably a really miserable hour), and yet it will take a reader thirty or so to complete.

Time Frame Three: Real Life Time. When you find a really wonderful book, the sort that involves sitting down at 6 PM, reading straight through while pissing into an empty Gatorade bottle, Reading Time and Real Life Time are nearly synonymous. More frequently, however, it takes a matter of days or weeks, Real Life Time, to get in the necessary hours of Reading Time to finish a novel. This happens because of a) other demands and b) running out of Gatorade bottles.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to spend twenty hours over three weeks completing a book that spans twenty years. It can be helpful, even crucial for authors to realize that the emotional responses and psychological developments of their characters are taking place out of phase with those of the reader.

For example, if Jessica sneaks into Jimmy’s house on page twenty-five and takes a dump on his pillow, both the reader and Jimmy could be expected to feel a visceral revulsion toward and (unless the attack is warranted) distrust of Jessica. If the book leaps forward ten years, however, between pages twenty-five and thirty (probably through a section break or chapter break), Jimmy’s feelings toward Jessica have had ten years to evolve. The reader’s have had about five minutes.

I felt this acutely when reading Ken Follett’s wonderful novel Pillars of the Earth. The book spans decades, but I read it in days. As a result, my feelings about outrages committed at the book’s start were still burning hot, even when the feelings of certain characters against whom those outrages were committed had cooled, or changed. I had days to process events they had decades to absorb. Despite having loved the book (I recommend it whole-heartedly), the ending left me feeling a little confused, a little left out, largely due to this disjunction between my emotions and those of all the characters.

Of course, an author can use the overlapping time frames in her favor as well. One trick that comes across particularly well is rehabilitation of dubious or downright evil characters. There’s a guy in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, a character we hate in book one. Martin later tries to bring us around to this dude, to make us see 1) that we may have misjudged him initially and 2) that he’s changed. This sleight-of-hand certainly worked for me, and seems to have worked for most readers, and it leans heavily on the fact that, for most of us, years and years of Real Life Time have passed between the character’s initial evil-doing and his later rehabilitation. In Book Time, however, it’s less than a year. It’s the obverse of the situation mentioned above – we, the readers, are ready to forgive, while most of the characters, understandably, are not.

In the end, the most important conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that if Leibniz hadn’t spent so much time dicking around inventing calculus, he could have written some bad-ass fantasy novels.

Why My Penis?: Fantasy Worlds, Coherent and In-

Remember that time in grade school when you thought it would be awesome if all the mosquitoes in the world would just die, en masse? It was a childhood utopian dream – long summer days and no bug bites, no maddening whine in the ear, no itching all night long…

But then some smug prick said something like, “If the mosquitoes all died, then the frogs would die of starvation, and if the frogs died, then the black flies would thrive, and they would bite the shit out of you.” To which you sensibly retorted that the black flies could die along with the mosquitoes, because while we’re wishing, why not wipe out all the little bastards? But then, because of this irritating thing called the food web, it turned out that if you wiped out the black flies and mosquitoes both, you’d also wipe out cows, or turn Iowa into a dust bowl, or create a famine that would allow Nazis would take over the world, or some sort of horrible thing that seemed utterly unrelated to biting insects. But there were graphs and flow charts, studies of population density, and so eventually you just had to say, “Fine, I’ll deal with the fucking mosquitoes,” because you didn’t want to be the asshole who wished for a hamburgerless world of sand dunes and dust bowls run by the Nazis.

Writing fantasy is like that.

After all, the point of fantasy is to create a world that is, in some fundamental way, different from ours. Perhaps there are no mosquitoes. More likely, there are invisible swords, unbreakable swords, glowing swords, swords that are portals to another dimension, swords that talk, swords that think, swords that carry inside themselves the souls of the gods. And that’s just the swords. Don’t get me going about the talking animals, and wizards, and immortal elves.

This is, of course, the awesome thing about fantasy. For instance, there is a remarkable scene early in Elizabeth Bear’s outstanding novel Range of Ghosts. A character is flying on a bird “east, into the setting sun of the Uthman Caliphate, until they crossed the broad but bounded waters of the White Sea, and the sun was abruptly behind them, setting in the west.” When you read this, you either say, “Holy shit!” or you didn’t read it right. The sky itself is different in different parts of the world she has created: different sun, different planets, different constellations. It’s a stunning, brilliant idea, exactly the kind of thing that draws us to fantasy, but Bear has, as all fantasy writers must, killed off the metaphorical mosquitoes. She has changed a fundamental aspect of the world.

For some readers, perhaps most, this is fine. They are happy to luxuriate in a slightly foreign world sans bug bites. They know that the cover to a fantasy novel is a door to a different world, and they check their questions and their disbelief at that door. There are other readers, however, who like to ask questions, the most dangerous of which are: How? And Why? And But If… Then…?

Consider the handling of seasons in A Song of Ice and Fire: they are unpredictable and decoupled from the passage of years. For most readers: great. But if you think there aren’t people kept awake gnawing on the physics behind this, take a look here.

A writer of fantasy can’t avoid these questions – it’s built into the job description. But how to handle them? I can think of four basic approaches.

Just Smile and Pretend it’s Normal: This is more or less the method used by Martin with his seasons, or by Tolkien with his magic. There’s no explanation at all. The characters accept the changes to the world as normal. The narrator doesn’t dwell on them. The reader isn’t invited to speculate on them. It’s sort of like being at a dinner party where your host announces, in all seriousness, that he is the latest incarnation of Lao Tzu. You smile, have another three or four drinks, and pretend like it’s normal, in the hope that, with enough pretending, everyone will forget that it’s not normal.

Talk Louder and Faster: You may recognize this approach from the your yearly motor vehicle inspection. You take your car in for an inspection and the mechanic comes out to tell you it needs three thousand dollars worth of work. Alarmed, you ask what’s wrong, and you get something like, “Well, your IAC motor’s just been grinding the hill holder but the thing is… well, you’ve only got the four cotter pins, and shit… that tappet head might as well be a gnarled piston.” Whatever the hell that means. This goal of this kind of language isn’t really to explain anything – after all, if you understood all this, you’d hardly be bringing the car to a mechanic in the first place. The goal is to convince you that the mechanic knows what’s up, and to get you to fork over the three grand already. Fantasy writers can use the same trick, except substituting “old power” for “tappet head” and “ancient evil” for “IAC motor.”

Acknowledge the Unknowable: There’s a great moment in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. Having intuited early on that giving the Aes Sedai the power to fly will really screw up his plotting in the early books, Jordan moves decisively to squash the idea. Moraine just says it: Aes Sedai can’t fly. Someone (citation here, anyone?) asks why not, and she just sorta shrugs: no idea. Just can’t. In some ways, I think this is the most effective approach to the Whys and the Hows, circumventing, as it does, all further questioning. The trouble is, it’s not always entirely satisfying. Which leaves…

Explain: This is the bravest and most dangerous approach. Brave, because the writer must imagine levels of depth in her created world that are not necessary to the immediate function of the story. Brave, because every answer will spawn a dozen new questions. Brave because making shit up is, after all, what fantasy writers do. And dangerous? Well, have you ever talked with a two-year-old?

“Why my penis?”

“Because you have a Y chromosome.”

“Why Y chrome zome?”

“Because [mumble mumble] meiosis [mumble] gametes.”

“Why my o sis?”


Infinite regress is, unfortunately, an invincible rhetorical strategy.

So, what’s the best approach? I suppose it will depend on the work in question, or the particular moment in the work. It will probably vary from reader to reader, and even from mood to mood. What have I missed here? How else can we murder the mosquitoes without destroying the world?

The Trouble with Orgasm; Unsatisfying Endings

The trouble with orgasm, according to Marie Stopes, is that it’s too obscure. Not the orgasm itself, which seemed to function just about the same a hundred years ago as it does now, but the word. Dr. Stopes, in her 1918 Married Love (a treatise on marriage, sex, and birth control, among other things), used the word climax instead of orgasm. She thought it was more straightforward, more intuitive to her readers, and her use of it helped to promulgate a new, sexual meaning of a very old word.

Climax wasn’t always so sexy. In the 16th century, it was a rhetorical term used to describe a chain of logical reasoning – not surprising, given that the Greek, klimax, from which it descended, meant, literally, ladder. Ladder to rhetoric to orgasm. Not a bad career for the word.

Of course, story-lovers tend to use it in yet another sense. When someone mentions the climax of a book, they’re not usually talking about a massive ejaculation or feat of rhetorical bravado (unless it’s a book about sex or rhetoric). A dramatic climax is one in which the tension building throughout the novel comes to a head. Everyone’s seen the graph – tension on the y-axis, time on the x-axis, and a rising line that looks like the stock market in a good month.

I hate that fucking graph.

The problem is that it makes the climax of a book look pretty straightforward. Just pile on more stuff (the graph seems to say), more tension, more fights, more speed, more volume – make that mountain higher! – and the pile becomes a climax. If you had two people dueling in the first scene of the novel, you should have two thousand at the climax.

Seems straightforward. Trouble is, the sex/stock index approach to literary climax doesn’t work.

I was reminded of this just recently, as I worked through the final chapters to the second book of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. While I’d started writing with a spring in my step and hope in my heart, the ending pretty near killed me. The walls of my house were covered with huge sheets of paper, each of which mapped out an abortive attempt to pull the plot threads together. Then I gave up on the papers and switched to a dry-erase board. Then I gave up on the dry-erase board and started wandering the streets of Brattleboro muttering to myself, my pockets stuffed with color-coded index cards. It wasn’t pretty.

It’s easy enough to have the characters pair off, protagonists and antagonists, like square dancers preparing for a particularly bloody number in which half the group ends up dismembered on the parquet floor. While that can be fun and useful, it’s not enough. We’ve all seen that movie, the one that ends with a long, loud bloodbath. If that’s all there is to it, the climax tends to be somewhat less than orgasmic. We want something more, something better, something deeper…

Sure. Ok. But what?

In an effort to save the ending of my book and my sanity both, I charted out the elements that I need in a satisfying ending. As far as I can figure it, there are five.

Mysteries Resolved: It’s human nature, when we encounter a riddle, a mystery, or a question, to want to know the answer. Most shrewd writers capitalize on this. In N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, we want to know the identity of the Reaper (among other things). In Martin’s Game of Thrones, we want to know who murdered Jon Arryn (among other things). In Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, we want to know the name and nature of the shadow that is chasing Ged all over creation. All of these books eventually give us a degree of satisfaction, but there is a danger in relying too much on mysteries and their resolution: the satisfaction of learning the truth tends to be intellectual rather than emotional, and we want an emotional reward at the end of a story.

The Slaughter of the Bad Guys: As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I will read thousands of pages to see a detested villain get his or her comeuppance. Penthero Iss and Marafice Eye, from J.V. Jones’ wonderfully imagined A Cavern of Black Ice spring to mind. Fifty pages into the first book, I wanted to see these dudes painfully slaughtered, and, as a result, I read on. And on. And on.

Protagonist Reaches Her Potential: The main characters of most stories are not fully formed. We endure chapter after chapter in which they are unable – either through inexperience, confusion, or some outside constraint – to operate at their full potential. This inability frustrates a reader, but that frustration can lead to release, when, at the very end, the protagonist achieves a breakthrough. Think of Katniss’s cold resolve at the end of The Hunger Games.

Separate Threads Converge: A few weeks back, I helped a friend’s four-year-old daughter put together a puzzle. Actually, we put together the puzzle about a dozen times, giving me time to reflect on the pleasures of puzzle-putting-together. The joy, of course, comes from connecting seemingly disparate elements. We like watching order emerge out of chaos. This is why it’s so great at the end of Empire Strikes Back (SPOILER ALERT. ACTUALLY, IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE, QUIT READING RIGHT NOW AND GO WATCH IT) when we discover that Darth Vader isn’t just some random galactic tyrant, but Luke’s father. And Leia isn’t just a woman with a pluck, grit, and great hair. She’s his sister!

Apocalypse: I’m using the word in its old sense here: unhiding or uncovering, that moment in which the seemingly irrelevant or insignificant reveals its true importance: There is a tiny detail in Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead (I won’t reveal it here) that appears trivial for most of the novel… until, at the very end, we discover that this same detail is, in fact, crucial. It’s an astounding moment, and one that makes the ending of the novel deeply satisfying. We like to feel as though there’s an order in the world, “a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (although Hamlet defies this augury) – books can uncover this hidden significance.

What have I missed here? Are there any other structural elements that you look for in a satisfying ending? (Aside, of course, from convulsive multiple orgasms and sweaty naked bodies strewn across the page.)

Christ Would Not Be Pleased: Religion in Fantasy

A few days ago, Christians all over America celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ through an odd combination of church-going, egg-hunting, chocolate-eating, and rabbit-venerating. It’s not really news to anyone, of course, that a number of Christian holidays have subsumed elements of earlier, pagan worship, that Easter is also a celebration of spring and fertility, that Santa Claus wasn’t one of the three kings. In fact, the syncretic nature of Christianity, its ability to assimilate and adapt diverse and divergent traditions to its own ends, is often cited as an important factor in its broad appeal. In political parlance, Christianity has a “big tent” that shelters all manner of bunnies, saints, reindeer, and polar dwellers. You need not (outside of the strictest communities) put aside your celebrations of spring in order to worship Christ’s resurrection.

It’s not just Christianity, of course. Over the centuries, the Japanese have fused their traditional Shinto with Buddhism (imported to the islands in the 6th century) to the point where it’s difficult to tell where one ends off and the other begins. Buddhism, of course, originated in India, as a reform movement within Hinduism, which then, in a fascinating move, re-amalgamated Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. This mixing and blending, borrowing and re-appropriation, are important sources for the richness and variety in the world’s religions today.

Oddly, fantasy writers have largely overlooked this fact. The gods and goddesses of fantasy, however vivid, tend to be monochromatic; they usually have a single (or limited) function or association, and, as a result, the iconography and worship regarding these gods tends to be relatively predictable.

Take, R’hllor, from Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. R’hllor is a god of light and fire, and so it’s no shock to discover that his priests and priestesses wear red, that they read the future in the flames, and that they like to burn shit. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like R’hllor. I like the stories of  Azor Ahai. I think it’s a nice touch that Martin points out that the god of flame is also, by logical extension, the god of shadow.

It’s instructive, however, to compare R’hllor with Agni, from the Hindu tradition. Agni is also a fire god, (his name is cognate with the Latin ignus, from which we derive our English word, ignite), but he’s a lot more than that. He’s also two-headed and three-legged. He is a messenger god. According to the Rg Veda, he arose from and abides in the water, an odd characteristic for a fire god. In some traditions, Agni is a god of sex and virility. In others, he’s not his own god at all, but an incarnation of Brahma, or maybe Shiva. Clearly, Martin’s conception of R’hllor is far tidier, far more explicable.

Or take the pantheon of DragonLance. It’s a complex and exciting collection of characters. Each god and goddess has her own interests, motives, and adherents. There are quite a few names to learn, but it’s still strikingly simple to sum up these deities. A glance at this wiki shows that they are easily categorized. Branchala is the god of inspiration, Sirrion is the god of flame, Reorx is the god of the forge, etc. Moreover, the pantheon itself is rigidly organized with an eye to balance: “Each group of gods has seven members, with one major god, five lesser ones, and a god of magic.” Very neat. Very tidy. I like systems, and so I appreciate the thought went into ordering the Dragonlance pantheon. There is pleasure to be found in structure. Nonetheless, this careful structure is utterly unlike the hodge-podge pantheons of other religions (Norse, Greek, Hindu) with their messiness and contradictions.

A quick glance at the dodekatheon, the twelve Olympic deities of Greek tradition, should illustrate what I mean by messiness and contradiction. These gods and goddesses were the big ones, the heavies, the ones who beat the Titans, the relations of Zeus abiding on the mountaintop. Except there’s no real agreement on which ones make the list. Sometimes Hades is there. Sometimes not. Or Persephone. Or not. Heracles? Hestia? Asclepius? Maybe. Depends who you talk to, and where, and when. The same is true of Christ’s twelve apostles; the list of names varies from gospel to gospel. I imagine Christ would not be pleased that we have bungled this detail, but bungled it we have, and that is the point.

The reasons for these discrepancies are clear: unlike the pantheons of fantasy, which are the products of a single mind (or two minds, in the case of Dragonlance) working toward a specific goal, the religions of our real world developed over centuries, under the pressure of historical circumstance and the frailty of human communication and memory. The question, for the writer of fantasy, is whether or not it would enrich a novel to create a “messier” religion. Would the confusions and contradictions of the real world make for a richer imagined setting, or is this the sort of thing we’re trying to get away from when we read fantasy?

Shakira and Usher Hate Tolkien; Opening Sentences in Fantasy

I suspect something horrible may be happening to us; I suspect that someone – the CIA, aliens, maybe that dude who works at the late-night burger place down the alley – is siphoning away our brain power a little bit at a time. My suspicions were first aroused last night, when my wife and I sat down to watch the premiere of The Voice. If you’re not familiar with the show, all you need to know is that the singers get ninety seconds to impress the judges. Not a full song, or, heaven forbid, a set of songs that might showcase different abilities: ninety seconds. And it was awesome. We were never bored. While watching the show I forgot that boredom existed.

Then I remembered a writer’s conference I attended many years back in which I went to a number of pitch sessions entitled “Two Minutes; Two Pages.” Sorta like The Voice, but with literary agents instead of Shakira and Usher, reading instead of singing, and an extra thirty seconds to hawk your shit. Also, I don’t seem to recall a cheering live audience of thousands. At any rate, these sessions made a real impression on me, as the agents, all of the agents, kept saying things like, “I see a million submissions a day. If you haven’t hooked me by the end of the first paragraph, I’m done.”

I really wanted an agent. I rewrote my opening paragraph.

Let me be very clear: I’m not complaining about these agents or their advice. They were passing along what I think is the overwhelming opinion of readers, the people who actually buy the books. It is their job to know what sells and they were excellent at that job. They were just a little ahead of me in the realization that aliens are thieving our attention spans.

These days, it seems that many readers want something good, and by good I mean awesome – a bomb threat, a zombie, someone naked, several naked people, naked people defusing a bomb while fending off zombies –  by the end of the first paragraph if not the end of the first sentence.

Was it always this way?

Well, I didn’t have time for an exhaustive study of opening lines, but I did have time for some half-assed Googling. Half-assed Googling, I realize, runs a distant second to actual statistical analysis, but I was so surprised by the results that I wanted to share them here. I Googled eight fantasy novels, famous novels. The first four were published before 1990, the next four, after. I ignored prologues where they existed, focusing instead on the opening sentences of the first chapters.


Old Stuff:

“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home.” Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy (1982)

“The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland.” Brooks, The Sword of Shannara (1977)

“The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage…” Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

New Stuff:

“Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.” Lynch, Lies of Locke Lamora (2006)

“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded…” Martin, Game of Thrones (1996)

“The lapping of water in his ears. That was the first thing. The lapping of water, the rustling of trees, the odd click and twitter of a bird. Logan opened his eyes a crack. Light, blurry through the leaves. This was death? Then why did it hurt so much?” Abercrombie, The Blade Itself (2006)

“In the dark of waking, a soul has died. Its flesh, however, is still hungrily, savagely alive. The Reaper’s task is not to save.” Jemisin, The Killing Moon (2012)

You don’t need to be a literary scholar to see the differences.

Kicking off the old books we have: a birthday party, some geography, the description of a trail, and the sights and smells of a kitchen. Eddings, for his part, seems determined to absolutely destroy any narrative tension right at the outset, giving us love and security instead of mystery or suspense. Of the early works, Le Guin’s opening is probably the most exciting, but even she doesn’t zero in on a particular scene, providing us instead with something that sounds suspiciously like history.

In the new books, by contrast, we have: a beheading, a strangling, the potential death of the POV character, and a soulless Reaper. I can tell you right off the bat who’s going to end up on The Voice.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that the old books are weaker. In fact, the old books are classics, and deservedly so (whatever you think about Brooks ripping off Lord of the Rings). I do want to suggest that it looks as though the way readers and, therefore, writers approach beginnings is changing. The question is: is this bad? I have no idea. I’ve lost the ability to focus on the question long enough. Maybe one of you, however, someone who has escaped the brain suckers, could tell me what it all means…