Account Login

Blog Archives

The Gap Between

I’d like you to do something very simple. Sit back, close your eyes, and try to remember an entire conversation you’ve heard or been part of in, say, the last year. By this I mean, remember in detail exactly what A said to begin with and exactly what B replied and so on until the end. Give yourself a couple of minutes. Eyes closed.

What did you get to? One exchange – A then B? Three – A then B three times? Ten?! I’d be surprised, and impressed, if it was more than four with complete accuracy.

Now, think about how much harder this would be if the conversation happened over ten years ago. I don’t know about you, but for that far in the past I have nothing beyond fragments. Yet short stories and novels regularly have first person narrators perfectly recalling the dialogue in scenes that go on for pages and pages. Think about that.

Now, with this normal human forgetfulness in mind…

Imagine a scene: A couple having their final, ugly break-up.

You’re going to write this scene in three different ways, just a page each time. And time is what you’re going to be concentrating on. You’re going to focus on the gap between.

A lot of writers start thinking about Point of View in terms of ‘Will I write this with a first person or third person or second person narrator?’ What they don’t think about is, ‘How much time has passed in between the event happening and it being narrated?’ And even if the writer does think about this, they may not think about the next thing. ‘What has happened in the intervening time, the gap between the event and narration, which will change everything about the way the narrator recalls the event?’

Version 1 – The Moment, You Own It
For the first version of the break-up scene, you’re going to go for immediacy, for no gap between. So, write it in the first person present tense. The narrator is one of the two people splitting up. You’re going to open with a single line saying where the break-up is taking place, ‘We’re in the…’ Go on from there. ‘X says,.. I say,…’ Lots of dialogue. Lots of details of gestures, expressions. Lots of tiny in-the-moment stuff. The main emotion is anger. Go.

Good. You can go back to Version 1 and make changes whenever you feel like it, in light of what you’re going to do next. Which is –

Version 2 – Don’t Look Back in Anger
This time, you’re re-telling the same scene but with two changes. You’re going to write in the first person past tense. And your narrator is going to be looking back on the break-up from ten years afterwards. What’s happened romantically for your narrator in the gap between is… nothing much. In other words, your narrator is now seeing the break-up as a Very Bad Thing. Think carefully about what details your narrator would believably remember, ten years on. You’re going to open with a sentence showing some uncertainty, ‘I think we were standing in the…’ Don’t use dialogue this time, use indirect speech. ‘X said he felt…’ The main emotion is regret. Go.

Version 3 – These Foolish Things Remind Me of You
Finally, you’re going to re-tell the same scene one final time, still using the first person past tense, but with another time jump and a crucial change in attitude. This version of the break-up is narrated ten more years into the future – so, twenty years on from the scene. What’s happened romantically to your narrator in the gap between is… wonderful. They have entered a stable, long-term relationship with the love of their life – who, of course, isn’t the person they were breaking up with twenty years ago. This means, your narrator now sees the break-up as a Very Lucky Escape. You’re going to start with a sentence to make clear this was a long time ago. ‘I can’t even remember where we were when X said to me…’ The main emotion is amusement. Go.

Well done. Now think about the changes in narration that each shift in point of view and in the gap between has brought – from anger to regret to amusement. Would it be possible to write Version 1 with amusement as the main emotion? I think so, but it would suggest an emotional distance, like a stand-up comic might bring to the narration. Would it be possible to write Version 3 with anger? Again, yes, but I think it would be a very cold and measured anger, like a judge condemning someone for whom they no longer have to hide their disgust. Both would be very interesting effects. Both would be playing against readerly expectations.

An annoying jingle: Every time you write a scene, think about the gap between.

Find out more

Exploring different third person points of view

Write part of a story in the form of a scene from a play, beginning with a description…

Find out more

Subjective third person narrative

When I was a child, like most young readers I wanted to identify with the characters in books….

Find out more

6 Tips on Writing Queer Fiction

If you’re describing a same sex relationship or one involving someone who is trans or intersex or in…

Find out more

Write The Blurb For Your Novel

Write the blurb for your novel – the summary that appears on the back jacket of a book…

Find out more

Uncharted Seas

Writing a novel is like setting out to sail across a vast, uncharted sea, without any resources such…

Find out more

Drawing your childhood memories

We all have child’s eye views – many in fact. Some might say we’re already a step ahead…

Find out more

Cut the fluff

There is, of course, no rule that says you should never write dialogue that looks exactly like real…

Find out more

The imaginary grunt

Listen in to a real conversation that you are not involved in and note just how much extraneous…

Find out more

‘Heart’ words vs ‘Head’ words

As writers in English, we are in a uniquely privileged position, being able to choose between two languages…

Find out more

Head language and heart language

The short story, in its own kingdom between the novel and poetry, gets the best of both worlds….

Find out more

What’s the worst that could happen?

Fiction is almost always about unexpected consequences. A character wants something, they take actions towards getting that thing,…

Find out more


This website uses cookies to give you the best experience. Agree by clicking the 'Accept' button.