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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.

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