Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Continuing Education: Call It a Day

“Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.”
–William Shakespeare
Kari Donald, A4A Member

It’s the dawn of a new installment of Continuing Education. Each day in the life of your book is a microcosm of your story and world. The details and descriptions of events during the day not only set up the experiences for your characters, but also provide a window into the cultures and traditions of your world. Inconsistencies during and between the days can be both confusing and distracting. Today, we will look at some of the important elements of a typical day as well as  potential mistakes and ways to avoid them. 

How could a single day possibly be that complicated?

There’s more to a day than twenty-four hours (or however long a day is in your world). Within each day is a finite amount of time that progresses, with patterns both for individuals and for groups. When are meals served, and what are they called? What sorts of routines are typical during the day? How long do your days last? Do seasons or holidays affect how the day unfolds? Consider these questions when describing scenery and activities throughout your story’s day. Even topics that are part of world building still need to be incorporated into your narrative in a way that supports the world you created.

Do I need to include every single routine of the day?

Absolutely not. Only those routines that affect your plot, add description, or establish patterns in your world need to be included. For instance, consider the delicate topic of bathroom breaks. When catching up with friends and family, would you include details about going to the restroom? (That might be TMI.) There is definitely a time and a place. Characters missing out on major events because they were heeding nature's call have a very plausible explanation for an absence when necessary. However, just because you don’t want to address this routine does not mean you can ignore that it is necessary for your characters. The poor maiden forced to wear a chastity belt for months while her knight is away fighting dragons will evoke more than just sympathy. Speculation on how she will perform personal hygiene could take readers right out of the narrative. The Harry Potter stories do a great job demonstrating how to balance this. Several scenes take place in bathrooms, establishing that they exist and are available, but the only details on use of the bathrooms are those relevant to the particular scene that supports the plot. Just check that your routines are natural and organic to the story.

With this in mind, you don’t have to squeeze every daily routine into every single day. Just make sure that events throughout the day are consistent and follow established patterns. For example, some people refer to the evening meal as dinner, and some, as supper. Using these terms interchangeably could be confusing. If your travelers regularly eat supper before retiring and then suddenly eat dinner and retire, your readers may not be sure what time of day it is. Did they retire for the night or just for a nap? If dinner is the large meal at noon, then showing up for Sunday dinner at six would be totally unacceptable. Basically, make sure that your descriptions and labels match from day to day. 

Anything else I need to look for with routines?

Be sure to keep track of the frequency of your routines. There are routines your characters will likely only do once a day, like eating a particular meal. If your travelers partake in a hearty breakfast before they set out on their journey, then they shouldn’t be stopping for breakfast again several hours later (second breakfast anyone?). Likewise, routines need to happen in order. Morning prayer after lunch doesn't make a lot of sense. Try to map out each day in a similar way you would map out your story.

Why are lengths of days or seasons important?

Lengths of days are important because they influence the type and amount of activity of your day and how you describe the passing of time. You might expect to cover more distance traveling during daylight or want the cover of darkness for something clandestine. If you write speculative fiction and your world is Earth or loosely modeled after Earth, then your world will be tilted on its axis, have seasons, and variation in length of the days depending on the time of year. If your world is different from Earth, make sure the progress of your day matches the physics of your world. Timing and pacing during the day is just as important as for the chapter or story. Too much activity squeezed into too little time can be overwhelming, while too little activity over a long amount of time can drag. Try to be aware of the amount of time available in your day to avoid exhausting either your characters or your readers. 

Isn’t worrying about the proper length of a day rather picky?

Yes and no. It depends on the setting of your story. The more closely your world is related to Earth, the more important it is to be careful about time of day. Anyone from Boston will tell you there is no way the Fourth of July firework celebration started at 7:00 PM, because the sun won’t set until almost 8:30. The outdoor all-night movie marathon in Anchorage, Alaska, on June twenty-first might not be such a good deal since it is only “night” (and not necessarily very dark) for four and a half hours. Remember, we are trying to avoid distracting the reader. In the same way your descriptions of a known location need to be accurate, your descriptions of time of day in a known location need to be accurate. While this degree of consideration is not as important in a totally made-up fantasy world, consistency still needs to be maintained. It would be very distracting to have consecutive days where the length of the day changes dramatically or without a predictable pattern.

In a similar way, your descriptions of the sun and moon during the course of the day need to be realistic. Just because we have the expression “high noon,” it does not mean the sun is always directly overhead at noon. Sunrises and sunsets are arguably among the most magnificent backdrops, making them popular settings in art and literature. In fact, they can be too popular. Is it already time for another full moon only a week after the last one? Do your characters really have time to hike another 5 miles through the mountains between the first twinkle of stars coming out and the sun finally disappearing below the horizon? Do the two separate portrayals of a sunrise on the same day mean that your world has two suns in a galaxy far, far away?

Of course, I found a great tool for today’s topic. This day and night world map page is a lot of fun and shows the location of the sun and moon on any given day, from the past to the future (I was way too entertained putting in dates of eclipses to see what they would look like). You can calculate how much time passes between twilight and sunset, note the intensity of light based on location and time of day, and generally use it to provide accurate descriptions. It even has links to information about the moon phase. Your world isn’t on an axis like earth? No problem. Just pick a date for one of the equinoxes to check out time of day for your world. A day cycle on your world isn’t 24 hours? Again, no problem. You get to apologize to your middle school math teacher because you will need to use those math lessons to calculate the time that works for your world. 

Is there anything else that could cause problems in a day?

Of course! Probably more than I can cover. But as a final note, I want to point out the importance of maintaining consistency between different points of view on the same day. One character should not be experiencing a fierce thunderstorm during their narrative while another character is walking under a cloudless sky less than a mile away. As always, edits are the most common culprit for continuity errors, so you always want to check for these issues during the editing process. However, it is also easy to get sucked into writing an amazingly creative description, ignoring what would realistically be taking place. Avoid duplication and work toward consistency to avoid time-of-day continuity distractions. 

That’s all we have time for today. Check back next time for Weird Science.  

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