Every now and then I have what I call a Bell Jar Day. I curl up on the couch and waste space for six or seven hours. My mom used to call them mental health days and I know I need them. I also know that they’re wasted time.
In stories, there is no wasted time. The only minutes that appear on the page are the minutes that relate to the story. It’s this economy of time that turns people into characters. Real people stumble over words, miss opportunities, and waste time in front of the television.
Characters are actors. They do things and say things to push and pull at the plot of their existence. They enact vengeance and seize power. Characters have no time to waste.
A typical Bell Jar Day begins with first breakfast and me queueing up whatever shows I have DVR’d from the last week. I crawl into my mermaid blanket and stretch out on the love seat facing the TV. I check my phone for any new emails. Nothing urgent.
If I’m a character, the email box has some urgent missive in it. Something to change the course of my day. Something that makes today different from any other day. But I’m not a character. I turn the phone face-down on the table and click play on Shadowhunters.
As the day progresses, hours gobbled up like white dots in Pac-Man, I realize there are things that need to be done that I’m not doing: Shower, library, grocery store.
If I’m a character, I’m well into some hard place now. I’ll have to make a choice that will have consequences. Others will be affected. It will determine how I spend the rest of my life, not just the rest of my day. But I’m not a character. I make second breakfast.
I often tell stories that juxtapose two different incidents; only after the second one occurs does the first find meaning. What was a passing conversation becomes a pivotal moment. My characters are haunted by that past moment in the present. Their actions now are informed by it, their urgency created by it. Will they make the same mistake they made before?
Toggling between the time periods is tricky. I sometimes use spacers and sometimes the past-perfect tense, depending on how close the incidents are – can they be confused for one another? I like an intentional confusion in certain places, being unsure as to when the character uttered a specific phrase.
Economizing the time characters spend in the story can be tricky, too. Editorial questions like, “How does this contribute?” and “Can this be learned another way?” tighten a story’s superfluous scenes into sharp, intentional interactions.
Short story characters aren’t permitted Bell Jar Days. In films and TV it’s a montage of laziness, light moving through a room as the character lays on the couch. But in stories, elapsed time is the spacer. It’s the blank space between sections of the story, referenced but not shown.