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Life lessons

on the craft 

Thinking 4th Dimensionally


I love all three Back to the Future movies. In the third, Doc and Marty transport to the wild west of 1885. Without gasoline to run their Delorean time machine and tools to patch it up, they’re stuck. Doc explains to Marty how they can use a locomotive to push their Delorean up to 88 miles per hour, allowing them to travel back to the future. When Marty points out that the railroad track will only push the Delorean off an unfinished bridge into a ravine, Doc responds, “You’re just not thinking fourth dimensionally.”

Marty doesn’t consider that as the Delorean travels into the future, the bridge will be there when Marty arrives in the year 1985, safely keeping him from falling into a ravine.

Lots of intermediate writers have a difficult time thinking about Time because Time is difficult. There are some obvious Time factors – like what happens first, second and third in your plot. But there are also other less-discussed and less-understood Time factors, such as using the past perfect verb tense, or the order of phrases or clauses in a sentence.

The largest consideration of Time in writing has to do with Plot. But there’s something more than just the order of events. You’ve likely heard the writing mantra “Kill your darlings,” or something similar. Essentially, this mantra means that, despite writing a beloved scene or a beloved character, you must eliminate that beloved scene/character to make the story fit, flow and continue being believable.

I’m here to argue that you can keep your darlings alive and well, as long as you’re willing to think fourth dimensionally. I’m in no way claiming “Kill your darlings” isn’t often very good advice – it is, and killing darlings should still be an option – but I am saying there’s another solution when considering Time.

Writing is a complex series of IF-THEN statements. IF-THEN creates motivation, motivation builds character, character creates plot. Presuming an over-simplified version of The Great Gatsby: IF Gatsby can meet Nick at his party THEN Nick can connect Gatsby to Daisy. IF Gatsby can talk to Daisy THEN they’ll fall in love all over again. IF Daisy falls in love with Gatsby THEN she’ll leave her husband Tom, etc –

You must consider all the parts that make up the IF and all the parts that make up the THEN. Most importantly, the IF-THEN relationship needs to be perfectly logical (at least within the world you’ve constructed). It makes sense that Gatsby seeks Nick’s company when Gatsby has something to gain by that association.

Where most people get into trouble with Time is in their THENs. The characters end up in illogical places or doing illogical things. IF Daisy leaves her husband Tom THEN Tom and Gatsby can still be friends – wait! That doesn’t seem right. Enter “kill your darlings.” Tom and Gatsby must be adversaries if they both love the same woman. In this particular case, we would tell Fitzgerald to kill his darlings in the THEN scene because the IF has not accurately lead to that point.

However, thinking fourth dimensionally, you can leave your THEN alone (Tom and Gatsby are friends) and go back in time to change the IF. (Not that I’m suggesting Fitzgerald do this, but purely for the sake of example...) If Fitzgerald wanted Tom and Gatsby to end up as friends, he could change their interactions in regards to Daisy. IF Gatsby can meet Nick at his party THEN Nick can connect Gatsby to Daisy and Tom. IF Gatsby spends time with Daisy and Tom THEN he sees Daisy’s not that great. IF there’s no conflict over Daisy’s love THEN Gatsby and Tom become friends.

When you consider your characters as humans – their mannerisms, speech patterns, motivations and desires, and willingness to act – you need to add the fourth dimension of Time. Consider Time a characteristic like any other. Time in writing is not like Time in life – it is tactile and malleable. You can start your characters anywhere and end them anywhere as long as you use Time as a resource, as long as you consider Time just as important as everything else about the characters you create. As long as the succession of IF-THEN scenarios and conflicts come logically, there will always be a bridge in the future to save your story from cascading into the ravine.