Mere minutes after my meeting with Chris Bachelder, he gave what the Conference called a “craft talk” on The Clock in Fiction. The thesis of the lecture was that most excellent stories have a “back wall,” or a point the story will not go past. In other words, if the reader (or the characters, for that matter) knows there’s an end coming, and that a resolution must occur, the tension and pressure increase. Bachelder called it the ticking clock.
A brilliant analogy he made was a pretty simple one: the shot clock in basketball. College basketball has a 35-second clock, during which time the team on the offensive must shoot the ball. If the ball is not shot in 35 seconds, the other team takes possession. Incidentally, Women’s College Basketball uses a 30-second clock. Why? Is it a kind of “Hurry the hell up and let’s get this over with” thing?
Anyway, there wasn’t always a shot clock. A team could have, and did, run several minutes off the clock by playing keep-away from the other team. It was a boring brand of basketball for sure. Bachelder’s point, if you haven’t figured it out already, is that things became more exciting when the shot clock was introduced. The players on the floor had to make, sometimes, split second decisions. Also, the audience knew that something HAD to happen at least every 35 seconds. This made things more exciting, had the audience always anticipating things.
Bachelder talked about television programs, too — sitcoms in particular. You used to know that some kind of climax had to happen by the 27 or 28-minute mark. Television writers have gotten way smarter, today, though, because shows don’t always end that way anymore. Take CSI for instance. Sometimes it’s resolved and sometimes you see Jerry Bruckheimer’s name and you’re like: What the hell just happened? What the writers have done is make the viewer anticipate the anticipation. It’s absolutely brilliant.
So the 35-second clock, the 30-minute sitcom, the 60-minute drama all have back walls. What about stories?
Bachelder talked about Ulysses, which takes place in a day. I thought of the back wall of The Catcher in the Rye, which takes place over three days, and you know Holden has to go home to his parents some time, or you think Holden has to go home sometime.
The clock has to begin early in a story. The opening of the story opens up the back wall for the reader. Bachelder used Raymond Carver’s opening to his story, “Cathedral”
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-law’s. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing -eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.
There’s a lot here to anticipate. The evening the blind man spends at the house is going to be interesting: the narrator is going to be uncomfortable, and uncomfortable things are interesting to watch from afar. This paragraph contains enough to want to know what happens the evening the blind man shows up. The second paragraph, though, goes even further:
That summer in Seattle she had needed a job. She didn’t have any money. The man she was going to marry at the end of the summer was in the officers’ training school. He didn’t have any money, either. But she was in love with the guy, and he was in love with her, etc. She’d seen something in the paper: HELP WANTED — Reading to Blind Man, and a telephone number. She phoned and went over, was hired on the spot. She’s worked with the blind man all summer. She read stuff to him, case studies, reports, that sort of thing. She helped him organize his little office in the county social-service department. They’d become good friends, my wife and the blind man. How do I know these things? She told me. And she told me something else. On her last day in the office, the blind man asked if he could touch her face. She agreed to this. She told me he touched his fingers to every part of her face, he nose — even her neck! She never forgot it. She even tried to write a poem about it. She was always trying to write a poem. She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important had happened to her.
Paragraph two certainly raises the stakes: the narrator’s wife loved another man before him; she had an emotional attachment to the blind man; the blind man had his hands all over her face (”even her neck!”); and thinking back, the blind man is traveling five hours just to see her and stay overnight.
You want to read the rest of this story, don’t you.
So I’m working on my Keys story with all of this in mind, or not in mind at first. It’s nine pages now, which is important to me for some reason.