Reading Like a Writer: Dare Me and Continuous Time

Posted on Wed, Dec 17 2014 11:28 am by Allison Wyss

The whole idea behind "reading like a writer" is to look at what writers do—the hard stuff, the brilliant stuff—and figure it out.

But sometimes I sort of wimp out.

Occasionally, I write about a technique that I already understand. I find an example of someone doing it, dissect it a bit, and there you go.

More often I look at a technique I don't fully understand but that I can retain some distance from. A technique that is theoretically fascinating, but that I'm not personally trying to do at the moment. It's easier that way because there's less at stake for me. I still benefit from what I uncover but not until later on.

Lately, I've been trying to describe a technique I don't fully understand—and that I desperately need for my own work. The pressure is intense and making the work harder.

I want to do continuous time. I want to create, in a short space, the sense of something that happens again and again. And I want that sense of a long period of time to project forward through the book, so that even when the character is doing completely different things, there's still the feeling of the things she does habitually. And I want this to happen without repeating it constantly. I'll ping it here and there, but I don't want to get tedious.

My efforts so far have revolved around tense. I've changed "she did X" to "she would do X." Obviously, there's a lot more to it.

The example I'm trying to learn from—the one that's taunting me—is in Megan Abbott's Dare Me, an intense novel about cheerleading and bodies and friendship and power.

The book eventually moves into a very straightforward, scene-by-scene momentum. But the opening is not like that at all. Instead, it portrays time in a different way, describing a longish period through summary, telling not what happened but how it was. It's not event following event but a description of a continuous period of time.

I believe Abbott's technique is related to "Long Time," as described in Joan Silber's Time in Fiction (I get a lot of my time-related ideas there). However, long time is not precisely how I'd categorize the Dare Me section, which chronicles a few months rather than a lifetime. But it's quite long compared to the day-by-day sequencing that happens later. And I suppose a semester must seem a lifetime to the narrator, who's in high school.

Like "long time," "continuous time" is frequently recounted through a particular kind of summary, which is punctuated by scene-like moments that make it more immediate and more like sequential time.

Here's where Abbott's use of continuous time becomes obvious:

So different from before, all those days we spent our time nail painting and temp tattooing, waiting always for Cap'n Beth, who would show ten minutes before game time after smoking a joint with Todd Grinnell or gargling with peppermint schnapps behind her locker door and still dazzle us all by rocketing atop Mindy's and Cori's shoulders, stretching herself into an Arabesque.

The passage very clearly describes a long period rather than a single moment through tense: "who would show up." It also uses clear expressions like "all those days." And much of what Abbott does with continuous time works because of tense and because of the unambiguous words she uses to establish a continuous period.

But continuous time is happening when it's less obvious, too, when a passage seems to describe a distinct moment.

The bleacher sprints are punishing, and I feel my whole body shuddering—pound-pound-pound—my teeth rattling, it is almost ecstatic—pound-pound-pound—I feel almost like I might die from the booming pain of it—pound—I feel like my body might blow to pieces, and we go, go, go. I never want it to stop.

It's an absurdly lovely paragraph and makes me feel the punishment of the sprints—the deep physical pain and also the wonder and beauty of being so alive.

This passage does not use tense to say that they would do bleacher sprints. Instead, it's simple present tense. There's no mention of repetition, of doing the sprints more than once. I only know that it happens again and again because the passage is located within a longer stretch describing continuous time. (Well, I suppose I also know the nature of exercise—that it only works if done repetitively.)

This may seem like a silly point, but the character doesn't pound the bleachers exactly seven times. Surely, she pounds them thousands of times. But we only need those seven to get a sense of the repetition.

In the same way, most of the experiences in the chapter are recounted once, yet we get the sense of them repeating.

Somehow, these bleacher poundings echo in my mind. As I move through the rest of the section, I take the bleacher poundings with me. They are what it was like. Pound-pound-pound. It was punishing. It was glorious. Pound-pound-pound.

And that takes me back to the first passage I quoted, makes me look at it again. Even though it uses those continuous-time phrases ("all those days"), the passage describes specific events—"gargling with peppermint schnapps"—that are concrete and tangible. It's not something that lasted the entire period, but it's an event typical of the time. It happened more than once and illustrates what the rest of the time period was like.

Like the bleacher pounding, it may work better as an example of the time period because it is so visceral. "Gargling" connotes a sound as well as an action and pronouncing the word gives the feel of the activity. "Peppermint schnapps" is specific and physical—we can see the bottle. More importantly, it comes with a taste and smell. Like the bleacher pounding, the schnapps gargling stays with me, even as I read further, about other things.

Also important, Abbott's use of continuous time seems to hinge on the way she compares ones time period to another. My first quoted passage begins "so different from before." The excuse for describing the longish span of time (and it seems that good writing does gain credibility, often, by its excuse for being told) is that it's different from the previous time period. The excuse for the description always lurks in the contrast, which is frequently mentioned.

Comparing the present to the past creates two distinct, yet parallel, time periods. Because the past is so clearly set up in continuous or habitual time, it's easy to see the present the same way. The present period, though related in a simpler tense, becomes habitual, too.

I'm still untangling Abbott's technique for continuous time. I'm not confident I understand it. But the tools uncovered—tense, comparison of time periods, vivid moments that echo—they're a start.

Where have you encountered a skillful use of continuous time? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.

Allison Wyss is teaching "Reading Like a Writer: The Best Book Club Ever" this winter at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.