Rein It In

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

For the past couple months, I've noticed myself frequently talking with clients and authors about the boundaries of a story, e.g. the period of time covered. When writing about the life of a character—whether it's historical fiction, fantasy, memoir, or biography—sometimes authors feel the need to cover the entire stretch of that character's life from womb to tomb. DO NOT DO THAT! No one's entire life is interesting and attempting to encompass such a large swath of time will inevitably lead to lots and lots of dense, telling moments in the writing that will make your readers' eyes glaze over.

My favorite memoirs and biographies are ones that limit the period of time they cover in some way—usually by covering events that only took place in a distinct location, during a specific time, or that pertain to a certain idea. For instance:

  • THE RACE TO SAVE THE ROMANOVS focuses on sharing information that relates to the various plots and refusals to rescue Czar Nicholas and his family.

  • CHICKENS IN THE ROAD is about the author's decision to move to a farm in rural West Virginia and build a new life there.

  • FIFTH AVENUE, 5 A.M. is solely an account of the making of Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The same goes for fiction. When writing your story, decide early on how you are going to limit the story's chronology and why. What is the point of the story? Why are you telling it? Why would readers be interested in it? As an example, if you are writing a historical fiction about Marie Antoinette and the point of your story is to focus on the lavish lifestyle she led, then you probably want your framing chronology to be from her arrival at Versailles as a bride-to-be to her expulsion from the palace during the French Revolution.

Once you decide on your boundaries, then you can also look for places where necessary backstory can be woven in as needed in key moments, since you will most likely need to share information outside these boundaries with your readers for context. Be sure that any backstory you do share is actually needed to move the story forward or create understanding—it is important to have a fast-paced, action-driven plot that will keep teens turning the page!

I recently did a story consultation for WriteOnCon with an author who is writing a YA historical fiction (FYI, I still have some available for purchase!). She wanted guidance about the time span covered in the manuscript and I thought sharing my response might help better illustrate what I'm talking about:

Anyway, that's my advice for December! Let me know if you have any questions or thoughts in the comments below. Happy holidays! I'll be back in 2020!

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