How I Write – Concordance

1 03 2011

Many years ago, I read a series of essays by Stephen King, where he explained out what a writer’s concordance was, and how every writer should have one.  I will be eternally grateful for that advice, and for Stephen King, actually.  Good writing comes from good reading, and Stephen King is a great writer.  He crafts at his trade, and anyone who has raw talent, as he does, and who then also crafts, will write well.  And if you are Stephen King, at times, you will write brilliantly.  Likewise, as he also comments, if you have no talent, no matter how hard you will work, and craft, you will never get there.  No matter how hard he crafts at guitar, says Stephen, he will always be a mediocre guitar player – no talent.

But for writing, he had talent, and then added craft.  And part of that craft, is a good concordance.  The side dish book to your main book.  The one with the timelines, character studies, and various details of your story as you go along.  The place you stick all the research and somesuch stuff you need, to flesh out your narrative and your characters.

The place where your timeline is.  A timeline is vital to good crafting.  If you don’t have a timeline for your narrative, you’re making work for yourself, and perhaps for your editor.  Even, if like Hitchcock, you excel in narratives that take place within the space of four consecutive days, you need a clear timeline.  Writing can eat  up time on the page.  You can spend months on one scene, which, in the linear timeline of the narrative, is only  three hours.  Equally, you can flip past six months, with one paragraph, or even a line.

Characters move around a physical world, and many writers do a great deal of research, on the geography of their narrative. Both internal – shape and layout of buildings, and external – streets, cities, journeys between them.  But often, oh far too often, time is missing from their calculations.  Characters move in space, but not in time.  From the simplest mistakes where protagonist A takes 20 minutes to get half way across London in the middle of the rush hour… to no mention at all of seasons.  Nothing makes me wince more when reading, than for the protagonist to walk around a city for a year or so, and the writer never mentioning the change in seasons.    There seems to be a sort of ‘need only’ mention of time and/or season in a lot of modern narrative works.  If there is a causative effect to be noted, that feeds into the narrative structure – ten hours to defuse the bomb, 18 hours to make the plane connection, summer holiday trip so gasp in the heat – then it will be mentioned.  Otherwise, time is absent.

Take time out on the micro level, then you can get the sort of inconsistencies that flare up to the reader, and can get in the way of the reading.  I once gave up on a thriller, when the main spy hadn’t stopped to eat or drink for 36 hours.  Food, and drink, needs to be happening regularly for human beings, or they fall over.  Certainly, narrative can be constructed where you don’t have to mention it, or make it specific, but in general, if someone is hurtling across a new city they’ve never been in, and chasing someone whom they weren’t prepared to chase the scene earlier, then how to grab food and drink in order to stay alive might just be a feature.

As an aside, how to get rid of said food and drink a few hours later might also be a feature, but I digress.

On the macro, not having a clear sense of timeline can be catastrophic to a narrative.  Especially if you have a lot of characters and a lot of time going on, across your narrative arc.  Editors will usually pick up major problems, such as your main protagonist being 9 years old when they got married, according to the dates you give for their later divorce… and believe me, such mistakes happen, a lot… but there are deeper issues to be had, from being clear in your own head where and when a character happened to be at any given date.  History happens around us, and a level of verisimilitude to be gained, or lost, by ignoring this.  So a timeline is pretty vital for your character, especially during the narrative arc of the novel in question.  Keeping a tab on where, when and how your characters meet, and how they all move around each other is incredibly useful.  It also allows you to flesh out detail when you are stuck for ways to break your own barriers around the text.  A meeting in the park in March in London, is going to be a different meeting to one in the same park in September.  As I said, verisimilitude for the taking…

So your concordance should have a clear timeline – just a sketch.  Nothing too unwieldy, or detailed – don’t fall into the research hole – but an outline that makes sense to you, and will save you… ahem… time… as you go.

A timeline is the spine of a concordance.  You attach to it, all the bits you need for your characters.  Their biographies – where they were born, what their family life was like, any major thing, good or bad, that happened to them.  Character outlines should centre on that character.  Who they are to themselves,  not just how they are seen by the main protagonist, or another major player. If you only see them through the eyes of the major players, they will probably remain two dimensional to the reader.  Fleshed characters have history and internal motivation of their own.  A few sentences can flesh out the sparest of characters.  Some writers have very detailed descriptions of their characters, and include photographs and images from magazines that suggest that character to them.  Others ‘see’ them as established actors, and note that on their biographies.  It’s about what works for you, and saves you time, and effort. A character does not need a detailed description, but if you work that way, making sure that description is written out clearly, can give you a pathway through on actually putting one word in front of the other, when you’ve stalled on something boring you have to get through.  Makes the character more alive for you – and that will reflect in the writing.

A danger point in a concordance, is putting too much in, and playing too long on the details that are never going to make it into the actual narrative.  My way of coping with this, is to keep research in research files, not my concordance.  My concordance is only for timeline and character biographies.  Your mileage will likely vary.  Even ‘tho I’ve used computers for years now, I also make sure I print off my concordance files, and put them in a folder on the shelf.  This has saved me, at times, from losing stuff I’d done and left to one side.  I recently had to recover 5 minor biographies that I’d done from heavy book research in a library and put in an old Word file that had not survived three conversions as I’d upgraded the computers.  I did finally crack it open, but knew that if all else failed, somewhere in the packed boxes from our recent house move, I had a paper copy in the file labelled “Concordance”.

If you have your own concordance for all your narrative work, you’re probably looking at this post and thinking.. gosh, how boring, you don’t need to say that, it’s so obvious.  But I remember how I felt, when I read Stephen King’s words all those years ago, and know that someone is reading this and going “Of course, why didn’t I think of that…. ”  đź™‚  Have fun, working on your own.  And who knows, in this day and age, you might one day be preparing your concordance for publication.  The reader may want it all!




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