Patterns in Time: Character Lifelines and Story Structure

By Lisabet Sarai

When I’m reading or critiquing fiction, I find myself particularly sensitive to the temporal structure of the story—the flow of events through time. Effective structure provides a feeling of unity, even if the story does not follow Aristotle’s strict definitions (one action thread, one location, a time span of no more than one day). In a well-structured tale, each event links strongly to the others. Each scene contributes to the whole. Characters grow and change according to organic, believable trajectories. The plot may be intricate and complex, but the resulting impression is one of satisfying coherence.

In contrast, poorly structured fiction may include unexplained gaps, extraneous events, unsettling jumps from one time to another or one character to another, shifts of perspective that don’t tie back into the overall narrative. Another characteristic that reflects poor structure is a story that continues long after it should have ended, dawdling along when the conflicts have already been resolved and the outcomes are no longer in doubt.

The skill with which an author structures her work has a major impact on my enjoyment. Yet this is an aspect of craft not often discussed. In this post, I want to consider some of the different patterns a story may take through time, suggesting when or why you might want to adopt each one. I’ll also consider the potential pitfalls in each approach.

Let me begin by defining story structure. In my view, story structure is the ordering of events that affect characters, as they are presented in the story. This includes potential shifts between focus characters. Two stories might have the same basic plot and characters but employ very different structures. Consider, example, the recently revived fairy tale Cinderella.

Structure 1: Cinderella’s father remarries, then dies. Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters relegate her to the role of kitchen slave. A herald arrives at the door announcing the Prince’s ball. The evil step-family heads to the ball, leaving the ash-smeared girl crying at home. Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears to comfort the girl and provide the necessary fashions and transportation for Cinderella to attend the ball, where the Prince is smitten and waltzes with her all evening. At the stroke of midnight, as the enchantment dissolves, Cinderella flees, but leaves her glass slipper behind. The love-lorn Prince appears at Cinderella’s home, searching for the mysterious beauty by trying the slipper on each young woman in the kingdom. The shoe fits and Cinderella’s identity is revealed. She marries the Prince and they live happily ever after.

Structure 2: Cinderella scrubs the pots in the scullery. She hears the royal secretary knock on her step-mother’s front door and announce the Prince’s search for the mysterious beauty who fled from him at midnight. Cinderella remembers in wistful detail her triumph at the ball, the thrill of dancing in the Prince’s arms and the terror at having her lowly identity revealed at midnight. She listens at the kitchen door as the step-sisters fail to fit the slipper. Gathering her courage, she emerges and requests a chance to try on the shoe. Her lovely little foot slips into the crystal slipper, the Prince claims her as his bride and they live happily ever after.

Structure 3: It is the day after the ball. The Prince muses in his room, refusing to eat, remembering the gorgeous young woman who fled from him at midnight. A retainer arrives, telling him about finding the isolated crystal slipper on the road leading away from the castle. Meanwhile, Cinderella is scrubbing pots in the kitchen, sighing at the recollection of her prince, sadly sure she will never see him again. She hears his voice outside in the parlor as he arrives at her step-mother’s home with the shoe. Gathering her courage, she emerges from the kitchen and asks to try the shoe. The Prince recognizes her immediately, before she’s even made the attempt. He sweeps her into his arms for a kiss, claims her as his bride, and whisks her away to the palace where they live happily ever after.

The three examples above represent three frequently-encountered temporal patterns. Structure 1 is linear. The events are presented more or less in the order they occurred. Furthermore there is a single focus character, Cinderella.

Structure 2 is what I call a loop-back. The story begins part way through the temporal sequence of events, then via a recollection or a flashback, recounts earlier events that led up to the present, before moving on. Once again, there’s a single focus character.

Structure 3 illustrates a parallel structure, in addition to a loop back. There are two focus characters. The narrative shifts from one to the other and back. In this example, the events experienced by each character are concurrent (that is, they cover the same basic stretch in time), but parallel structures can also be used for temporally disparate events, as long as there’s a strong logical or emotional connection between the two event streams. For example, my novel Incognito uses a parallel structure in which Miranda’s sexual adventures in the present time mirror the confessions she reads in Beatrice’s Victorian-era diary.

Even given the mere outlines above, a reader gets a different feeling from each structure. The first follows the simple, traditional course of a fairy tale. Each event triggers the next in a sequence. The second, in contrast, feels more modern, and perhaps, more interesting. If one were not already familiar with this plot, this structure might generate more suspense. The third structure produces a major shift in intent. The Prince changes from a mere appendage to the plot, the medium for realizing Cinderella’s dreams, to a character in his own right. The parallel time streams, if implemented with skill, could have the reader wondering whether, in fact, the two characters’ goals and desires will converge. (If, like me, you’d recently enjoyed the film “Into the Woods”, you’d recognize that this convergence might not be inevitable!)

These three basic structures can be combined and ramified, especially in longer work. In the hands of a skillful author, temporal patterns can become very complicated indeed (consider Audrey Niffenegger’s astonishing novel, The Time-Traveler’s Wife). On the other hand, playing too fast and loose with the ordering of events can produce a narrative disaster, confusing your readers and diluting the impact of your stories.

When might you want to use each of these basic structures? The comments below are suggestions, not rules, and represent my personal observations.

Linear structures work well for shorter work, for instance stories in the 3,000 to 5,000 word range. In these cases, you usually don’t have the word count to get fancy with time. Your focus is on your characters, their crisis and its resolution. Furthermore, in this sort of work, it’s often best to take Aristotle’s advice in stride and keep all the events within a relatively short time span—an evening, a day, a week at most. Short stories where there are large temporal gaps between scenes often feel awkward to me. The breaks in the action dissipate the story’s emotional intensity. What’s happening to the characters during those lapses in time? Has the crisis been somehow suspended?

Linear structure can also be applied in novel-length work, especially when maintaining suspense is important. If you write a novel in the present tense (difficult but something I’ve attempted several times), linear (or parallel linear) structure is the only possibility, since readers are experiencing the events at the same time as the character(s).

A linear structure offers the overarching advantage of clarity. It’s also simple to construct and to implement. Most novice authors intuitively use linear patterns when they begin writing. This is the structure most often found in oral storytelling, part of our ancestral roots.

The main risk in using a linear structure is boredom on the part of the reader. To avoid this, it’s important to select and describe only the events that truly contribute to the story, and to continually build tension toward the (narrative) climax. With a linear story, it’s also critical to recognize when to end the story, as noted above. Once the main conflict has been resolved, end quickly. You do not necessarily have to tie up every single loose end.

The loop-back pattern works really well in short fiction because it immediately throws the reader into the action. The initial scene, which needs some dramatic intensity to be effective, can snag the reader’s curiosity and trigger her questions, questions which will be resolved during the loop back to explain the genesis of the situation. I use this pattern a lot in my own work. For example, my story The Last Amanuensis, recently released by Fireborn Publishing, begins as follows:

My hands no longer tremble when I pierce his papery skin. I’ve learned how much force to apply, how to tilt the hollow needle just enough to fill the tiny wound with color without blurring the line. I know what he can bear. I can read the change in his breathing that tells me he needs a break.

He’s reached that point now. I straighten from my awkward position, crooked over his bared buttocks, and set the gleaming apparatus down on the bedside table next to the flickering candles. With Preceptors on patrol twenty-four hours a day, we dare not risk the gas lamps.

“Some water, sir?”

Moving with care so as to not to smudge my work, he twists to take the glass from my gloved hand and drains the contents. “Thank you, Adele.” The weariness in his voice sets up an ache under my sternum. Seeing what it costs him, I would dissuade him from this endeavor if I could. I’ve also learned, though, that it is useless is to argue with the professor when he has set his mind on something. 


Hopefully, at this point, I’ll have the reader wondering. Who are these characters? What are they doing and why? Who are the Preceptors?

In this story, I use about 1000 of the 5000 words in the first scene. The next 2000 words explain the genesis of this relationship and situation, bringing the narrative up to the present (the time when the story starts). The final 2000 words move the tale forward toward its climax and resolution.

However, there are a variety of potential pitfalls in using this pattern. Balancing back story with forward action is probably the most serious problem. If the loop back takes too long or involves too much detail, the reader may lose the sense of immediacy evoked by the initial scene. One solution is to use multiple, shorter loop backs. This can work but risks confusing the reader.

Novel-length works frequently include loop backs/flashbacks to provide background on events or characters. The impact of these backward-looking sections depends on their frequency and length, but the same caveats apply. It’s important not to lose forward momentum. A novel usually has a more complex and detailed plot, so narrative trips back into the past may not have as much of a noticeable effect on structure or the corresponding impression of the readers, but there are exceptions. John Le Carré’s book A Perfect Spy, which I recently finished, flits back and forth across a period of about fifty years in the life of the main character. This could have been extremely confusing, but Le Carré made it work, gradually revealing the experiences that had brought his protagonist to his present state. 

Parallel structure is most effective in longer works, depending as it does on the existence of at least two focus characters or subplots. Usually (though not always), one of the event strands will be primary, while the other will provide a mirroring or contrasting perspective. Parallel structures are fairly common in romance, with alternating chapters offering the heroine’s and hero’s points of view. Books that provide contemporary plus historical narratives (like Incognito) offer another frequently encountered example.

What are the problems with writing parallel structures? Consistency can be one issue, at least in stories where two characters experience the same or related events. (Of course, a skilled author might deliberately introduce inconsistencies in order to reveal certain aspects of the characters.) Balance is another potential problem. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, parallel narrative threads do not necessarily have to have equal weight—length or thematic importance—but once the author has made a decision about the intended weight, she needs to be careful that one thread does not assume more importance than planned. In traditional romance, for instance, the heroine’s perspective tends to be more emphasized than the hero’s, even when the narrative alternates between them. If the hero’s story begins to take over, this may weaken the book.

One of my goals in writing this article is to point out how important it is to understand the temporal patterns we authors choose, not just in order achieve the effects we want, but also so we can recognize when we’re violating our own decisions. Extraneous scenes, time gaps, unmotivated shifts of focus and similar issues become easier to detect when we have some idea of the pattern we’re aiming for.

I don’t mean to suggest that story structure is always the result of a conscious decision. However, I’ve learned that when a story feels somehow wrong—awkward, flat, without a clear point—the structure is often to blame. Sometimes, playing with patterns in time, experimenting with a different structure, can dramatically improve the impact of your writing.

In Praise of Grammar

By Lisabet Sarai

I recently reread a favorite book from
my youth, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Originally published
in 1868, it is considered to be an early classic of detective
fiction. An unscrupulous British officer stationed in India plucks
the Moonstone, a massive diamond, from the forehead of a Hindu idol
and carries it back to England. Misfortune, reputed to be the effects
of a curse, dogs the man until his death, whereupon the gem becomes a
bequest to his niece upon her eighteenth birthday. On the very night
Rachel receives the stone, however, it disappears from her bedroom.
Broken engagements, assaults, scandal, madness, illness, despair and
death follow, as the mystery becomes increasingly tangled.

The first time I read The Moonstone,
I was caught up in the story. That was long before I began my career
as a writer. During this more recent reading, I found myself at least
as conscious of Collins’ style and craft as I was of the plot.

The novel unfolds in sections narrated
by different individuals, each of whom (according to the framing
conceit of the tale) has been asked to report on the events he or she
personally witnessed relating to the loss of the diamond. Some of
the narrators are major actors in the mystery, while others are
peripheral. Collins does a magnificent job giving each one a
distinctive voice. The various sections not only propel the plot,
reveal clues and cleverly misdirect the reader’s attention, they also
create surprisingly three dimensional images of the characters –
their motivations, prejudices and peculiarities. My pleasure upon
this second reading of the book came as much from appreciating these
unwitting self-portraits as from the gradual unraveling of the
secrets of the stone. And much of the richness of these vignettes
derives from the characters’ differing use of language.

The experience started me thinking
about the wonders of English grammar. Victorian prose tends to be far
more complex grammatically than what you will find in modern novels.
Sentences are longer, with multiple clauses, adverbial modifiers,
rhetorical questions and parenthetical asides. Of course, some
authors of the period produced sentences so pedantic and labored that
they’re painful to read. A more skilled writer (like Collins) uses
these linguistic variations to express nuanced relationships that
would be difficult to communicate with shorter, more direct

Consider the following passage, chosen
more or less at random. The narrator (Franklin Blake) is a young
gentleman, educated in Europe, and hopelessly in love with Rachel.

I might have
answered that I remembered every word of it. But what purpose, at
that moment, would the answer have served?

How could I tell
her that what she had said had astonished me and distressed me, had
suggested to me that she was in a dangerous state of nervous
excitement, had even roused a moment’s doubt in my mind whether the
loss of the jewel was as much a mystery to her as to the rest of us –
but had never once given me so much as a glimpse of the truth?
Without the shadow of a proof to produce in vindication of my
innocence, how could I persuade her that I knew no more than the
veriest stranger could have known of what was really in her thoughts
when she spoke to me on the terrace?

Complex indeed! We have both simple
past (“I remembered”, “I knew”) and past perfect (“had
said”, “had astonished”, “had suggested”). Blake is
describing a past conversation with Rachel, in which they discussed
another conversation that occurred the day after the diamond
disappeared (a time previous to the first conversation). Even more
intricate are the connections between facts and the counter-factual
or hypothetical, both in the simple past (“might have”, “could
I”) and more distant past (“could have known”). The tense
inflections and adverbial modifiers elucidate relationships not only
between different stretches of time but also different degrees of

How many of us could pen a paragraph so
complicated and yet so clear?

As an exercise, I tried to translate
the passage above into simpler, more modern prose.

I could have told
her I remembered every word. But I doubt she would have believed me.

I could have said
that she astonished and distressed me. She had been in a dangerous
state of nervous excitement. I had even wondered whether she really
knew more about the loss of the jewel than the rest of us. But when
we spoke, she hadn’t given me the slightest hint of the truth. Since
I had no proof of my innocence, there was no way I could convince her
that during our conversation on the terrace her accusations were as
much a mystery to me as they would have been to a stranger.

Even this reworking requires the past
and past perfect. There’s no way to get around them, since the
distinction between the first and second conversations is crucial to
the sense of the paragraph. I didn’t manage to completely remove
counter-factual expressions (“could have”,”would have been”),
either. If I had, significant chunks of meaning would have been lost.
As it is, I feel that the translation doesn’t begin to compare with
the original in terms of expressing subtleties of both logic and

Authors today have a tendency to view
grammar as a necessary evil, a set of incomprehensible rules designed
to trip them up as they proceed in telling their story. I look at it
differently. Grammatical structures (and punctuation) exist in order
express linguistic distinctions. As writers, we’re fortunate. English
is capable of communicating a bewildering variety of such
distinctions, in wonderfully precise ways.

By comparison, I’ve been studying a
foreign language where there’s no grammatical difference between
present and past tense, or between singular or plural, a language
without articles or grammatical mechanisms for indicating that
something is contrary to fact. Native speakers manage to understand
one another, but I find the language frustrating in its lack of

I’m sorry to see the changes that are
stripping English of some of its grammatical richness. One rarely encounters the subjunctive anymore, even in written communication.
Semi-colons are practically extinct. Indeed, one of my publisher’s
house style prohibits them, along with parenthetical asides.

Since I began publishing, my own
writing has followed the popular trends. I’ve learned to limit
subordinate clauses to no more than one or two per sentence. I’ve
been trained to avoid long passages in the past perfect and to eschew
adverbs. I won’t say that my writing has necessarily suffered; my
early work definitely tends to be overly prolix. Still, I sometimes
feel like rebelling against the starkness and simplicity of modern

When that happens, I sometimes write
something pseudo-Victorian. Here, for instance, is a passage from
Incognito, ostensibly from a Victorian woman’s secret diary:

I scarcely know
how to begin this account of my adventures and my sins. Indeed, I do
not fully understand why I feel compelled to commit these things to
writing. Clearly, my purpose is not to review and relive these
experiences in the future, for in twenty minutes’ time these
sentences will be invisible even to me. Perhaps in the years ahead, I
will trail my fingers across the empty parchment, coloured like
flesh, and the memories will come alive without the words, coaxed
from the pages by my touch like flames bursting from cold embers.

I have a secret
life, another self, and that secret has become a burden that I clutch
to myself, and yet would be relieved of. So, like the Japanese who
write their deepest desires on slips of rice paper and then burn
them, I write of secret joys and yearnings, and send that writing
into oblivion.

Let me begin
again. My name is Beatrice. The world sees me as poised, prosperous,
respectable, wife of one of Boston’s leading merchants and
industrialists, mother of two sweet children, lady of a fine brick
house on fashionable Mount Vernon Street, with Viennese crystal
chandeliers, Chinese porcelain, French velvet draperies, and Italian
marble fireplaces. I devote myself to the education of my dear Daniel
and Louisa, the management of my household, works of charity,
cultural afternoons. In sum, the many and sundry details of
maintaining oneself in proper society.

Though I have
borne two children, I am still considered beautiful. Indeed, with my
golden locks, fair skin, turquoise eyes and rosy lips, I am often
compared to an angel. How little they know, those who so describe me.
For in truth, I am depraved, wanton, and lecherous, so lost that I do
not even regret my fall.

Ah, the glorious grammar!

Am I the only one out there aroused by
this structural intricacy, as artful and constraining as shibari?

Photo by Dirty Diana

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

By Lisabet SaraiSally and Harry live on opposite coasts. Although they work in the same field, they’ve never met. At the conclusion of a professional conference both have attended, Sally discovers her plane home has been canceled, so she decides to stay another night in the luxurious conference hotel. Harry resides only an hour’s drive away, but after the intensive socializing of the conference, he’s disinclined to go back to his lonely bachelor apartment.Nursing a beer in the hotel bar, Harry can’t help but notice the unusual woman sitting by herself at a corner table. He introduces himself and offers to buy her a drink. Before long they’re chatting as if they’d been friends for years. Sally is charmed by Harry’s chocolate-brown eyes and infectious laugh. Harry finds his companion’s outspoken intelligence as much a turn-on as her voluptuous figure. Conversation gradually morphs into flirtation and then into outright groping. They adjourn to Sally’s room and have the most incredibly pleasurable, mind-blowing sex in either’s experience. Waking the next morning, entwined in each other’s arms, they make slow, sensuous love. Sally gives Harry her business card before rushing off to catch her plane.Ending A: Harry returns to work, but he can’t get Sally out of his mind. He calls and she tells him that he’s been in her thoughts, too. Harry doesn’t believe in love at first sight, but he can’t argue with his heart, which tells him that Sally is as close to a soul mate as he’s ever going to find. He takes a leave of absence from his job, books a flight to her city, and shows up at her door at 2 AM, begging her to let him into her life. Sally’s joy at seeing him overwhelms her irritation at being rudely awakened. She drags him into her bedroom, where they have loud, passionate sex. As Harry is coming, he blurts out a proposal of marriage.Ending B: Harry returns to work. His whole world seems brighter whenever he remembers his time with Sally. He thinks about calling her, but is leery of invading her privacy. As time goes on, his memory of her face fades, but he masturbates to the recollection of her uninhibited screams as she climaxed around his cock. A year later he attends the same conference and notices a note with his name on the message board. It turns out to be an invitation to Sally’s room.Either of these synopses might describe a story I’d written. I believe that I could make either outcome plausible, sexy, and emotionally satisfying. In my view, A and B describe parallel universes. You never know how a chance encounter will play out.In the eyes of many publishers, though – not to mention readers – A and B are far from equivalent. In the first resolution, Harry loves Sally and we presume that his feelings are reciprocated. No matter how often, how enthusiastically, and how explicitly the characters shag, the fact that there’s love involved somehow raises the tale to a higher plane. Story A is not a story about sex – it’s about love.Story B, some might argue, focuses more on appetite. Clearly Harry-B feels affection and concern for Sally-B – more, perhaps, than Harry-A, who barges into her life and drags her out of bed in order to declare his love. Both Harry-B and Sally-B appear to be content allowing their encounter to stand on its own, as one of those incandescent, magical connections that sex sometimes creates – although Sally-B seems inclined to try for a repeat performance. In story B, though, Love doesn’t enter into the equation, at least not overtly. Story B is erotica – or in the eyes of some, just plain smut.The two versions of the tale might feature an equal number of moans, shudders, licks, sucks, cocks and climaxes. Nevertheless, Story A will be viewed as more worthy and more socially acceptable than Story B – just because of the L-word.If you go to All Romance Ebooks/Omni Lit (, you find a list of categories in the left sidebar. One category is “Erotica”. Click on that link. You’ll find yourself at a page that tells explains you must log in before you can see any books in that category.On the other hand, you’ll also see categories like “GBLT”, “Multiple Partners” and “BDSM”. Out of curiosity, I chose the latter. This time there were lots of books listed, some of which appear to include fairly intense kink. But that’s okay, apparently, because the individuals involved love each other and are in a committed relationship.I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t make sense to me. Does love in some miraculous way sanctify and sanitize the sex? Don’t get me wrong. Love is a wonderful thing. I’ll agree that sexual experiences are frequently both more intense and more satisfying with a partner (or partners) whom you love. However, the division between erotic romance (where sexual partners declare their love) and erotica (where they don’t necessarily mention the L-word) strikes me as artificial. And the difference in status is just plain unfair.My first novel, Raw Silk, was written and originally marketed as erotica, by the late lamented Black Lace. It features a woman exploring her sexuality with three different men – plus a woman or two – trying to understand just what she really wants. The conclusion happens to fit romance conventions – sort of – in that Kate chooses the Master who has recognized and cultivated her desire for submission over her long-time lover from America or the charming, sexually-omnivorous Thai prince who’s been wooing her. However, the sexual variety in the book, not to mention the transgressive nature of many of its scenes, qualifies it as erotica, at least in my perspective.When the book went out of print, I resold it Total-E-Bound, where it has been reborn as erotic romance. Aside from some edits of vocabulary and punctuation, the book didn’t change. (Of course, by that time, Black Lace had re-branded its books as romance as well.)I had the same experience with my second novel Incognito, which presents an even wider range of sexual scenarios. Yes, there’s a burgeoning romance in Incognito, but it’s set against a backdrop of sex with strangers, ménage and swinging, BDSM, age play and pseudo-incest, lesbianism, homosexuality, cross dressing, exhibitionism… well, you get the picture. Yet by some strange quirk, Love makes it all okay.These days I deliberately choose to write erotic romance stories – at least sometimes – and I’ve had reasonable success publishing them (though not necessarily selling them!) I’m something of a romantic at heart anyway. I have to be honest, though, and admit that I prefer the greater freedom that comes with writing stories that will be labeled as erotica. Even though they don’t sell as well. Even though admitting that my characters don’t always fall in love will result in my books being hidden away behind the digital equivalent of a brown paper wrapper.Ironically, my erotica tends to be less physical and more emotionally nuanced that much of the explicit erotic romance I encounter. Even when writing romance, I sometimes find myself struggling to deliver the detailed, explicit sex scenes that seem to be popular with today’s romance readers. Go figure.I entered my user name and password at ARe, just to see what showed up in their erotica category. It’s an incredibly mixed bag. Porn-like titles such as Open Your Legs for My Family and Caught in a Werewolf Gangbang mingle with romancey titles like Keep Me Safe and Trust in Me. I noticed books by erotica authors I know and respect, as well as books where the blurb made it clear that the authors could use some serious editing help.Oh, and there were over 9000 entries. This made it pretty difficult to see whether my books showed up there. Somebody must be reading all these books, though. Certainly there are a good number of people writing them.Erotic romance readers have some pretty weird notions about erotica. They seem to believe that sexually explicit fiction, without love, is basically trash – without plot, character development, style or suspense. I’ve read dismissive, somewhat insulting blog comments evincing the opinion that, if there’s no love involved, it’s “just porn”.Sigh. As if writing porn were something anyone could do – with skill, at least.Sometimes I feel like shaking them. “What’s love got to do with it?” I’d say. “Not every sexual experience ends happily. Not every happy sexual experience results in an ever-after. Don’t you get bored knowing ahead of time how your stories end?”They don’t seem to get bored, any more than the folks who purchased Open Your Legs for My Family will be bored when they get hold of Bend Over for My Family.Maybe, as usual, I’m just asking for too much.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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