“Timing is everything” applies as much to fiction as anything else. It’s too late once the wave hits, the leaves fall, or the sun sets or rises, and too early isn’t much better. Timing is a powerful ally—or enemy.
Which factors affect a novel’s timing?
~ Starting too early.
No harm in writers warming up, setting the scene, submerging first toe, then ankle, then thigh into the dark cold of the empty page. If you must, write down what you’re thinking. Then cut. Mercilessly. Novels start with the inciting incident that propels the entire book forward and not with the backstory, context, or status quo leading to the inciting incident. The same applies to scenes. Begin in medias res, or in the middle of the action or tension.
~ Minimizing the best moment.
Like everyone else, writers frequently abhor conflict. Who wants to cause trouble, feel lousy, or send someone else there? But readers await that very tension. As Charles Baxter reminds, “Hell is story friendly.” Offer heated arguments, enflamed accusations, and burning lust or envy. Fire up your characters, then let readers watch the desperate attempts to stamp out the fire. Wait for the moment of most intense passion, then deliver it. Slowly and seductively.
~ Resolving too soon.
Few novelists enjoy torturing their beloved creations with misery, misfortune, or misanthropy. Rather than watch characters suffer, particularly the protagonist, writers often assume a gently maternal attitude. Let’s make things better. As soon as possible. Readers, though, want just the opposite. It’s not sadistic to find character struggle spellbinding. After all, how the protagonist changes and wins, who saves the day and how—isn’t that the entire basis for the novel? So, within each scene, wait for the moment of greatest conflict, and climax there.
~ Ending too early.
Just as the struggles the plot introduces need to play out till the end, the novel as a whole must let both the dilemmas and their solutions ripen. Harvest what’s immature, and nothing tastes good. When approaching the words “The End,” some novelists can’t wait to get it over with. But stop to consider the last novel you read that sagged at its conclusion. Wait until it’s time to let go, and then do.
~ Ending too late.
But don’t wait too long. Fruit satisfies when plucked at just the right moment, neither grabbed too soon, nor left to shrivel. Wait until you’ve nourished all the tension, and all the character change this provoked. Then stop.
Timing is tricky because so many factors urge us to wait too long or not long enough. Think about your audience. Imagine yourself as reader rather than writer. There’s no better way to discern when the moment’s right.
Tip: Time is a crucial, too frequently dismissed element of fiction.