What You and I and Everyone Else Fixate About—And How to Exploit It.
How your stories here can make money off the passage of time.
Last week I wrote a piece I wrote for The Atlantic.
I struggled for quite a while trying to figure out the structure to impose on the piece. And that’s what I want to talk about today: How the passage of time is our obsessions and the source of any story’s richness.
In my reporting I saw how the story would need to be blocked around four periods of time: Jarrett Adams’ life, wrongful conviction, and eventual exoneration; the murder in Virginia, which occurred in 1998; Adams’ present-day efforts to free the men acquitted of the murder but nonetheless serving life sentences, as if they had done it; and the case law and story around that bizarre legal precedent.
As I flailed to structure it I thought about the stories I love that manipulate time brilliantly.
One was Atonement, Ian McEwan’s novel.
That story followed a girl, Briony Tallis, who witnessed a sexual assault and accused a 17-year-old boy, Robbie Turner, of committing the crime. Briony then began to have doubts about her accusation, which sent Turner to prison. The story spanned 60 years of Briony’s life but McEwan blocked it brilliantly. He structured it in episodes. Each was a clean break from the last, an entirely new story from a different vantage and point in time. And yet as that new story unspooled you saw how it connected to the previous episode; McEwan provided just enough to fill in the relevant details of the intervening years. All the while the new episode moved ahead with a propulsive force because it was a story in its own right, with a beginning, middle, and end, but now you were reading at a furious clip because McEwan had trained the reader to notice as well the larger story he was telling, the Ur story that connected all the episodes and trafficked in the universal truths of anger and regret and, by the end, the search for atonement, which in a nice twist could only be found through the mechanism of…telling Briony’s story.
It was the fastest 370 pages I’d read.
I wanted to block the Adams piece like that. Complete stories in themselves and clean breaks between them but the reader noticing how one…