Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Timing is Everything


by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine


A funny friend of mine used to love to say this joke:

"The most important thing when you're doing comedy is ... uh ... er ... timing!"

Well, it was funny when he said it.  

The inherent wisdom behind his witticism was that getting the time wrong throws things off-kilter. This isn't only true for punchlines, but for any kind of communication.  Perhaps even moreso when it's the written word.  Consider this passage:
Dan didn't know why he was waking up in a hospital bed.  One of the last things he remembered was talking to Eleanor and Bobby at the party.  He looked at his watch.  Almost 8.  He was in the mood for one more drink before he said goodnight.  A nurse then appeared at the doorway.  
If you were confused reading that, I was just as confused writing it.  Was Dan checking his watch at the party or at the hospital?  Did a nurse suddenly show up at the party?  It all becomes clear in context, but the reader isn't supposed to have to work that hard to sort it out.

Another example of off-timing is when mixing past and present tense:
Only after the plane took off did James realize his briefcase is back home on the dining room table.  In it were the wood samples that his entire presentation depends on.  It will require some clever ad-libbing to describe the different finishes he told Mr Shaw he'll have ready.
That's a pretty blatant example of terrible time-shifting.  In actual practice, opposing tenses tend to creep in much more subtly and stealthily, especially during dialogue segments.  Be on guard for "he said" and "he says" that try to share the same time frame.

Another time element that confuses many is the use of "was" versus "were" in statements such as:
"I wish I was homeward bound." (Simon & Garfunkel, 1966)
"I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner." (TV commercial, 1965)
Only one of these is correct.  Which one is it?

In matters of non-reality, such as a wish or other imagining, the verb "were" helps to clarify, removing it from the realm of possibility.  No one would say, "I were homeward bound," but a sentence that includes "I was" could be taken incompletely to suggest "I was an Oscar Meyer weiner."  So songs like "If I Were a Carpenter" were correctly titled, while "If I Was Your Woman" wasn't.

These common mistakes in time and tense are easy to make, but just as easy to fix.  Developing good timing will help ensure that your writing is clear and linear and that both you and your reader have a good time.


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