Engineers and managers are all familiar with the concept of the Critical Path in a chart of the workflow on a project: it is the set of things which have to be done in a particular order and sequence to get to the end of the project, and for which there is no possible alternative.
For example, you can’t put up the walls of a house until the foundation and the floor over it is in (don’t get creative on me – the effort to build the walls first, and then create a foundation etc. – familiar to those tasked with moving an old house – is the exception which proves (TESTS) the rule).
This concept helps a lot when writing a scene.
Words appear on a book’s pages in linear order (again, don’t get cute on me with ‘pick your own adventure’ stories and embedded links in new-style ebooks). Movies start at the first frame – and you watch them in order. Life proceeds along a timeline, second by second. Chronological is the logical order for putting stories into a mind.
It seems obvious. But when assembling a scene out of pieces, all the results of brainstorming, all the things in your conception of the book which somehow ‘belong’ in this scene, the critical path (CP) becomes the structure to build on.
Bob can’t say to Janet: “I like your red hat” until Janet comes in, wearing the hat.
Janet can’t think: ‘Bob is an idiot for liking this horrible hat’ or ‘Bob is a sweetheart who always says he likes my hat’ until Bob says something.
Critical paths can’t be shortened unless individual segments within them can be shortened. For example, it takes a team of three Amish brothers ten days to build a tiny house on a trailer, because it takes three days to prepare the trailer. If, instead, the trailer could be ordered ready-to-build, without the extra metal bits it takes the Amish brothers three days to remove with welding tools and metal grinding tools, then the house will take seven days to build.
Critical paths are segments which, laid end to end, form the SHORTEST path through the project. In a well-run project, all other parts will be done in parallel, so as to be ready when needed. Just like on a project workflow chart, making an actual timeline is useful when a scene seems stuck.
Once the critical path = the minimum required path = the shortest path is laid out, other things can run in parallel (such as actions going on in the background of a movie).
A chronological consideration for scenes is: How long does the scene take in real time? If there is an action scene in which timing is critical, things happen one after another – and there may not be time to insert long paragraphs of thought, not only because the characters are busy, but also because even thoughts take time – and the time isn’t there.
I lay the scene out with the CP composed of actions and dialogues first, because those things take ‘actual’ time. Then I decide where to put the critical path pieces of introspection from the pov character, those which are crucial to the story, which occur in a fuzzier ‘inner’ or ‘thought’ time. This forms the skeleton of the scene. A read-through should confirm all essential pieces are included, and the scene makes sense.
Only then do I find places for the other necessary pieces of the scene – the bits that have to go in this scene somewhere. Setting, description, backstory, foreshadowing, voice and style, characterization and theme. And try to get the words right.
Then I read and edit for flow. I read it out loud if I’m not sure. I compare to the pov character’s other scenes for consistency.
The rest is art, and can’t always be justified precisely in the logical world (and shouldn’t be).
But with the CP underpinning, the scene has a fighting chance not to set off the reader’s ‘Wait a minute – that doesn’t make any sense’ detectors. Or mine.
It helps with brain fog. Does anyone else write this way?