Time and Causality
November 13, 2020
by Yuly Restrepo
I’ve been thinking about time lately. During this pandemic, it doesn’t seem to pass in any way that most of us are familiarized with, but in my writing, I haven’t been much of an experimenter with it. I’ve considered myself a pretty traditional writer, and this includes the treatment of time. Many of my stories used to be linear and chronological. Then a couple of years ago, I wrote a story about a woman who has visions, and one of them is about her own future death. The story was very different from anything I’d written before (I don’t tend to do paranormal or speculative stuff either), but the experience of putting it together was so magical that I told myself I should start playing with time more.
This brings me to the novel I’m working on now. It’s told from three different points of view, during time periods that sometimes overlap in the narratives and sometimes don’t. The first draft had each point of view be its own separate part, and for a long time, I was convinced this was how it should be structured. Then an agent I queried suggested that I do something with the book so that the first part wouldn’t give away what happens in the second and the third. I started to interweave all the points of view, and the biggest challenge was making them fit together, even if each character was narrating something that happened in a completely different period. I spent a long time doing this, but I think it’s coming together.
Another way to think about time in fiction is through causality. I was very worried about the fact that a reader might perceive two of the events that occur in the novel as coincidences too major to be believed. I like the coincidences myself, and these particular events were some of the first things I envisioned for the book. I also think coincidences in general can propel fiction in very interesting ways, but I still worried. Then last week, I watched an interview with Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite writers. I have a notebook full of stuff she’s said. During this particular interview, which was conducted to promote her new novel, Jack, she was asked about Predestination (she’s a Calvinist), and as part of her answer, she said, “causality is utterly mysterious. It might be predictable, but not necessary. There is no necessity that makes events fall the way they do.” As someone whose strength in writing (at least as far as my professors were concerned) is plotting, and for whom, because of it, causality has been drilled into her head, this was absolutely refreshing and eye opening. And so today I feel a bit more comfortable with the way time unfolds in the new structure of my novel, and with the dash of chaos that these coincidences bring into its causality.