Minutes vs Moments: When Measurements Can Damage Your Storytelling

WHO’S READY FOR ANOTHER PASSIONATE AND NITPICKY POST?

This entire post–the whole freaking thing–is sponsored by the word: minutes.

I’m not going to give specific titles, as I don’t like being in the business of shaming authors, but there have been more than a few instances where I will be reading a scene and something like the following sentence happens:

He picked up the stone and was silent for a few minutes as he looked at it.

Okay. So, on its face, this is a fine sentence. It gets the point across–there is a pause while the character observes something. The issue I take with it, is that “a few minutes” is a staggeringly long time compared to what the author was likely going for (perhaps a few moments?). Let’s assume “a few” could even be interpreted as being as short as two minutes–120 seconds.

Now, feel free to listen to this video I found (which, yes, I did search “annoying 2 minute video” to make you see my point, sorry) and you let me know if you think 120 seconds is an appropriate amount of time for a character to exist in liminal space while they think of how to respond to another character. If you were talking to someone, and they abruptly stopped talking, after probably around 15 seconds you’d try to engage them again. Unless our character is looking at something of great detail or intricacy, I highly doubt he needs minutes to come to a general conclusion.

woman and man wearing brown jackets standing near tree
“You’ve been watching that bird for the past two Hozier songs, Elena. If you’re still not done, would you mind if I at least make a phone call?”

Exception! If a sentiment like this is followed by non-dialogue descriptors of the environment, or thoughts going through a character’s head, this is likely fine. It’s when it happens in the middle of an otherwise fast-paced scene or dialogue that it’s jarring and distracts readers (or maybe just me, pedantic asshole that I am).

Phew. Let me take a deep breath as I segue into the bigger point I’m building to, which is that exact measurements rarely add anything to the story, unless you are able to pull it off tone-wise (a la Dahl). Allow me to defend my claim.

Say we have this sentence in a book:

The corrugated metal sign was only two feet tall.

I see why the author has chosen this wording; they have a very precise estimation in their head of what said sign looks like and wish to project it exactly. But I would argue that this is almost never more powerful than other methods of description they could use:

The metal sign was low to the ground, and easy to miss.
The sign barely came above her knee, its serrated edges threatening to add more holes to her jeans.
Tall grass obscured the writing on the reflective sign, and bugs crawled freely on its face.

Not only do these convey the same idea, but they help set the scene more effectively than giving exact measurements. Instead of forcing numbers and estimations into the readers’ heads, instead find other ways to say what you will. Be wary when you fall back onto using units of measurement in your writing: feet, miles, cups, kilometers, pounds, cents– these words can act as red flags and give you an opportunity to be more lyrical.

P.S. As much as I just railed against these words, there is obviously never a set way to write. If you insist on writing with exact measurements, or it fits your tone better, or you just want to keep writing this way out of spite for me, then please do! I just wanted to address this topic for those who might be interested in observing their own writing style in a way they might not have considered before.

it’s a living #4

The coffee shop smells sophisticated, expensive, distant. During high school, I spent many weekend mornings here with friends, sipping coffee that technically my parents had paid for, and talking when we were supposed to be studying. It’s weird to be back now, hiding at a corner table with the least pricey drink on the menu and panicking at the thought of seeing someone I know. Ironic, since I am in fact here to see someone I know…  knew?

I fiddle with the the edge of my t-shirt, a They Might Be Giants shirt of Deanna’s. I’m barely familiar with They Might Be Giants, and it suddenly occurs to me that Gabrielle might ask me if I went to one of their concerts, or what my favorite song of theirs is, and I’ll have to say I’ve never listened to them, that I borrowed this shirt from my roommate because the two t-shirts I own are dirty because I spent my freetime yesterday figuring out if you could date the grim reaper in Sims.

Gabby’s late. Gabby’s always late. This is a fact I remember about her from high school, where apparently we were friends. I have memories that would seem to confirm this–going to see movies and staying up late playing videos games while she studied. Those memories are definitely there, but so foreign that I wonder if they’re actually mine, if they’re not from a me that doesn’t exist anymore. I think that might be right.

It’s only been a year, but the separation seems insurmountable. High school Kip had friends and homework and a future. It was a trade school future, according to several of my teachers, but still a future. Current Kip has one friend and a job at a gas station.

“Kip!”

The voice is loud. I remember that, too. She’s loud.

“Kip the Kid!” Gabrielle is standing in front of me, bouncing with the kind of glee and energy looks like it needs an outlet, so I stand up and give her a hug.

“Hey, Gabs.”

“Kip, Kip, Kip.” She says my name like it’s sharp and bright. “How are you, man? Oh my god I can’t wait to hear everything about what’s been going on with you, holy shit it’s been forever. Let me go get a coffee really quick, I’ll be right back.” She squeezes my arm and gives me a kiss on the cheek. That’s another thing she does, isn’t it? I forgot about that one. It always makes me feel like she’s one of those aunts who’s overly affectionate despite the fact that you only see them every other Christmas.

She comes back a couple minutes later with a big cup of something that smells amazing and has a pile of whipped cream on top. My milk-drenched dark roast looks anemic in comparison.

“Soooo, tell me everything that’s been happening. Did you end up doing the aviation maintenance program thing?”

“Uh, no. I uh, decided to take a gap year, you know?” Yes, good lie. Believable. “What about you? How’s college life treating you?”

“Oh my god it’s great. Like, hard, obviously, but awesome.” She sounds like she’s telling the truth.

I feel a pang of bitterness, jealousy. Don’t be like that, Kip.

Gabby wiggles in her seat and takes a sip of her fancy drink. “Tell me more about this gap year. Been doing anything fun? Traveling? You always said you wanted to travel.”

Travel. Ha. High school Kip really was a horse of a different color. “No, uh. I’ve mostly just been working? I moved out of my parent’s house, got a roommate.”

“Moved out? Aww, Lucy must miss you. How old is she now?”

“She’s uh, she’s…” There’s a half a second where I don’t know. I’ve been trying not to think about Lucy, about home in general, but to not know how old my baby sister is? The realization sends guilt coursing through my veins. “She’s two and a half.”

Wow. I remember when she was born. God, you loved her. Remember when you told your parents we had a snow day so that you could stay with her while she was still in the hospital? That was the cutest fucking thing.”

I smile. “Yeah. Good times.” Too good. “Tell me about your classes; have you decided on a major?”

Gabby takes off like a thoroughbred from the starting gate, well, I was thinking about psychology, it’s so interesting, you know, but something practical like business might be good too. It’s so hard to know… I let the words wash over me, imagine if my path had been similar, if I hadn’t fucked up so bad that I was sitting here, a year having passed, no plan, no money, not even a clean t-shirt to call my own. If I could have just kept it a secret a little longer. Stupid, stupid.

I make it about an hour before my lies begin to run out, before my heart is beating too fast and my hands begin to sweat. I tell her I need to get going, get ready for work.

“Sounds good! I’m gonna be home all summer, so we’ve definitely got to hang out some more. I wanna see your apartment!”

“It’s a dump, but you’re welcome anytime.”
She’s bouncing again as we stand up, and I wonder if I used to have that much energy. She gives me a parting hug, another kiss on the cheek. “Seriously, Kip. It’s great to see you. I’ve missed you.” So genuine. She’s always been so genuine.

“I’ve missed you too, Gabs. Let me know when you’re free, you can come over we can play some Mario Kart like old times.” My panicky side says, what are you doing, Kip? My lonely side replies, shut up.

“Only if you’re ready to have your ass kicked.”

“Mm, that’s not how I remember it.” Teasing, really? Like you’re actually friends.

“I guess we’ll have to find out.”

“Guess we will.”

She salutes me. “May the best man win.” Walks out.

And then I’m standing there, hyper-aware of what I’ve just done. This was supposed to be in-and-out, a weird intersection with my past, and then a permanent goodbye. Not a re-introduction to it. Fuck.  

it’s a living #3

Trigger warnings at the end. Please take care of yourself. 

Anxiety overtakes my bloodstream without permission: the pounding pulse on my wrist traces back to my throbbing heart, the heat on the back of my neck and cheeks is a heat that reminds me that I am not in control, not over my thoughts, not over my body. Anxiety climbs to the surface of my skin in the form of beat-red cheeks, a physical, burning presence that doesn’t allow me to keep my panic private.

Not that it matters right now, as I sit at the kitchen counter and stare at the microwave clock, watch the colon between the hour and the minute blink. It beats slower than my pounding blood, too slow, like it doesn’t understand the direness of the situation, the direness of the information it portrays.

It’s 8:37 a.m. on my day off, and Deanna was supposed to be home thirty-seven minutes ago. I woke up twenty-two minutes ago, realized she wasn’t home, and was able to convince myself she was fine for about five minutes before I ran out of safe, non-life-threatening reasons why she would be late. Maybe she missed the subway and was waiting for the next one–unlikely, she said that her boss was going to let her off with plenty of time because it was a special occasion. Maybe she got stopped by a person giving away tracts–she told me once that she liked to argue with them if she was having a bad day. But surely not even doomsday criers were handing out propaganda at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday. From there the possibilities deteriorated: she got hit by a car, she was mugged, someone bombed the subway, some creepy dude watched her serve drinks all night, followed her when she left, and–

Not even I, a veritable expert at imagining the worst, want to finish that thought.

Then, selfish selfish selfish, my thoughts turn to me. If she’s dead in an alley, what will I do without her? I can’t afford this rent by myself, even if it is the shittiest apartment in the world. Where am I going to find a new roommate? I can’t live in my car, I don’t have a car. Deanna promised she was going to teach me how to file my taxes. If she’s dead in an alley, who the fuck is going to teach me how to do taxes?

By the time the door swings open at 9:07, I’ve worked myself into such a frenzy that my first thought is robber and not oh, there she is.

She enters triumphant, with more enthusiasm in her smile than I think I’ve ever seen. It’s almost enough to make me forget my full hour of spiraling. “Sup, my dude! Sorry about the wait, but I had to stop and get breakfast for this very special day! I thought about cooking, but then I remembered that I can’t cook for shit, so it’s greasy diner food for you.”

I just stare at her, can’t even conjure up a response. I had fully convinced myself that she was dead, had already made a plan for how I was going to survive on the streets, and then she has the nerve to show up very much not dead.

She throws the bags on the counter and begins to open up takeout boxes. “We got scrambled eggs, we got bacon, we got hashbrowns, we got pancakes and waffles cause I wasn’t sure which way you swung, we got… hm… I don’t know what that is.” She looks up at me, smiles again, and then some of it slips off as her eyes scan my face. “You okay?”

Don’t you dare, I tell myself. “Yeah.”

“Rough morning?”

I shake my head. “Nah, I’m good.” I reach over and grab a slice of bacon. “Thanks for breakfast.”

“Yeah, of course. And hey, happy birthday!”

I bob my head, still trying to get my words back after the only sound I had been hearing was the pounding of blood in my ears. Start small. “I’m more of a waffle guy.”

Trigger warnings: anxiety attacks, brief mention of rape. 

it’s a living #2

“We should get a pet.” Deanna studies the array of nail polishes in front of her, then selects a light blue and holds it up for me to examine.

I stick out my hand at her artistic mercy. “I don’t wanna mom you here, but you are definitely not responsible enough for a pet.”

“Ridiculous. I house you and feed you–”
“I make dinner most nights–”

She pokes the nail brush in my face. “Don’t talk back to me, young man.”

Don’t talk back to me. The memory is there, for just a moment, but I drag myself back into the moment before I can drift too far. “What kind of pet do you want?”

“I thought I was too irresponsible.”

“Theoretically.”

“A cat.” She smiles like she knows what she’s doing.

“Unacceptable. We’re getting a dog.”

“Fine. Name ideas?”

“Bark-tholomew,” I grin.

“Zero out of ten. I’m revoking your naming privileges.”

“Hold up–is this our dog or your dog?”

“You get feeding and bathing rights, I get playing and naming rights.” She gestures for me to switch hands.

I hold my left hand out, closely inspecting the robin’s egg hue on the right. “Sure, that seems totally fair.” I tap experimentally at my ring fingernail with my thumb, and it smears a little.

“Hey now, don’t touch your nails for a while; it’s still drying.”

“How long?”

“Mmm…” She bobs her head side-to-side. “Bout an hour? Just to be safe?”

“An hour?”

“Yeah, boy. It’s fucking paint. Never done your nails before?”

“If I had tried it would have made the goddamn front page: Dude Paints Nails; Stereotyping Father Immediately Calls for Conversion Therapy.”

She snorts, but there’s a familiar sympathy in her look. “Well you’re rocking it, so Stereotyping Father can go screw himself.”

“Amen.”

Deanna hesitates in painting the next nail–pauses for a moment and glances up at me. She takes a breath, like she wants to say something. There’s a fraction of a second when I think she’s going to confront it–the thing we haven’t talked about since I stumbled into the bar she works at, a drunk kid spewing curses at my dad. Since she poured me a glass of water and let me babble about how if they didn’t want me, then I didn’t need to live with my parents, anyways, lots of teens live by themselves, right? Since she let me sleep on her couch, and I woke up the next morning panicking about where I was going to stay and what I was going to do, and she just shrugged and told me the couch was mine if I wanted it. Never asked for details. Never asked how I got kicked out.

And she doesn’t ask now. “Blow on them, they’ll dry faster.” She demonstrates a motion that looks like she’s attempting to mime harmonica playing.

I copy the movement, glancing up for confirmation that I’m doing it right, and Deanna gives me a thumbs-up.

I take a deep breath. “Hey, Dea?”

“Yeah, bud?”

“If we get a girl dog we can name her Lizzie Bork-den.”
“I hate you.”

it’s a living #1

 

People who drift into gas stations either have a lot on their minds or nothing at all. They wander through the isles like a wasteland, one lethargic hand reaching out for a bag of chips, one pair of feet stopping in front of the candies, hesitance coloring the Sour Patch Kids Decision. Sometimes I imagine what they must be thinking, what their problems are and how they’re trying to fix them, and if they think beef jerky will help. It might, for all I know.

Once, a dude bought a pack of cigarettes from me, mumbling the brand and tossing his credit card in my direction with a sigh of absolute resignation. When I held out the pack of Camels, he just stared at it, then looked up at me.

“I haven’t smoked in fifteen years.”

He left with the cigarettes in hand.

That’s the fugue state of gas stations. Time doesn’t mean anything, and the rules of smiles and thank-yous and fifteen years are muddled by a fog of exhaustion.

I don’t exactly like working here—I’m getting paid minimum wage and the air smells like piss and asphalt—but it numbs me, and I do like that. My head, a constant anxious whir of an overheated laptop, powers down, and any job that helps me to not think about my disaster of a life is good enough for me.

The second I walk out those doors, though, it all floods back on me, and by the time I’m wedging the door open to my tiny, dark apartment, I’m biting my lips and the tremor in my hands has started.

My roommate is sitting on the couch, or perhaps more in the couch, given the way the cushions fold around her. She’s tying her shoes, looking zoned enough to be in her own private fugue.

“We should get maintenance to look at the door,” I say.

“Mm.”

“Got warped in the humidity, I think. They probably just need to sand down the doorframe so it doesn’t get stuck, but good luck getting them to do even that, huh?”

“Hm.”

I flop down next to her. The seat of the sofa is broken, so I hit the bottom of it hard and the cushions envelop me too. “Going to work?”

She finishes tying her second shoelace and leans back. “Yeah.”

“I made you dinner to take with you.”

She closes her eyes.

“Deanna?”

“Yeah, Kip.”

“I made you dinner.”

I watch her take one, two seconds to pull herself from wherever she’s retreated, and then she opens her eyes and takes two more to find a smile. “I saw that, kid. Thanks a bunch.”

“No problem.” I burrow myself further into the couch and pull out my phone.

We sit there for a couple minutes. “You’re gonna be late,” I say. It sounds nagging, and Deanna’s a goddamn adult, but my second-hand anxiety over the thought of consequences doesn’t allow me to be silent.

She says, “People can wait a few more minutes to get drunk,” but she pulls herself up, swipes her purse off the counter, and grabs her Tupperware dinner from the fridge. “Later, dude.”

I give her a finger gun and a wink and watch her struggle with the water-warped door.

“We should call maintenance about that,” she says.

“Yeah.” The repetition isn’t worth mentioning.  

The door slams shut. The reverb echoes through my shaky hands.