A Time for Gimmicks

You may have noticed that the first actual, for reals chapter of Water Fall contains a timekeeping gimmick. Specifically, it references the Michigan Avenue Proclamation and when the narrative is in relation to it. In case you were wondering, that refers to the events of the prologue, which the story itself will make clear in time. The Proclamation is a central even in the book and in the Project Sumter world as a whole. I wanted to start the book with it, to give the opening a bigger impact, but I also wanted the readers to be aware of how the story was stacking up next to it, and I wanted to tell what happened before the Proclamation, and not as a flashback per se. So I settled on “X much time before/after the Michigan Avenue Proclamation” format and decided to just put a note before each chapter. Note that time will pass within some chapters, so one chapter might start two weeks before the proclamation but end only eight days before it.

There’s plenty of precedent for this kind of gimmick to help people keep track of the timeline of a story. A great example would be the TV series 24, where each one hour episode of the series corresponds directly to an hour of the day. At pretty much each commercial break, before and after, a digital clock display would tell you exactly what time of day it was. It was a great way to keep suspense (how are they going to wrap this up before the day ends?) and remind people of where in the day they are (more than just early afternoon).

I was a bit worried about using a timekeeping gimmick, mainly because there was no comparable device in Heat Wave. I also don’t plan on using them in other Project Sumter stories, although that may change in the future. However, the whole point of gimmicks is to get your point across. If they’re doing that, great. If not, then they’re dead weight and need to be cut.

For some writers there’s an automatic desire to cut out gimmicks. Maybe it’s a desire for originality, maybe you just want to avoid the same ol’ same ol’, but if you find yourself bothered by this anti-troperism, keep in mind that these things are your tools, and to be used wisely in the creation of your story, not your enemy to be fought.

While overusing tropes and gimmicks is dangerous, odds are that if you try too hard to be original everywhere, you’re just going to wind up reinventing the wheel at some point, and you might not even realize you’ve done so. Being aware of your tropes and using them deliberately is the best way to make sure you’re avoiding the pitfalls that other writers have already mapped out and experimented with and taking advantage of all the best parts of them.

Writing is an act of creative expression, but if you express yourself better by borrowing from others there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re still going to be expressing something of your own, and there’s nothing on Earth that wasn’t a part of something else before so you’re in good company when you recycle. Don’t be afraid to use a gimmick if it fits.

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