The Role of TIME in Fiction

    So after some soul-searching and unpleasant head-banging in the writer’s block I have decided that it is time to take a short break from writing and focus a bit more on reading and learning how to do the things I have been doing by instinct so far. Don’t get me wrong, instincts are amazing and if you have them use them every damn time but when the writer’s block or any other kind of writer’s misfortune strucks, you need more than your gut to get out and get going.

   So without further ado I present you the new topic – TIME. I know, it’s weird when you think of it but TIME is fundamental to a book just as much as plot or characters or a good hook. It is not as obvious or as interesting as those others components but if you mess it up – it would ruin your story. 

    The first instant when TIME plays any role to your story is when you are deciding where to start and finish the story. For every author the beginning has significant meaning – their story can start with a death, with an accident, a wedding, a childbirth or something boring like an uneventful day at work. ‘So what?’ you may ask. Choosing your beginning and end tells us as many things about the author and the story as choosing the main plot.

    Let’s take Harry Potter and the Philosopher stone for example. The story starts with Mr Dursley’s day – his boring routine, boring job, boring family and life. This insight into his life already gives us so much information of what Harry’s life would be, of what the mundane world is. But what if Rowling had started earlier? What if Chapter 1 had started with the night Lily and James had died, what if we had witnessed their deaths by Voldemort’s hand in Chapter 1? Yeah, it would have been cool to see that BUT think of the consequences. It would not be a children’s book that grows into an adult book over time; knowing what has happened to Lily and James, who killed them, why – would have killed so many plot twists and secrets we enjoyed throughout the series.

   And so on and so on. My point is, TIME matters. For beginnings, for endings, even for what happens in between. 

  Another choice concerning TIME is when we choose the timeframe in which our story progresses. Recently I read “The Art of Time in Fiction” by Joan Silber and it got me thinking a lot of how I use TIME and the mistakes I make in choosing the wrong format for my stories. So with her help and insight, I’ve devised a list of the TIMEs a story can inhabit which you can keep in mind when starting your next story or beginning a difficult edit. 

     This is the most preferred timeframe. It has a brief natural span – a month, a season, a year. Each Harry Potter book develops in a span of a year for example.  What is specific for this type of timeframe is that there are particular plot points in such books that are expected and highly anticipated and while the period is still quite vast, some things in-between are often summarized. And if that is done right, it goes under the reader’s radar.

    There is certain expectancy for those types of books too – we want to directly hear what people are saying, see their faces as they say it – we want to be there instead of being told what happened. And in most cases when Classic Time is used all possibilities are exhausted, secrets are revealed, questions are answered and meaning emerges. 

   Of course, if we are talking about series (like Harry Potter, Skulduggery Pleasant, The Mortal Instruments, etc.) there are still unanswered questions and uncovered secrets left but those are answered in the next book and the then again and again… The important thing is that by the end of such book you have a resolution, a meaning, a logical end.

    Naturally, this timeframe takes much longer time to develop – years, decades, a whole life.

    Compressing time is what all fiction does – it’s very rare that the words on the page correspond to real time. If we sat down and just transcribed our thoughts and all we have done for a single day in details we are not only going to fill in hundreds of pages but we’ll bore ourselves to death in reading about our mundane habits.

    In this category usually fall chronicle novels (but not exclusively) which are basically fictionalized biographies. In a chronicle novel, a central character is young at the beginning and old at the end (or dead). The main conflict in such books is time and what it does to us, to our life. It is a tricky way to write a novel unless you have a clear idea and need for this type of timeframe or you have remarkable talent and a story to tell.

    Thinking about it, if somebody tells me that the book they are reading is about a person from their birth to their deathbed – I would never read such a story. We tell ourselves that our lives are full of interesting things but if we have to be honest, that’s true for 20% of the time if we are being extremely generous.

     The rest is dull – eating, sleeping, going to the toilet, doing all kinds of mundane things. We read to be entertained, to be excited and thrilled. And yet, if a writer finds the balance of this timeframe it can turn their book into a marvelous representation of a life, of a deep, unadulterated, realistic story which changes the way we view our lives, our goals, our fears and dreams. 

    This one is less used since it is more difficult and it requires a lot of skill to do it right and make it interesting at the same time. Its happens when the author keeps moving back and forth among points in past and present with the so-called ‘flashbacks’. A good example is the TV Show ‘How to Get Away With Murder’. Every season has a plot and that plot is revealed in retrospect – episode after episode the main characters remember something from the past that slowly builds the timeline of the plot.

   This technique is risky since even if it is done right it may not appeal to everyone (my husband gave up on the show after episode 2, it annoyed him too much). Flashbacks have been so overused over time that they’ve acquired a bad name. Many people say they are a cheap way to get a character the right motivation without doing much or an convenient way to give information to the reader quickly, avoiding infodump. 

   In this use of TIME you can play around as much as you want with the timeframe of your story. Your main story may be developing in a span of a few hours and yet your jumps to the past or the future can cover the whole lifespan of a person – or even more than one person. The most important thing about it would be to make each and all of those flashbacks relevant and connected in a way that is obvious or it becomes obvious by the end of the story. The jumping back and forth is confusing enough, you don’t want to leave the reader with the same feeling when they close the book.

    As the name suggest this timeframe can refer to stories with long and short spans, but it focuses on brief instants in detail that can occur any moment (and take pages). A very short piece of action is examined very, very closely.

   The longer something takes, the more emotionally important it is. In a movie, for example, when the camera pauses over something, we know it’s crucial and it would play an important role. This applies for books too but since they live in our imaginations the author must put the imaginary spotlight on them some other way. The danger is in slowing down at the wrong moment – we don’t want to hear about an uninteresting, regular thing like brushing one’s teeth unless the action has some significant meaning that cannot be shown in any other way.

   That being said, although I am trying to be objective here I must admit that I am not a big fan on of this TIME usage. I mean, I also use it to some extend when I want to emphasize on something but I’ve read short stories or even novels where this is used a lot. And while it may be beautifully written, deep in meaning and all that jazz I almost always skip the descriptions or skim through them. I may be an impatient reader and I may be more action/mystery seeking than depth/meaning seeking but that’s my view. Either way, as any other thing this technique must be used carefully.

    I’m not sure how to name this one and if it is worth its own category. Personally I have not read any books with such timeframe but Joan Silber calls it ‘fabulous time’ as a way to think about non-realistic fiction and unorthodox presentations of time. 

   When you think about it there are not that many opportunities to write in such time and if they are, it is much easier to write in switchback time (and more familiar so the reader will be more inclined to go with it). Yet, there surely are instances when all other options may not work – or may not do the story justice. Few are those who dare to try something radically different and even fewer those who succeed.  

  As we previously discussed every story depends on things not standing still, of things happening, things changing. All the emotions that are attached to the passage of time —regret, impatience, anticipation, mourning, longing, desire, etc — they are the fuel of plots. The past defines our characters and the future build them. 

   So this is for today. I really hope this at least makes you aware of the unconscious decisions you make when choosing the time and pacing for you story. Imagine how much stronger, well-devised your book can be if you do this deliberately, knowing what your story would be about and what would be the best way to achieve your goal and WoW your audience. 

Yours truly,

Joana

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