The Experience of Time in Narrative
The author’s responsibility
When we write stories, we ask readers to invest their time into our world. This is a significant gift and must be respected. We must write only what is important, interesting, and meaningful to the narrative. The rest can be cut out. So—since you can’t show every single event and action that happens through a character’s life—how can you invoke the feeling of time passing meaningfully?
We’ll start with how you build your story. Don’t start with plot. The plot is simply a series of events that happen because of characters interacting with each other, driven by their motivations. Start with character, and you’ll have a reason to create these events. Discover what each character’s desires and motivations are. Sometimes these desires work in harmony with the goals of others, sometimes against. It is these actions and interactions between characters that create the plot; the struggle between characters and achieving what they want.
This struggle takes time within your narrative. A writer shapes how the reader perceives time by selecting and showing the right details. Some writers may choose not use the same number of pages to cover six months as they would use to cover six minutes. But it is possible to cover vastly different amounts of time in the same page count, because time is not always limited by words and sentences. Sometimes, using the right words in a passage—meaning, details relative to the characters—shapes an experience of time that is different from passages of identical length that focus on irrelevant details.
Say you are writing a story about the six minutes the passengers of a jetliner collectively experienced right before crashing, and then the six months one passenger spent after. You might have a lot of important details to get through during those six minutes leading up to the crash. You could probably write a whole novel within the span of those six minutes. Depending on what you are trying to show, you might spend the same amount of page-time for the next six months. Sure, you might use more, but maybe you’d even use less. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve and say. The point is, you have to consciously construct your sentences and paragraphs in such a way as to accurately match the time being passed—as well as the significance of the events within.
When you write, you are filming a movie with words. Ask yourself this: “What’s my focus on? Where should it be?” By writing a detail, a sound, a line of dialogue, you are saying that it is important. It deserves the reader’s time. You are focusing on it.
Focus on what matters.
If you were a movie director, you wouldn’t put in a detail shot of a character zipping up his fly in the restroom, of how many tiny, little, brass teeth their are, of how they are all connected together… when all the character is really thinking about is the big board meeting in ten minutes or maybe the next football game. You can justify that shot if that’s the kind of thing the character would think about, if he’s like the protagonist in Stranger than Fiction who counts the strokes of his toothbrush, but otherwise you’d be pointing your lens at something irrelevant to the story. Unless you’re making some sort of statement about the ignored details in life, you wouldn’t include that scene for a character who doesn’t think about these sorts of things. If you did, you’d be focusing on something that doesn’t matter. It’s like lying to the reader—your audience. By including that detail, you’re saying, “Look at this, this is important!” When really, it’s not.
By only showing what is significant to your story and crucial to its flow, you respect the reader’s time. Remember: by including a detail—even just a word—in your story, you are saying that it is important. Without it, your story would be somehow less whole. Otherwise it should be cut out. In this way, only significant events are focused on, and events with greater significance can be given more page-time. But only if there’s actually something interesting to write about it. Remember to focus on the right things. The fact that a character got a ‘D’ on her exam might be significant to the narrative, but don’t try to show this with a five-page expository on what that piece of paper looks like and how smooth it feels and the comments her teacher wrote, word-for-word. Showing a scene in greater detail makes it physically longer. A scene with many details will take a reader longer to get through. Not only does it take up more page-time, it takes up more of the reader’s time. Be aware of that. Only tell the reader what they need to know.
[It’s up to you to define what details are important. See the exercise at the end for more on this.]
The lesson here is that scenes and events should only take up as much page-time as necessary to showcase all the important details, actions, and interactions within. No more, no less. But since the physical space given to a scene does not necessarily correlate with the length of time over which it took place, then how can we show the sequence of time in narrative?
Easy. Again, we’re talking about details. The right details. If your narrative spans the months of April to November, what changes during that time? The seasons, for one. Your characters are aging (probably, if they are human). Although changes due to age might not be as perceptible in such a short time period, they are certainly noticeable in narratives that span years and decades. I recently read A Little in Love by Susan E. Fletcher and her main character ages from a toddler into a young woman. This is apparent in her physicality, but perhaps even more so in her personality. Even over shorter periods of time, a character’s personality can—and probably should—develop. Again, it’s all in the details you show. Choosing the right details allows you to demonstrate the passing of time.
– Include the right details to convey the passing of time within your narrative
– Important, interesting events and details get more page-time
– Focus your lens on what matters
– Respect the reader’s time
Exercise: How to choose the right details
Go through a page of your writing and highlight details you’ve included. Ask yourself why they are important. Do they tell something about the way a character thinks or the way they perceive the world? Maybe a certain detail provides the means for a later action or tells something about the setting that helps indicate a reason behind the character’s personality. There are many ways a certain detail can be important to your story. It’s up to you to decide what to put in and why.
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