Time in Fiction: Addressing the Timey-Wimey, Troublesome Truths

times-in-my-hand-1429208-mTime is such a crazy and troublesome thing, both in life and in writing. Some among us (well, the Whovians anyway) might even describe it as “wibbly wobbly” or “timey-wimey.”

Time issues have tripped me up in various drafts of my novels. Handling time in fiction–where the rules of time in the real world aren’t always at play, especially in my genre of fantasy–can be a tricky task. We can expand and contract and change how time works to a greater or lesser extent when writing.

While this is fun, and wonderful, and one of the most creative ways we can execute artistic license, it can also be difficult to keep track of. To keep under control.

Here are some ways time in fiction has caused me problems, or ways I try to be aware of time as a factor when I’m writing. They’re nothing to panic over. Just some things to keep in mind.

PERCEPTION OF TIME IS NOT THE SAME, ALWAYS, AS REALITY

We all know moments where the minutes seemed to drag or hours felt like they were flying. This will be equally true of our characters, and of point of view characters too.

The thing about those point of view characters: since the story is told through their eyes, we see and feel what they do. This is sometimes a problem, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it’s relatively simple to have someone or something make that character recognize that his or her perception of passing time doesn’t match reality.

I LOVE having point of view characters being jolted when they realize how little or how much time has passed. I like to think it’s a way to help my readers connect with them. If I’m doing my job right, it’s a way to emphasize how powerfully a character has felt certain events, or what a toll some occurrence or other has taken on him.

TIME MOVES TOO FAST SOMETIMES IN OUR STORIES.

This  becomes a factor when lengths of time are mentioned explicitly in dialogue or in narration. I’ve had passages where I start a scene, and then action proceeds, and I note–without any break in narration–that a certain amount of time has passed.

Maybe someone needed time to arrive somewhere. Or to do something specifically, to keep a plan or a scheme in order. The problem comes in when, based on what’s happened in the story, something that would logically take, say, an hour or more, magically occurs in a matter of minutes.

Oops. Now, I happen to have characters who are sorcerers, so sometimes I can play with magic to explain away  inconsistencies: such as magically transporting long distances instantaneously. Other times…. this is just something to be aware of.

TIME MIGHT MOVE TOO SLOWLY

The same problem as above, basically, just reversed. Sometimes there’s a reason that an action or a task readers know should take a day takes a full week. Or an hour-long journey might take two. Delays happen. Luckily, we authors can usually note why, especially when the inconsistency matters to the plot. That’s the big message here.

As I hinted above, this problem of time moving too slowly can be easy to fix. Just figure out a sensible reason your characters would put something off, or would be prevented from making good progress.

The basic point of time moving “too fast” or “too slowly” in fiction is that it’s an inconsistency that can be made consistent, or at least de-emphasized in some way.

BE CAREFUL OF LONG TIME JUMPS!

It’s interesting, and can be useful, to jump months or even years at a time in your story. Such jumps can keep the pacing going strong. If you have a plotline that requires a lull or a break of some time, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to write in detail about nothing pertinent happening.

Just be careful to make sure that the amount of time you say is passing matches up with seasons, weather, and climate if you’re talking months. Make sure you keep track of daylight and darkness if you’re talking a matter of hours.

You don’t want to realize, after writing an awesome winter battle scene, for instance, that you had time fast forward six months to winter from the height of autumn. You’d be working with spring at that point, not winter.

So, what things about time have tripped you up when writing? Do you know of any writer who you feel plays with time in a particularly clever or creative way?

If you enjoyed this post, I want to keep discussing this topic, so make sure you drop by for my next post: a reflection on different strategies to handle common problems with time in fiction.

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

You can also sign up to follow this blog by email at the top right of the page

Advertisements

20 responses to “Time in Fiction: Addressing the Timey-Wimey, Troublesome Truths

  1. I have suffered from the wibbly wobbly timey wimey thing in one of my books. I used a big white/wipe board covered in a grid to write out the time line then re arrange events back into some semblance of chronological order.

  2. The “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey” quote is one of the best quotes ever. I used it in one of my reviews as well: http://mias-beck.net/wordpress/?p=3159

  3. For me, one of the tricky things is finding relatively subtle ways to show the passage of time. I don’t want to hit readers over the head with a blunt ‘it was six months later’, or ‘hours passed’, so it becomes about the descriptive details of seasons nad times of day.

    • That IS really difficult. I admit I often go for the bluntness in my writing, but that is part of my personal style. I can think of some examples where I used something like the birth of a baby to prove how much time as passed in my writing, though. And I definitely appreciate subtletly as a reader!

  4. Time is something I struggle with sometimes in writing, but this is great advice and points to remember. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  5. I think manipulating time in our stories is one way being a writer can feel like being a god. And I agree that it’s a way to connect with our characters. In real life we feel time acutely – it’s a very human feeling.

  6. One of the time challenges I’ve run into is when two scenes are happening concurrently. So the sounds or events of one scene is ‘bleeding’ into the other. This makes timing tricky because if the two scenes run at alarmingly different rates then there’s a sense of imbalance. For example, two characters talking while another gets into a fight in the next room. If the fight is over within a few sentences, but you hear it for the entire dialogue scene then it’s off.

    • ooh, YES. I’ve been there too! You actually hit one something I was planning to talk about in my next post. How cool!!! I have an example from one of my books I might use or might not but I have been planning to talk about the concurrent scene thing…. It’s a bit tricky to pull off.

  7. Writing down everything in detail makes my story lose pace. I’m still struggling with time lapses in a chapter. Would they be all right or should I start a new one. I guess I’ll found out when I’m editing.

  8. Miss Alexandrina

    I love this post. As a writer of time-travel fiction, it resonates with troubles I’ve had (bad or good, my current query actually has the phrase “the timey-wimey of Doctor Who” in it). I once had a character saying “it’s the middle of the night!” when it was 5pm. Luckily, things like that can be fixed with a bit of rewording, but with other time-travel story mishaps, I tend to have a linear timeline regardless. I did at one point experiment with a fifteen-hour day, but that just complicated things a little too much. 😛

  9. Miss Alexandrina

    Reblogged this on Miss Alexandrina and commented:
    For all you temporal scientists (!) out there like me, Victoria over at The Crimson League discusses the use of time in fiction – and, as I well know, the difficulties that can arise from misplacing time in one’s novel.

  10. Great post Victoria and “timely” too (forgive the pun). I’m looking to write a Fantasy story some in the tradition of the TV series “24”. I’d like to make each chapter an hour long story time wise. What would you suggest?

    • ooh, that’s awesome!!! Sounds super cool! I guess I would just plot things out by minute. Read out dialogue to see how long it takes. Gauge how long every action that happens takes. That way you could try to keep as close to sixty as possible.

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s