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.”
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