We’ve all had the experience of something being over in a flash and, in contrast, of time feeling endless. Time feels different, depending on where we are and what we want. It’s the same for our characters—and our readers.
As writers, we juggle several kinds of time. I hadn’t really thought about this—not explicitly—until I was faced with a conundrum in my work-in-progress. In a nutshell, my problem was that I needed more time for the relationship between two characters to develop, but I only had a specific amount of time, given the parameters of the plot. It seemed unresolvable.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
Before I talk about how I solved my problem, let’s consider the question of time for a writer.
First, there’s narrative time, the months or years or decades that the story covers. There are novels that take place in a day and novels that span generations. At one extreme, there’s Michener’s Hawaii that begins with the creation of the Hawaiian Islands, millions of years ago. At the other extreme, Joyce’s Ulysses is 265,000 words long and covers a single day. Most books fall somewhere in-between.
It’s rare for every hour of that narrative timespan to be on the page, especially in a novel. Unlike what we call “real time”—when we experience events as they’re actually happening, without pausing or skipping ahead—in narrative time, there are parts of the story that are depicted in scene and other parts that are summarized or simply omitted (when he woke up the next morning … by the time she got home … in the months that followed …). As a writer, these choices indicate how you want to signal importance and build or release tension.
Narrative time—the span of the story—doesn’t have to be linear. Flashback, memory, and backstory interrupt linear time; so too, a chapter told through the eyes of a secondary character can halt or divert the forward motion of the primary narrative. And then there are novels, like Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light or Anita Shreve’s The Last Time They Met, that turn time on its head by telling the story backward, in what’s called “reverse chronology,” as well as those like Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife that deliberately jump around in time. As with other unconventional narrative structures, “playing with time” works best when it’s purposeful; one of the things that makes The Time Traveler’s Wife so effective is that the non-linearity of time is what the story is actually about, rather than simply being a way to disrupt reader expectations.
Sometimes stories are framed by a specific (that is, limited) amount of time—a journey from A to B, a race to accomplish something before X happens, a vacation, anything with an end point that’s already been set. Even in a novel like Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, in which the characters don’t know when their time as hostages will end, the author herself knows, and this timeframe shapes her story.
Narrative time is a property of the story as a whole, and the characters that populate the tale exist within that time—that is, they correspond to it and proceed through time at the same way. If it’s winter or a year later for Jo March, it’s also winter or the next year for Meg and Amy and Beth. [Read more…]