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Manipulating Story Time for Maximal Effect

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Time is a trickster.

It expands and contracts, often against our will. This observation holds so much truth about the human condition that I urge you to think carefully about how it affects the characters in your work-in-progress.

In thinking about how to structure a novel about my first husband’s suicide standoff, one truth kept coming to light: my life would be forever divided by “before the suicide” and “after the suicide.” To underscore that effect, I wanted to structure the story within the standoff’s twelve hours.

As a sophomore novelist, I had no clue whether I could pull that off. It wasn’t until I read something by Sarah Pekkanen that I gained the needed insight to give it a try. While Pekkanen has published eight works of women’s fiction as well as several thrillers with Greer Hendricks, it wasn’t a novel that clued me into the mad skill I sought: it was her feature article [1] about the shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School that ran in the Baltimore Sun back in 1999.

While I urge you to read the whole article when you can, here is my highlight reel as to why Pekkanen’s manipulation of time was so effective.


How and why to manipulate time

Set expectation. Pekkanen’s opening paragraph puts a focus on imminent change and the passage of time (emphasis mine):

A boy could hide in Columbine High School. Let others choose colleges, majors, futures. Senior Adam Foss drove fast, pulled pranks and drifted towards graduation. School was a lark, life a good time. Then the halls erupted with gunshots. The killers were outside the choir room. Panicked students needed help. Who could they turn to? “In here!” Adam shouted. He herded them into an empty office. They waited. They prayed. And in those hours, an aimless boy discovered himself.

Deepen characterization. By telescoping between hijinks that day to pranks throughout high school, the next dozen paragraphs characterize her main character, Adam, as a senior whose true leadership potential hides beneath a fast-driving James Bond persona. In fact, his nickname is “007.”

Explore the effects of shock. Time speeds to a blur in the next dozen paragraphs as the first shots were heard. Adam is shown at the door of the choir room, witnessing the death of a teacher out in the hallway—and in that moment, on instinct, he shuts the door on the rampage and herds everyone into the choir director’s office. Time splits as others freeze in horror:

Adam didn’t hesitate. He lifted a girl out of her seat and carried her to Mr. Andres’ office.

Adam glanced around the choir room. No one was left. He squeezed into the office and shut the door.

Evoke the struggle against helplessness. Time slows to a suffocating choke inside that office. For the next ten paragraphs, the students try to avoid detection while “a steady thunder of gunshots” come from the library:

The tiny, unventilated room filled with gasps and sobs. Just 8 by 12 feet, the space couldn’t comfortably hold 20 people. Fifty-eight were crammed inside.

Offer relief. Pekkanen cuts the tension by switching to “ordinary time” in the day of Adam’s mom, Joann Foss. A humorous memory allows the reader to breathe and gather herself. When news of the shooting rips open Joann’s day, time speeds again as she desperately scans TV footage for Adam and his twin brother. Then another breath as she receives this message on her pager: “007–007–007.”

Illustrate each increment of frustration and hope. The next ten paragraphs slow again as the kids in the office try to communicate with the outside world, even while knowing that staying quiet is key to their survival. The lack of air threatens a girl with asthma. Another has to pee. All reserve sips from half a bottle of water for those who have fainted.

Force comparison by folding time. In three short paragraphs, Pekkanen yanks us from the innocence of a child’s hide-and-seek game to what is happening now as shooters find those hiding beneath desks in the library. The stakes become deeply felt.

Create dual realities. In a brilliant move, Pekkanen uses the next paragraphs to split time. Outside, she shows SWAT teams rushing into the building, but for the kids back in the office…

Every second dragged by. How many hours had passed? Two? Three? The gunshots never stopped, and the choir members listened intently to each explosion, trying to glean clues about the shooters’ movements. Were they coming closer?

Heighten drama.

Then the phone rang. Everyone froze.

That’s a good place to stop the analysis, don’t you think? (Sorry, there’s more great stuff—I hope to inspire you to read the article!)

By telescoping in to show time’s high-tension creep and then zooming out to take in the movement in the bigger picture, Pekkanen effectively massages time to maximize her story’s effect. She does not rely on high stakes alone; her pacing brings the reader to knowing smiles, tears, and good old-fashioned nail-biting.

The result is a powerful statement about how to live in the face of death.

That’s what I sought to do with The Far End of Happy. As I set about writing, I was concerned that I would be unable to create a believable arc for my protagonist that would span only twelve hours. Pekkanen showed me it was possible by creating a believable arc for Adam that spans a much shorter time.

Two nights after the shooting, as Adam’s choir sang at a memorial service in a nearby church, he has changed:

The lead tenor was tall and blond, dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie. As the notes of “Amazing Grace” filled the sanctuary, his voice stood out, strong and confident and clear.

It was no longer the voice of a boy.

Is there a place in your manuscript that would benefit from the rush of pandemonium or a slow trickle of sweat? Those who read the Baltimore Sun article: how did Pekkanen’s manipulation of time affect you? All other examples focused on the effective manipulation of the passage of time are welcome!

About Kathryn Craft [2]

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [3] since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.