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 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.