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Time in Fiction
Welcome to another edition of Fiction Notes. You can find previous essays here—topics range from idea generation to the importance of talent, to outlining a novel. If you like what you read, please hit reply or shoot me an email. And if you haven’t, please sign up!
I haven’t done a craft-centric piece in a while, so…
Today, I propose we think about the relationship between time and stories. First: They are intrinsically linked. There are stories that are told linearly, and stories that are non-linear. But so far I have not encountered one where time plays no role at all. Second: a writer can make time pass as quickly or as slowly as they wish. A short story can span years, and a novel can revolve around a day, a single hour even.
But those are extreme cases, where the fact that a novelist uses 300 pages to cover a single hour of the day is a main stylistic or thematic aspect of the work. In most cases, the passage of time is a tool the writer uses to advance action and develop character.
In Other Words: Time Is An Illusion
It is a magic trick that the writer plays on the reader and that, like any other trick, is best when the other person doesn't notice they are being fooled at all.
Stories depend entirely on the reader's suspension of disbelief; the moment that particular illusion breaks, the story falls flat (unless you're writing one of those self-aware stories...) How time is handled in a story, how the characters move through it, what happens, and in what order, is vital.
So how do you do it? How do you make time pass seamlessly, elegantly, in your stories?
In my experience, there are three main ways, which I call:
The Cinematic Description Technique (which includes time-jumps)
The Tight POV Technique
The Thematic/Emotional Throughline Technique
To illustrate each, I'm going to use excerpts from a book I read recently: Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice (terrible title; great book).
Technique n. 1 — Cinematic Description
In this technique, your prose functions much like a camera, where one action follows another action, interrupted by a time-jump, and followed by another action.
In other words: He did this, then she did that, then he went to sleep and she went home and the next morning they did this other thing together.
Although seemingly simplistic, there is nothing wrong with this technique. Whole (very successful, very good) books are written almost 100% with time advancing this way (Brandon Sanderson's The Stormlight Archive series, for example.) This kind of description can, in fact, be hauntingly beautiful. Let's look at Robin Hobb's writing:
Boys are fools. The conversation had grown and twined around us, my words coming as naturally as breathing to me. I had not intended any flattery, or subtle courtship. The sun was beginning to dip into the water, and we sat close by one another and the beach before us was like the world at our feet. If I had said at that moment, 'I would,' I think her heart would have tumbled into my awkward hands like ripe fruit from a tree. I think she might have kissed me, and sealed herself to me of her own free will. But I couldn't grasp the immensity of what I suddenly knew I had come to feel for her. It drove the simple truth from my lips, and I sat dumb and half a moment later Smithy came, wet and sandy, barrelling into us so that Molly leaped to her feet to save her skirts, and the opportunity was lost forever, blown away like spray on the wind.
We stood and stretched, and Molly exclaimed about the time, and I felt all the sudden aches of my healing body. Sitting and letting myself cool down on a chill beach was a stupid thing I certainly wouldn't have done to any horse. I walked Molly home and there was an awkward moment at her door before she stooped and hugged Smithy goodbye. And then I was alone, save for a curious pup demanding to know why I went so slowly and insisting he was half-starved and wanting to run and tussle all the way up the hill to the keep.
As seen in the quote above, this kind of description allows you to zoom in on a moment, and capture its subtleties, its inherent beauty. But beware—if handled poorly, things can get very boring very quickly. If you only describe scenes using a cinematic style, readers will 1) quickly begin to feel like nothing is happening and 2) lose interest in the small moments, because they will have nothing to serve as a contrast in their reading experience.
Also: This technique pairs very well with multiple pov characters stories—because the ability to jump from one pov to the next makes time-jumps feel way less jarring.
Technique n. 2 — Reflective POV
This one is hard to explain using words—maybe because I myself haven't quite managed to master it yet. What I can say is: having a narrator who is writing from the present and looking back on the past—a deeply subjective narrator makes it easier to move through time in your book. This is because our memories and our perception of time are intrinsically linked. In our heads, when we think back on our past—to jump from one scene in our childhood, to one years later, seemingly unrelated, feels effortless. And the same applies to characters.
This is Robin Hobb's signature technique. In the passage below, she employs it beautifully:
I stood panting, my fists still clenched. I glared toward the raiders daring them to come, but the night was still, save for the waves and wind and the soft gurgling of the woman as she died. Either the raiders had not heard, or they were too concerned with their own stealth to investigate sounds in the night. I waited in the wind for someone to care enough to come and kill me. Nothing stirred. An emptiness washed through me, supplanting my madness. So much death in one night, and so little significance save to me.
I left the other broken bodies on top of the crumbling sea-wall for the waves and the gulls to dispose of. I walked away from them. I had felt nothing from them when I killed them. No fear, no anger, no pain, not even despair. They had been things. And as I began my long walk back to Buckkeep, I finally felt nothing from within myself. Perhaps, I thought, Forging is a contagion and I have caught it now. I could not bring myself to care.
Little of that journey stands out in my mind now. I walked all the way, cold, tired, and hungry. I encountered no more Forged ones, and the few other travelers I saw on that stretch of road were no more anxious than I to speak to a stranger. I thought only of getting back to Buckkeep. And Burrich. I reached Buckkeep two days into the Springfest celebration. The guards at the gate tried to stop me at first. I looked at them.
See what she did there?
Little of that journey stands out in my mind now.
That throwaway comment—that explicit mention of the present-time narrator, created a break in the narrative, uniting two scenes months apart. With one sentence, a journey that should have lasted days passed, and not only did it not jar me out of the reading experience but deepened my emotional connection to the character.
Technique n. 3 — Thematic/Emotional Throughline
Last, but not least—my favorite. It can be summed up as the act of connecting seemingly unconnected scenes with a single thematic or emotional thread.
For example: Let's say your character has just been broken up with and, for an entirely unrelated plot-reason, you need three months to pass in your story. What you do, then, is describe different moments, tiny conversations, maybe even a scene in which the character's heart-break is the connecting thread. Robin Hobb does something like this in p. 281 of Assassin's Apprentice:
I wanted, achingly, to go to Molly, to tell her everything that had befallen me, all that had happened to me since I first came to Buckkeep. I imagined in detail how we could sit on the beach while I talked, and that when I had finished, she would not judge me or try to offer advice, but would just take my hand and be still beside me. Finally, she would know everything, and I would not have to hide anything from her any more. I dared imagine no more beyond that. I longed desperately, and feared with the fear known only to a boy whose love is two years older than he is. If I took her all my woes, would she think me a hapless child and pity me? Would she hate me for all that I had never told her before? A dozen times that thought turned my feet away from Buckkeep Town.But some two months later, when I did venture into town, my traitorous feet took me to the chandlery. I happened to have a basket with me, and a bottle of cherry wine in it, and four or five brambly little yellow roses, obtained at great loss of skin from the Women's Garden where their fragrance overpowered even the thyme beds. I told myself I had no plan. I did not have to tell her everything about myself. I did not even have to see her. I could decide as I went along. But in the end all decisions had already been made, and they had nothing to do with me. I arrived just in time to see Molly leaving with Jade. Their heads were close together, and she leaned toward him as they spoke in soft voices. Outside the door of the chandlery, he stooped to look into her face. She lifted her eyes to his. When the man reached a hesitant hand to gently touch her cheek, Molly was suddenly a woman, one I did not know. The two years' age difference between us was a vast gulf I could never hope to bridge. I stepped around the corner before she could see me, and turned aside, my face down. They passed me as if I were a tree or a stone. Her head leaned on his shoulder, and they walked slowly. It took forever for them to be out of sight.
Robin Hob described one scene, then moved inside the character’s head for reflection, then proceeded to describe another scene, much later, that was connected emotionally both to the first scene and to the character’s thoughts.
If you're thinking of doing this thematically—Literary Fiction writers employ this technique the most—all you have to is:
Think of how much time you want to have passed. Let's say: six months.
Choose a Theme. Let's say: Friendship.
Create five different mini-scenes in which your characters are doing something that illustrates the theme of friendship. Let's say: five different conversations in the same bar, about subtly different topics, with subtly different dynamics that illustrate friendship's different shades.
Once you do that, making time pass without jarring the reader, or breaking the suspension of disbelief, should be as easy as writing (which never is easy, I know.)
That’s it for today. Have a great weekend!
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