Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Time – the fourth dimension, and one over which an author possesses complete control. Like every aspect of a story, the way in which time passes is completely in the author’s hands. That I’m suggesting this is noteworthy may surprise you – you may think that time just happens as you write – but it’s an ability on which many authors fail to capitalize, and that’s frequently to the detriment of their stories.
Yes, as any sci-fi fan will tell you, time can go wrong. More than that, time can go wrong in ways you’ll never even notice, but that will jump out at your readers. Like all our articles, though, this isn’t just a warning; time can also go right, and a compelling sense of time passing can bring a story to life in ways you’d never expect. In this article, I’ll be talking about how authors can take control of time in their stories, and the advantages this can give them in crafting an engaging tale. To do that, let’s start with an example.
Time waits for no man (unless they’re an author)
In the introduction, I talked about your ability to control time in your writing. Most authors will appreciate, to some level, that there is no real progression of time inherent to fiction. One event happens after another because that’s what you say happened, not because actual cause and effect exists in a made-up universe. For example:
Justine and Scott left each other on the fifth of July, agreeing to meet up at the aquatic base in three days’ time. Neither of them enjoyed their time apart; Justine exercised to fill it, barely leaving the gym, and Scott – who had been looking forward to some time alone – lost the first two days to a visit from his parents and the next three to an unexpected plumbing disaster that turned his staircase into the only waterfall in the state. When they met up on the eighth, they were both a little stir crazy, and Justine arrived to find that Scott had picked up not just coffee, but a staggering range of pastries and fruit.
In the above passage, the characters spend three days apart – a process that takes Justine three days and Scott five. Not only does Scott experience an extra two days, he even gets to work before Justine, despite the fact he stopped to pick up an elaborate breakfast. This is a plot error, but it’s also something the story allows. There’s nothing to say an author can’t do this – it only becomes a problem if the reader notices (and if they care).Authors control how time works – forget that and you’ve forgotten your super power.Click To Tweet
If the reader does notice, that’s where the problems start. Now they have to reconcile their idea of the different timelines I’ve presented. Is Scott still suffering from plumbing trouble when he meets up with Justine? Is he a couple of days late to work? Is there some extra content that they missed?
You may be thinking that this isn’t a problem; that the answer is just to keep time consistent and not add in days where they don’t belong. Sure, that’s a great point, except for the fact that we all manipulate time in our stories, and we often don’t know we’re doing it.
The accidental chronomancer
Authors create and manipulate time on a subconscious level. Usually, they construct time around the protagonist, the one the reader is watching, and warp time elsewhere around their actions. For example, if the hero needs a secondary character to hack into a database, that hacking will usually take place over whatever timeframe works for the hero. If it’s going to take them two days to need the data, the hacking will take two days, or if they won’t need it for a week, the hacking will take a week. It’s rare that this kind of secondary action will be done early, unless the secondary character is needed for something else, or late (as much as some might enjoy a 007 movie where Bond has to kick his heels in a café while Q works through a particularly tricky firewall). Of course, sometimes a task is completed in the nick of time, but always in ‘the nick of time’ as defined by the protagonist.
This becomes an issue when there’s simply too much for a secondary character to do in the allotted time. Bond might need Q to hack into a database, identify a bunch of enemy agents in the field and invent a bowler hat that’s also a landmine. If the narrative doesn’t focus on Q, but rather follows Bond on his mission, it may be that all of these tasks (presented as difficult, to heighten the tension) end up occurring over an unbelievable amount of time.
The reader may not notice, in which case there’s no problem, but often they will, and in doing so they’ll recognize that Q’s actions are simply a plot device and their suspension of disbelief will be badly damaged. Accepting the reality of a fictional world is a two-person job – the reader is trying their best to do it, but the author has to ensure it’s possible (even easy).
This discrepancy between character timelines isn’t the only way that total control of time can go wrong for an author. There’s also the problem of events happening within that time. One incredibly common issue for authors is the ‘conversation occurring at the same time as an event’ scene. Here, dialogue is matched to an action – say, building some shelving – so that the characters are active as they speak, the author can use physical actions to break up dialogue and (if they’re really clever) the task can operate as an expression of the conversation – for example, the conversation ends badly and the shelving falls to pieces.
This scene often goes wrong because the task itself doesn’t really matter. It’s just there to bolster the conversation, so it works according to the conversation’s internal timeline. You’ve seen this a lot in movies – the elevator ride that lasts just long enough for characters to finish their discussion. Done well, it’s not a problem, but often authors choose an activity that doesn’t fit a conversation, and it’s over so quickly, its stages so truncated, that the reader notices and rolls their eyes.
This issue can also express itself when skipping backward or forward in time. In the movie Ocean’s Thirteen, for instance, there’s a skip forward of six months. This is necessary, because the villain needs to irritate the heroes while setting up his casino but they need to go after him once that casino is open – going from one state to the other is something that the viewer knows needs some time, so the movie provides it. The problem is that there’s no indication that much has gone on or changed in the characters’ lives over those six months. Relationships remain static – even those with which the characters are struggling – and the viewer doesn’t get the impression that the characters have necessarily been apart.
Whether the viewer is troubled by this will depend on their subjective experience – I chose this particular example because I know people who found it strange and people who didn’t register that six months were supposed to have passed (such is the token nature of the skip that you need to see the text on screen to really know it’s happened) – but again, it shows how the characters’ timelines are warped because the writer was focusing on the timeline of events. In terms of how the viewer understands their lives, those characters experience a matter of days over what is then labelled six months.
These, then, are the chief problems you face when you have to create fictional time and manipulate it to your own ends:
- How do you sync up the timelines of different characters and the events they live through?
- How do you make it seem like time really has passed in the short term?
- How do you make it seem like time really has passed in the long term?
Plotting with timelines
The first question is the easiest, and happily it’s not something extra you can do, but a piece of general advice I’d give any author about their story plotting. Often, authors will instinctively plot their stories around the events taking place. In short: don’t do that.
Instead, plot your story around character experiences. Here’s exactly how you do it – open Microsoft Excel, or any other program that lets you create a timeline or spreadsheet (or even use a piece of paper) – and create as many columns as there are primary and secondary characters. Now, think about the period over which your story takes place and, down the left-hand side, delineate each row into a manageable block of time. If your story takes place over a day, each row might be an hour; if it takes place over a few days, you might do ‘morning, afternoon, evening’; or if it takes place over a week you might cut each day into ‘morning to afternoon’ and ‘afternoon to evening’. If you’re finding it difficult to identify important blocks then hold off on this step and we’ll come back to it.Plot your story according to characters, not events.Click To Tweet
Now, fill in every row for your main character/s. Write down what they’re doing and when they do it. Are there blank spaces? Well, decide what they would believably be doing in that time. Are they preparing for later, or is that just downtime? You can treat this time like backstory – the reader might never need to see it, but you, as the author, should know it’s there. Maybe your hero just watches TV one evening. It’s not interesting enough to write about but, believe me, you’ll be glad that you know what’s happening. If you put off defining blocks earlier, use your protagonist’s actions to help. The behaviour you need from them should help break up the time you’ve given them.
The next step is to fill in the important actions of every other character. Where do they interact with the hero? Where are they important to the plot? This is where the tool starts to become useful – as you fill in the necessary actions, ask yourself if you’ve really given characters enough time to perform the task you’re describing. If not, shade the cell grey, or make a mark that tells you to come back to it later.
Finally, take a look at those empty cells. These are the moments that have to exist because the hero is busy, but during which the other characters are experiencing ‘imaginary’ time. The first thing you should notice is that many of your problems will resolve themselves – turns out you have a full day when the hacker character isn’t doing anything, so have his hacking take up that entire day, or have that be when he begins the difficult job that will need to be complete later in the story. This is ideal time for a character to do research or even read/overhear/realize something that’s important later.
This is the way I’d advise any author plot their story, unless there’s a compelling reason to work in a different way. Not only does it help to build believable, parallel timelines for all your characters, but it presents you with visible solutions to many problems. Want a character to know nothing about a subject when the protagonist is new to it but be able to contribute later in the story? That’s difficult to pull off, but not if you know that they can spend the intervening day doing research.
It can even help you distribute events across characters – I have a timeline hanging on my own wall in which Character A originally performed two consecutive actions. That was before I saw that Character B was kicking her heels over this period with nothing much to do. Now, Character A and Character B perform one action each during that first cell and share information during the second. That’s a better way to tell a story and, like any improvement, it has a domino effect – now, either one of those events can go wrong, because I no longer need the character to move straight on to accomplishing the second goal.
This method of plotting doesn’t solve every problem, but it solves a lot of them. Blank spaces ask questions, even in their most basic form. Was Ocean’s Thirteen plotted using that kind of timeline? Maybe in part, but it’s hard to imagine a blank square labelled ‘six month jump’ not inviting the writer to fill in a few personal details to make that period of time feel like a real period in the characters’ lives.
That’s the best tip I can give you in terms of managing character timelines – it may even be the best tip I can give you for plotting your novel – but it only answers question 1. We still need to make the passage of time feel believable over short and long term periods.
When to use story filler
I talked earlier about the ‘conversation occurring at the same time as an event’ scene, and how it’s often done badly. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be, so let’s look at an example of how to do it right. In the below extract from Richard Stark’s The Rare Coin Score, a group of gangsters discuss a potential heist.
They were all in the backyard, at about ten-thirty in the morning. There was a small stone fireplace at the rear of the yard, at which Billy was cooking hamburgers. The wood he’d used wasn’t completely dry, and was smoking badly…
“You don’t want everything they’ve got.”
“Not a bit,” said Billy. “Some of the coins are too rare, I wouldn’t dare to try to sell them without being able to show where I got them.”
“And some,” Parker suggested, “aren’t worth enough to take.”
“That’s right,” said Billy. “We don’t want foreign coins, except maybe Canadian and Mexican. Mostly American we want.”
Parker said, “So what’s that cut it to? Half of the stuff there?”
“Oh, less than that.” Billy thought, squinting in the smoke from his fire. “Maybe a third,” he said. “Maybe only a quarter.”
Lempke said, “Your burgers are burnin’ up.”
Parker watched Billy, his head down in the smoke, turning his hamburgers. When he was done, Parker said, “How long would it take to pack up one dealer’s stock?”
“How long?” Billy moved away from the smoke, waving the spatula in front of his face to clear the air. “I can do mine,” he said, “I can do mine in, oh, three minutes.”
The first thing to note about this scene is that the believable length of the task chosen matches a believable length for the conversation. Note, also, that there’s no real need to see the end result of the task, meaning the conversation can terminate at any time without the task feeling oddly unresolved – in fact, the protagonist leaves before the food is ready, a nice expression of his disregard for the character preparing them.
Those are the basics, though: pick a sensible task and try not to tie the characters to its completion (unless that completion is easy enough to accomplish). What makes that scene great is that the task, an unimportant aspect of the scene that’s just there for color, ends up intruding on the conversation, which is the whole reason we’re there in the first place. More than that, it intrudes perfectly – two lines of dialogue to address it, one of which is ‘Oh!’, and one sentence to move it back into the background.
We’re taken out of the conversation for barely any time at all, but because the task has intruded, the reader suddenly believes it’s real. There’s no other reason for it to have intruded – nothing was gained and no context provided – and so an active reader has to ‘explain’ what happened. The explanation they reach is that yeah, that’s just what happened, that’s exactly the kind of thing that happens when you cook meat. There was even an earlier sentence talking about the damp wood and the smoke, establishing the idea that the cooking might go wrong, so the brief intrusion was even partly expected.Story filler can help you create a sense of time passing.Click To Tweet
In the strictest sense, this is just story filler – it’s there to extend the scene, it’s a pause in dialogue, but by introducing that pause, it serves to validate the action and establish it as a real event. A bit of messiness can go a long way, and that’s as true in the long term as it is in the short.
Mess = Reality = Time
So how can this kind of filler writing be applied to the long term? Just scale it up! If you skip ahead in time, leave a character to deal with the tail end of whatever they were doing in the meantime. Maybe they just broke up with a partner, maybe their pet just died, maybe they’re in the middle of a project which needs a little more work. Mess up their lives a little and the reader will feel like they’ve arrived at an inopportune time for that character.
That’s the key, because the very sense that there can be an inopportune time carries with it the assumption that this person is living a real, messy life. If we arrive in their lives and everything is clean, the plot is just starting, there’s nothing lingering on the periphery that we don’t know about, then it’s clear that this life is here for us rather than actually being lived.
This may sound like a lot of work – inventing a whole new problem for your characters – but it actually takes very little to make time feel organic. We all know that real life isn’t neat, events overlap and responsibilities and commitments tie you down, so seeing that in a story evokes instant recognition. This isn’t just applicable to time skips or jumps, but rather to the minutiae of constructing a scene.
To give the movie its due, this is something Ocean’s Thirteen actually handles well elsewhere. This is particularly the case where one character visits another, intending to clarify parts of their plan.
This intention falls by the wayside when it’s discovered that the first character is watching Oprah, something his fellow crook initially mocks, before being sucked into the program himself. In narrative terms, the scene is a little much – more information could be shared before the TV takes over – but it’s an entertaining scene that relies on a revolutionary concept: this is not a good time for one of the characters.
That may sound obvious, but think about whether it’s something you’ve ever used casually in a story. Yes, there may have been plot points where one character was under duress, but have you ever written a scene where you wanted characters to talk, but then made it an ordeal for one or both of them? Of course not – why would you, when the whole point is that you want to share their information with the reader? Because doing that, just a little bit, makes the reader believe in their interaction. Bad timing is a frequent real-world problem – use that fact!Writing a discussion between two characters? Make it a bad time for one of them.Click To Tweet
Make time a problem
I talked above about how to make timing a problem. This depends on understanding that, in writing, you create time, and you need to consciously ensure that events, people and scenes are all intertwined in each other’s timelines. That’s how those things interact with time – bad timing means another character or an event is inconvenient – but how do you make time itself a problem?
Many stories are written according to a deadline. If Character doesn’t X before Y, then Z. That’s a compelling story, but it’s also an equation readers don’t really trust. If the author sets a deadline then they know, deep down, the author has plotted the story according to it, and the nature of the narrative tells them whether or not X is going to happen before Y. Some stories make Z seem likely enough that the reader is thrown off, but the real trick is in making Y feel like an immediate threat.
That’s difficult, because Y is off in the future, it hasn’t happened yet and, if it does, then Z is the real worry. ‘If Tremaine doesn’t escape Earth before it overheats, then he’ll die.’ In that story, the reader isn’t really worried about the world overheating, they’re worried about Tremaine dying. That’s fine, but they know deep down that whether he dies or not, it’s going to happen on page 300. What, then, makes page 79 interesting, or page 132?
Believe it or not, the way to make a nearing deadline feel like a threat is just to talk about it. Don’t just let death creep closer, stress how time as a resource is slipping away. There are a lot of ways to do this, so let’s use Paul Auster’s City of Glass as an example. Part of Auster’s New York Trilogy, the story is an existential horror in which the protagonist more or less ceases to be. As the story progresses, the protagonist’s world seems to get smaller and smaller, but for that to scare the reader, some theoretical endpoint has to be suggested.
When it was dark, Quinn slept, and when it was light he ate the food and wrote in the red notebook. He could never be sure how much time passed during each interval, for he did not concern himself with counting the days or the hours. It seemed to him, however, that little by little the darkness had begun to win out over the light, that whereas in the beginning there had been a predominance of sunshine, the light had gradually become fainter and more fleeting… It seemed to him that he had less and less time to eat his food and write in the red notebook. Eventually, it seemed to him that these periods had been reduced to a matter of minutes. Once, for example, he finished his food and discovered that there was only enough time to write three sentences in the red notebook. The next time there was light, he could only manage two sentences. He began to skip his meals in order to devote himself to the red notebook, eating only when he felt he could no longer hold out. But the time continued to diminish, and soon he was able to eat no more than a bite or two before the darkness came back.
This is about as abstract as an oncoming threat can be – the reader doesn’t fully understand what’s happening to Quinn or where the process will end. Still, though, the dwindling time is presented as a threat. So how does Auster do it?
First of all, he keeps talking about the dwindling time, and he does so in a very visual manner. The balance of light and dark is a perfect indication of time. This is difficult to do in writing – visual media can use clocks and timers, like the Doomsday Clock in Alan Moore’s Watchmen – but a dwindling resource (here, light) is easy to picture. Secondly, he clarifies what is lost as time is lost. Quinn has two desires, one more important to him than the other, and we see how he fights to pursue them as time and light disappear.
One resource would be compelling – if we understood that Quinn was hurrying to write while he could, less and less each day, we’d get a sense of what he was losing – but using two resources is genius. Now, Quinn goes from doing two tasks to sacrificing one in favor of another. Lessening time forces him to create a hierarchy of need, and we see a relatively comfortable situation compressed into an incredibly stressful arrangement. This transformation gives the reader a definitive example of what time is in this situation, contextualizing it with the choice and freedom that have been lost.
So back to ‘If Tremaine doesn’t escape Earth before it overheats, then he’ll die.’ We’re not worried about him dying yet, but the world has to go from normal to deadly over the course of the book. A sensible writer would show how water was becoming a scarce resource. Maybe, in the initial chapter, Tremaine pours his drink away because he’s no longer thirsty, or buys someone a beer to be friendly. Later, when he’s forced to fight to the death to protect his store of bottled water, the reader will be able to see how much the progression of time has cost him.
Time is a resource, but it’s hard to see it that way. Thankfully, you’re an author, and you control reality. You can express time through another resource, through a changing situation, and invite the reader to feel anxious about time slipping away, not just what happens when it completely runs out.The reader can’t see time, so represent it as another dwindling resource: light, food, air…Click To Tweet
Don’t be afraid to cheat
Everything above is about how to manage time and make it feel believable, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also say that your timelines don’t have to be perfect. Way back at the beginning of this article, I said that a broken timeline ‘becomes a problem if the reader notices (and if they care).’
That’s an important point, because part of writing about time is understanding that you can warp it to your liking. You can, in fact, have secondary characters perform overnight miracles just because it suits the hero. You can do anything you like, just so long as the reader is onboard. The devices and tools I’ve mentioned so far should stop you from facing unintended issues with the sense of time in your story, but that doesn’t mean you can’t consciously experiment.
For example, if you reach a stage where you need a secondary character to do something complex in no time at all, the answer might be to adjust their timeline to give them more time, or free up another character to give them a hand and share the load. It may be, however, that the answer is simply to distract the reader and make sure they’re looking somewhere else while the impossible happens. Embrace consistent time and reality where they benefit the story (and they will), but don’t mistake them for necessities. Storytelling is an illusion, and whatever works, works.
For more on how managing your story could improve it, check out How To Make Multiple Antagonists Shine In Your Story and The 4 Decisions That Will Help You Write An Amazing Flashback. Do you think time is a valuable resource in stories, or do you find your timelines merge seamlessly whether you think about them or not? Let me know in the comments.