Creating a Sense of Time
One of the things I see when I edit other writers is the inability to control time.
But what does that mean?
The notion of time in a novel is different to time in the real world. That’s because, in fiction, we can play around with time. We can jump from point to point in any moment in time – sometimes we can cover whole generations. We can move forward or back, we manipulate time, but it has to be done properly.
Without the right attention, the inability to control time can cause problems with pace and the reader could become confused as to when time is supposed to have passed, and when it doesn’t.
The biggest problem is the writer’s tendency to rush the narrative, which means the sense of time is also rushed. For example, when one scene zips to the other without the slightest hint to the reader that three weeks have passed, then it blurs the transition of time and causes confusion. Has time actually passed? Is it the next day? Next week? When exactly?
This lack of clarity can cloud the passage of time. For example, why was the character wearing a plaster cast in the last scene, but is now fully recovered in the next scene? Or why is one character in his garage working on his car in one scene and by the next he’s driving through France?
Every scene advances the story in time – it might only be slight, like a few minutes or hours, or it might be days or weeks, but that transition of time has to involve the reader. They need to see that time has moved on, otherwise they won’t be able to follow the story properly.
The way to do this is to tell them. Don’t rush – describe to the reader. There’s a simple golden rule to writing - the more a reader knows, the better they will understand the story. How you tell them that time has moved on is down to you. It can be direct, for example:
Jayne wondered just what David meant, but two weeks later, she met with him again and this time he made it clear.
The other way of showing control of time is to provide the reader with a subtle hint,for example:
Jayne wondered just what David meant, but by the time she met him again, the leaves had turned rusty brown and had formed a river at their feet...
When that hint is missing, that’s when time slips by unnoticed. As the writer, you know that time as moved on, but your reader won’t, so it’s vital you let them know in a way they will understand. Take this example:
Jayne looked back at the house as the wind toyed with the discoloured weeds, and smiled.
What had been an unloved, run down property had blossomed under her care.
Here we see one scene has rushed into another without so much as a clue that several weeks have passed, which makes it hard to distinguish what has transpired. Scenes like this are better when the sense of time is shown to the reader, for instance:
Jayne looked back at the house as the wind toyed with the discoloured weeds. The next time she would see the house, it would be hers, and it made her smile.
In the six weeks that followed, Jayne’s life had been non-stop. But it had been worth it – what had been an unloved, run down property had blossomed under her care.
This time we can see that some weeks have gone by, so we understand that time has moved on and the story moves forward as it should. The transition is clear, so the sense of time is uninterrupted.
The same is true when chapters jump forward in time without hinting anything for the reader. It leaves the story feeling rushed. Just as with scenes, hint to the reader prior to any transition so that they clearly understand time has moved on. Whether it moves forward a few hours or a few months, make sure you let the reader know.
Too many writers rush the narrative. Let the readers know; drop descriptive hints, show them or be direct. Don’t expect them to know. Because they won’t. Instead, be in control of time.