The Ability to Control Time – Part 1

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 the fictional world, we can jump from point to point in time – sometimes whole generations. We can move forward or back, we can speed up time and manipulate it, but it needs to be done properly, otherwise it can cause problems with the pace of the writing and cause the reader to become confused as to when time should have passed, or not, and what might have happened in between.

The biggest problem with controlling time is a tendency for the writer to rush the narrative, because that 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 sense of transition. This will confuse the reader. Has time actually passed? By how much?

Of course, this does not need to happen with every scene, because often scenes follow on from each other consistently as the story is told. But there will be times when you need to show that many hours, days or even weeks have passed, without breaking continuity – the transition of time.

For example, you might have a character that is wearing a plaster cast in the one scene, but is fully recovered in the next scene. We know time must have passed, but there’s no indication how much. Or you might have one character working on his car in his garage in one scene and by the next, he’s driving through France. The reader will have no idea how long has passed between the garage and being in France. Short of teleportation, the reader needs an explanation.

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 must 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 simply tell them. There’s a golden rule to writing - the more a reader knows, the better they will understand the story. How you tell them is down to you, but as long as the reader is aware that a period of time has elapsed, then the continuity remains.

(Last scene) John looked at the envelope and checked the address on the back. He recognised her writing. He peered at the weather-beaten flowers in his garden and the grey skies overhead. He figured she would have fled without a moment’s hesitation.

(New scene) The cold pressed against his skin as he walked the long path to her front door and rang her doorbell. If he didn’t talk to her now, he wouldn’t be able to pluck up the courage again.

With this example, the reader has no idea how long has passed between the last scene with John looking at the letter and then turning up at his wife’s front door. Is it an hour?  A day? A week?  That’s because one scene has rushed into another without so much as a clue about time, which makes it hard to distinguish what has transpired.

Without a hint about the transition of time, the reader won’t know. When that hint is missing, that’s when time slips by unnoticed. You as the writer will know time as moved on, but your reader won’t. If a clue is given to the reader, it changes the context of scenes, and the reader will understand there’s a passage of time.

You can be direct and tell the reader that time will move on, or it can be a subtle hint, for example:

(Last scene) John looked at the envelope and checked the address on the back. He recognised her writing. He peered at the weather-beaten flowers in his garden and the grey skies overhead. He figured she would have fled without a moment’s hesitation. He had to fight for her, even if it meant the long drive to London.

(New scene) The cold pressed against his skin as he walked the long path to her front door and rang her doorbell. He’d had a few days to think over his plan - if he didn’t talk to her now, he wouldn’t be able to pluck up the courage again.

This time we can see that a few days have gone by, so we understand that time has moved on and the story has moved forward as it should, without disturbing the pace. The transitional scene speeds up time to the next scene.

The same is true when chapters jump forward in time without hinting anything for the reader. It leaves the story feeling rushed and disjointed.

Be in control of time. Make the reader aware that time has moved on from one scene to another.

In part 2, we’ll look at flashbacks and how they affect the passage of time in a novel.

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