Timing in fiction…

There are actually two types of timing in fiction – the pace of the story and the passage of time in the story. They are not the same.

Pace has to do with how quickly one event follows the other. For example, in an action story, events tend to follow each other like a ten car pile up, with very little ‘slow’ time in between. On the other hand, in character driven stories, the action is always precipitated by some kind of internal motivation. For example, the serial killer had a rotten childhood and maybe has a flashback prior to choosing their next victim, who may bear some resemblance to their childhood tormentor. Or you could have a more literary style story where the motivation is the story and the action, what there is of it, simply illustrates the character of the protagonist. In these kind of stories, the pace is generally slow, but the immersion is deep.

By contrast, the passage of time in a story has nothing to do with the characters. It’s all about how the Reader perceives the passing of time.

One oft used technique is to provide the Reader with actual dates. For example, in the short prologue to Miira, I used the date and title of the news article – ‘September 22, 2101 – Three dead in Stradwick‘ – to place the Reader squarely in the future. I did something similar at the start of Nabatea – ‘…the voice of the AI seemed unnecessarily loud as it confirmed brain death at 1:46 pm, Sunday the 25th of December, 2101.’ but I was a little sneakier about it.

And that provides me with a neat segue into why writers shouldn’t use dates too often – they don’t always work. I’m pretty sure the date of Alex Tang’s death would have registered with Readers, but I suspect most people would have skimmed over the date at the very beginning of book 1.

A far more effective way to show the passage of time in a story is to make the Reader feel it. Yes, I know, easier said than done. Before the evolution of the current fast paced, smack ’em first and smack ’em hard style of writing, authors used to be able to get away with things like:

  • And two weeks later, Joe Bloggs did XXXX
  • Two years before, when Mary Bloggs did XXXXX etc

There is a place for this kind of technique, but it is [excuse the pun] dated. A more cogent reason not to use it is physiological; the human brain builds memories by creating multiple connections to them. Teachers know this by the name of ‘repetition’. The word strikes terror into the hearts of all students, but repetition does not have to be dull and boring.

Want the reader to see your Main Character as blond and blue eyed? Then show them, every now and then, by some oblique reference that may not register at a conscious level but will register at the level of the subconscious. I sometimes think of this kind of gentle, subtle repetition as painting a portrait in layers of colour and shape and edges. As writers, we have to apply those layers using words instead of paint, but the building of layers remains the same.

Making the Reader feel the passage of time is a bit more complicated than building the image of a face, but changing the chapter and the POV [Point of View] acts as a circuit breaker. The steady, sequential flow of events stops, and the Reader is suddenly elsewhere, looking out through someone else’s eyes. When the story eventually returns to the first character, there is a sense of distance, of time having passed…as in fact it has.

But be warned, constantly jumping from one character to another can be incredibly disorientating. Yes, there may well be a sense of time having passed, but the technique could also cause a nasty case of confusion. Changing the POV just to simulate the passage of time is not such a great idea. Simulating time should be one of many different techniques used to tell a story with the Reader in mind. What does the Reader need to know and what is the best way of presenting that information?

I like using multiple POVs, but I know that some of you prefer to tell stories from the perspective of just one character, so I’d love to know how you tackle the problem of time.


p.s. the free period for Nabatea ends tomorrow at midnight, February 20 for Northern Hemisphere people, or about 6 or 7pm February 21 for Southern hemisphere bods. πŸ™‚

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About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

27 responses to “Timing in fiction…

  • Timing in fiction…

    […] Timing in fiction… […]

    Liked by 1 person

  • Candy Korman

    This is an interesting thing to contemplate. There’s also the option to jump around in a timeline. Often, perhaps too often, a mystery starts with a dead body and then backtracks to what led to the murder. This can work, but it can also bore the reader. I just read a book written with three distinct POV/Voices and with one timeline in the recent past contrasting with one in the present. ‘Searching for Sylvie Lee’ by Jean Kwok. The older sister, Sylvie, is missing and her younger sister goes to find her in the place she was last seen and encounters the same people as part of her search. The use of TIME was very clever. But it was also a big clue for a reader when it came to the actual mystery of what happened to Sylvie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      That sounds like rather an interesting story, but maybe not for a murder mystery? Maybe it was supposed to be more of a thriller instead? That said, the lines blur a heck of a lot.


  • Yorgos KC

    Very interesting post, Meeka! πŸ˜πŸ€“πŸ˜

    Personally, I like time references, both writing them (hopefully not in a boring way) and reading them. One reason is that in many of my stories some of the characters live very long lives (or are immortal). Another reason is probably the fact that I refer to my watch all the time to keep track of time in real life. Without doing this I can’t easily distinguish between ten minutes and two hours πŸ˜… πŸ˜… So, I find such references… comforting.

    So, overall, personally, I don’t consider mentioning time, or how much time has passed a problem, or something that will discourage my reading. On the other hand, if there is much confusion regarding time, this alone can make me stop.

    Not as a time-relate subject, but since you’ve mentioned it, the multiple POVs… I don’t use them much, but don’t consider them a problem. I use third person narration when I want to give the story from different “POVs”. That’s my style, but there are many very well written stories that have two or more POVs, beautifully arranged, giving more depth and making the story more interesting. Read (or tried to read, more accurately) a book, though, which was practically changing the POV every two paragraphs. Very bad tactic! Got me tired too soon and abandoned it. πŸ˜…

    I think the key is to avoid excessive use of these techniques, just like with the techniques you mentioned in the, “How close is too close”, post. For instance, I really like flashbacks and, even, flashbacks in flashbacks. A lot. But there is such thing as “too much of a good thing”. For example, in Naruto Shippuden (yes, yes, I know stupid example, but couldn’t find a worse case) there are about 100 episodes of consecutive flashbacks between the time he clings his hand to a fist, until the time he lands the punch. I could only think, “Oh, shit! Can’t we go on with the punching?” 😠

    Ok! That’s all πŸ˜‡

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      LMAO!!!!!! Oh thank you. You’ve just given me my first belly laugh of the day ‘Can’t we go on with the punching?” I’ve never punched anyone in RL but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t even think of doing it unless I were really really REALLY angry. Or maybe scared. Either way, there wouldn’t be much thinking going on. πŸ˜€
      And you’re absolutely right about the ‘head hopping’ you get with too many POVs. I usually make it one POV per chapter unless it’s important to show multiple reactions to the same event. Then I make it one POV per scene.
      The thing I found hard to overcome was the ‘author’s voice’ thing when I’d suddenly write something that the current POV couldn’t know. It’s easy to fix once you’re aware of it. Sadly it’s also very easy to do in the heat of the moment. πŸ™‚
      I don’t mind flashbacks so long as there aren’t too many of them. Not sure I’ve ever read a flashback within a flashback?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yorgos KC

        I’m afraid I can’t say I haven’t punched anyone in RL, but, as you said, there wasn’t much thinking happening at the time. I’m not a violent guy – not at all – but life happens πŸ˜’

        The “author’s voice”… yeap! Editing can reduce a character’s amazing psychic abilities 🀣 As you said, an easy mistake to make, but, thankfully, it’s not hard to notice, if you keep an eye on it, while re-reading your story. πŸ€“

        Flashback within a flashback, I have read one, but can’t remember the book. The character started remembering her past while in a flashback chapter and as the tense turned to “present” it became a flashback more than describing a memory.

        Liked by 1 person

        • acflory

          -grin- Yes, isn’t it amazing how psychic some characters can be? Beat Sherlock Holmes hands down. πŸ˜€

          I guess all those flashbacks could work, but I suspect I’d get half way through and lose the plot. A risky technique methinks. πŸ™‚

          Liked by 2 people

          • Yorgos KC

            Risky, indeed. When the secondary flashback starts, the primary becomes something like the actual plot, which shouldn’t be the case. In my opinion, it can work nice if there are “strong” questions of the main plot answered in the secondary flashback. This way, it stays connected to the actual plot. Hope this makes sense. πŸ€“

            Liked by 2 people

          • acflory

            Yes, it does. πŸ™‚ Nesting the story like that can be both risky and powerful. I guess, like everything, it’s all in the execution. πŸ˜€

            Liked by 2 people

  • Widdershins

    I love writing from multiple POV’s πŸ™‚ but this time it’s all from one characters POV … and not something I’ve actually done for a full length novel, only in short stories. It’s an interesting journey. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

  • Anonymole

    And then there’s the flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks.

    The first story I wrote was chronological, purely. And it lacked in what we might call human time drift. Humans are able to contemplate all along the the scale of time. Remember that time… Ooh, don’t touch that… When you return from your trip, we’ll have a party.

    We like to jump around in time. A story need to do this too, otherwise it feels like a newscast.

    Keeping track of who, what, when, where is a challenge. And mostly the when. Jeeze, did he cut himself with the ax before he was twenty? Hell, let me go look that up…

    Good topic. A tough one to get right.

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      -grin- Yes! ‘And in the future, when we will have colonized Mars…’
      Thank you for bringing up the fluid way we think, and speak, about time. Writing that way is tricky though. I read a very good book that alternated between present day storylines and a storyline from the past that gradually explained the back story to the main event in the present. Essentially a whopping big, ongoing flashback.

      The story was gripping so I stuck with it, but at each time change I had to stop and reorient myself. Was not the most comfortable way of reading a story and yet, I still remember it almost ten years later so…-shrug-
      Oh! And dream sequences. The not-quite-past that allows the character to think about what really happened. lol

      Liked by 2 people

  • MELewis

    Another great post on craft! Personally I have less trouble with pacing than with the actual passage of time. Keeping it straight in my own mind, above all. Then slipping it in to keep the reader in the frame without boring her with TMI. Also struggling a bit with POV. Started out with close third but am now wondering if I should rewrite with multiple as it is so restrictive. The thing about this writing game is you learn by doing, and trial and error is a tough school! 😬

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      Glad you like it, Mel. And yes, definitely learn by doing. I didn’t know any of this when I started. Oh, I could ‘feel’ when it wasn’t right, but I also had to learn how to fix the bits that don’t work. Almost everything I write about in these posts is ‘after the fact’. lol
      I love multi pov because you can zoom in very close to each character whilst still having a fair bit of freedom. Bottom line: write the story that feels right to you…and justify it after. πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 2 people

  • ChrisJamesAuthor

    Very good post on what is an interesting issue. Like most things in fiction, the author has to be behind the scenes, wizard-of-oz-like, so the reader feels natural progression in the story time. If I need to hurry things along in a chapter, I do something like:” Joe went looking for Mary. Two hours later, he found her…” but because it is useful and convenient, I think it must be too easy and look lazy *sigh*
    Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      lol – I like being the wizard of oz too. πŸ™‚ The problem with telling the time is that it’s easy for us but not necessarily easy for the Reader.
      I am so grateful to that almost-good book I reviewed recently. It crystalized so many issues for me because I reacted to it as a reader first, writer second.
      As for being lazy, I’m pretty sure you’ll never be accused of that! lol

      Liked by 2 people

  • Audrey Driscoll

    I’ve used everything from stating the date at the beginning of a chapter or scene to more subtle techniques like inserting letters (which of course include dates) from one character to another, or casual references such as “The year [whatever] was a hard one.”
    You’re right that these details are easily overlooked, but if at some point they become important to the reader, they can be found in the text.

    Liked by 3 people

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