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. 🙂
Apologies if I missed your local Amazon website.