I was working on a short story the other day, a tale of suspense set in a neolithic society when I realized there was a problem with my narrative that brought my efforts to a halt. I found that I made statements like: “it took about fifteen minutes to return to the village” and “(the attack) happened an hour, or so, ago”. Those were just two examples of the narrative and they wouldn’t work. They wouldn’t work at all.
Why, you might ask? The examples seem to be fairly reasonable narrative statements.
They are, normally. But in the context of the story I am trying to write, set in neolithic times and told from the point of view of one of those neolithic characters, the time-frame references are anachronistic.
The characters in my story live in pre-industrial, hunter/gatherer culture (which is part of the premise of the story). As such, they neither had, nor had ever come into contact with, watches, clocks, chronometers or any other modern method of measuring time. They would, therefore, have no concept of “minutes,” or “hours.” Certainly not as we do in a modern culture.
Once I recognized the problem, the phrase “it took about fifteen minutes to return to the village” no longer worked. It had no meaning in my characters’ world. It was invalid.
It destroyed the illusion of reality.
Much of what we labor over as writers is a matter of rendering an imagined reality in such a way that our readers can successfully feel they are experiencing it. To do this, they must be willing and able to suspend their disbelief. Anachronisms do more than anything to destroy that suspension.
In Stephen King’s 1975 novel ‘Salem’s Lot, there is a scene where the protagonist, Ben Mears, picks up a revolver and switches the safety to “off.” Unfortunately, anyone familiar with firearms would know that revolvers (with very few exceptions) do not have safeties. It was a factual error and broke the illusion he’d so wonderfully created of the reality of vampires in small town America.
Fortunately, it wasn’t a bad enough mistake to, in my opinion, ruin the novel. Others would probably disagree.
Still, nothing destroys the illusion of reality quicker than anachronisms and sometimes they can be very sneaky. Slang, idioms, and figures of speech are particularly tricky because they are quite often taken from a particular time. Someone during the American Revolution would not urge another to “Take off! Run!” because the term “take off” refers to human flight. And, of course, human flight (in balloons) didn’t occur until the1800’s.
It pays us authors to watch closely any and all idioms for just such anachronisms.
Now, back to my story. I have identified the anachronism in my tale and think I may have a solution to it. The question I have left, and I still don’t exactly have an answer, is how do I create suspense in a story without an exacting measure of time running out?
That one I’m still working on.