Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Time in Fiction

Someone asked the other day what I consider my greatest weakness as a writer. My answer is time. I have some difficulty dealing with elapsed time in my fiction. (If you look at my three published book-length works [and the fourth one coming out in April] you’ll notice that all the events in each take place in about a week.) I have trouble depicting large passages of time.

Part of the problem (I think) is organic. I have always been naturally drawn to the horror/mystery/suspense/thriller spectrum of genres where a sense of urgency is an integral part of the narrative structure. In these types, the narrative often reads like a timer winding down toward a catastrophe. Thus, they often take place in a limited time frame. (Think the television series “24.”)

Another part of my problem rests in my exposure to stream-of-consciousness literature early in my writing development. Though I don’t and have never written a true stream-of-consciousness narrative, it still influences how I create fiction and how I see my job as an author. SOC as a technique attempted to render every thought experienced by the character during the course of the narrative. It was a complete and total communication of experience. Or it tried to be.

As a writer, I still feel my job is to render for the reader the experience of my characters. This includes any down time that may occur. For instance, a detective working a murder case has run out of leads except for some DNA evidence, but that will take two weeks. What does she do in the meantime? More important, what do I as the author do with those two weeks?

In real life, the detective would remain busy investigating other case and dealing with the normal drama of her home and social life. In fiction, nothing should go into the story that is not absolutely critical to the story itself.

So, in my mind, the author is left with four options for dealing with the two weeks the detective must wait for the DNA results: you can summarize the mundane things that kept her busy for two weeks; you can use the time to address a subplot, if you have one; you can insert a time stamp (such as “Two weeks later…”); or, you can have the detective tie up some loose ends in the case.

Of the four, I absolutely hate the “time stamp” option. It feels lazy to me, like I’m cheating my reader. I have always felt that the writing should tell the reader what the time is, whether the scene is a flash forward or flashback. If the writer needs a time stamp, she’s not doing her job.

I am also not totally comfortable with the “summary” option. Though summary and exposition have a place in every work of fiction, it should be used judiciously and seldom. For the most part, if something is important enough to be included in the work, I should show it to the reader, not tell them about it.

That leaves the subplot and the “loose ends” options.

I ran into precisely this problem in my latest novel, Deception Island (shameless self-promotion. It will be released in April). In my first draft, my protagonist gets shot by the bad guys. It isn’t a life-threatening injury, but, you know, he was SHOT. He’s lost some blood and is in a considerable amount of pain. Due to circumstances, he’s also in hiding and has to make do without medical attention.

In the first draft, he is shot Friday evening and then Saturday is up with his colleagues, trying to strike back at the bad guys. Upon revision, I thought this was probably unrealistic. This guy is not John Rambo. He’s just a young newspaper reporter. Getting shot would be a big deal, both for him and his friends. He would need to spend at least a day or two recuperating from his injuries.

But then what do I, the author, do for that day or two while he’s in hiding, recuperating? Show him and his friends, sitting around, watching television? That seems slightly boring. Especially considering the rest of the novel is pretty much a bang-bang contest of wills. It’s like a chess game. Chess games don’t have time outs and that’s what this would feel like if I just have them sitting around healing.

And again, inserting a time stamp such as “twenty-four hours later,” or “Sunday morning…” feels like cheating.

So what did I do?

Which of the four options did I choose to render the time while my protagonist healed?

I did a combination of two. I worked on a subplot and tied up some loose ends in the main plot. What I did was create three new scenes, featuring two of my protagonist’s friends. They leave him to heal and go out to dig up more information on the conspiracy at the heart of the story. As they do, they discuss some of the emotional turmoil the experience has caused.

Does it work? I hope so. Most important, my protagonist is allowed the time to heal enough to rejoin the fray without my having to bring the story to a complete halt.

This still does not solve the problem of larger lengths of time like those one would find in a family saga or historical novel, where there could be years passing between key moments in the plot. I still haven’t figured out how to manage that. Fortunately, I don’t write much in those genres. I don’t really have many ideas that lean that way either.

I have a feeling that the reason I don’t is that I haven’t yet figured a way of deftly handling the time issue.


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