Altering the Quality of Time in Your Novel

I don’t think I’ve said all there is to say about plot (no indeed), but I want to take a little detour here to talk a bit about something I love seeing done well in novels—and that’s altering the quality of time.

In a movie there are all kinds of techniques the director and film editor can use to speed time up and slow time down. That’s part of what I’m thinking about here. But I’m going to talk not just about the speed at which time seems to move but also the quality of time.

If that seems like an esoteric concept, it is. But I bet you can think of instances or moments when time has felt different. Not just when it slows way down (like when you’ve had an accident or when you’re waiting for a doctor to come into the exam room with your test results ) or speeds up (getting old, in general) but when it feels different. Do you have any idea of what I’m referring to?

Manipulate Time

Time is an element in your novel. You story is told over a period of time, be it a few days or forty years. You pace your novel so you have a smooth passage of time and a coherent one the reader can follow without getting tripped up (or so you hope).  But handling time can also be a sort of technique you can use in your novel to evoke emotions, and maybe emotions that you can’t really name or put a finger on.

Have you ever experienced a moment when someone gave you some shocking news? Maybe someone you were close to died in a tragic accident, and you sat somewhere quietly and tried to process it. Sometimes in those instances, time feels muddled, thick, hazy. You can almost give it a physical or tactile description here.

Have you ever witnessed an accident—a car crash or something so unexpected that time seemed to stop until you could catch up to it? Yes, it seemed to slow down, but it also had a bright, shattering feeling. Maybe I’m just waxing poetic because it’s really hard for us to put into words such a nebulous sensation as the quality of time.

Poignant Beauty in a Plastic Bag

Think about your character sitting on a park bench after getting some tragic news. You could just write “Megan sat there, shocked, unable to move. She had no idea how much time passed before she realized her hands were numb from the cold winter air.” Okay, I just told you how my character felt and that she lost track of time, but I didn’t help you feel how that time passed.

Now what if you do this? Have her look around her and notice something she’s never paid attention to before. Maybe a shaft of light is hitting the roof of a nearby car and refracting. Maybe her eyes catch on the leaves in the tree next to her shivering as if cold. Sometimes having a character notice something seemingly insignificant shows her inner awareness is shifting, and that often shifts the quality of time. This is a great place to insert a motif! (And if you don’t know what that is, read my post on it).

There’s that great moment in American Beauty with the swirling plastic bag. If you saw the movie, you know exactly which moment I’m talking about. It seems like such an odd bit—listening to Ricky (the teen boy love interest) talk as he shows Jane (his soon-to-be girlfriend) a video he took of a bag swirling in the wind. It’s a pivotal and important scene in the movie because Ricky voices the big theme when he says as they’re watching, “This bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it . . . for fifteen minutes. Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel I can’t take it. And my heart is just going to cave in.” Time, at that moment, feels so altogether different than normal.

An Indescribable, Visceral Thing

Besides being a brilliant moment about beauty (what’s so beautiful about a boring bag swirling with leaves and dirt on the street?), while you watch the bag, the quality of time seems to change. The poignancy of the moment does something to time. And so with the girl on the bench in my little narrative. As she starts seeing things around her and noticing details that are small and which no one would pay attention to, time shifts in quality. Emphasis is put on small detail and keen observation.

If you can give the sense of heightened awareness—noticing sounds you hadn’t noticed, like the birds chirping, or noticing sounds disappearing, as if everything goes hush and silent suddenly—you can change the quality of time. At least that’s what I call it, and it’s something I use very deliberately in pretty much all my novels at some scene or another—particularly when I want the reader to slow down and notice something important that they might miss.

Often it’s not something visible, but more emotional or visceral. I won’t try to define it. But I intuitively sense when I need to grab the reader and get him to, in effect, sit and watch the leaves and bag swirling and notice the beauty in the moment. Maybe it’s a Zen thing.

There are moments in life where we feel strangely and marvelously alive. And there are moments when we feel we are dead and can no longer responding to anything around us. The quality of time changes in those moments too.

There are no set rules on how you can emphasize this change-in-time quality, but by having your character notice small things, which slows time down, and explore how she feels in that moment, you may find ways of expressing this very powerful effect.

A great book that spectacularly masters the nuances of time and how it feels is Ian McEwan’s novel The Child in Time. He plays with time in that story in awesome ways, and the story is compelling. It’s his best book, IMHO (he also wrote Atonement).

This week, think of a crucial scene in your novel in which a character needs to react to something and you want to suspend the moment and give it a different time quality. Try the technique above and see what happens, and share your observations with us.

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  1. Good post, something I’ll come back to again. I like the way you discuss some of the more advanced writing techniques in your blog. I know we all need to be reminded of the basics, but it’s also important to keep learning new skills. Thanks!

  2. Wow! That scene had me transfixed. I’ve not seen the movie but might catch up with it after seeing that.It’s such a simple everyday occurrence, a bag dancing haphazardly in the wind,which we usually allow to mesh with all the other ‘unimportant’ images as we rush through our busy lives. We should take more time to absorb the endless minutiae of life around us.
    Great post Susanne!

  3. Susanne– I wanted to post your article at STUMBLEUPON but you don’t have that “click” option here. You might think about adding it. (Or is it here and I don’t see it?)
    Loved this message and your examples. They really helped.

  4. Michelle, the WordPress plug-in I have doesn’t include Stumble Upon. But you can put the icon on your own toolbar so any page you find online you want to direct there, you just click on it with that page open.

  5. Great writers are like artists.They paint a picture with words that transform our every day experiences by showing what we see subconsciously and are unable to express verbally. Once they express the scene, we are amazed. We would have missed a beautiful moment without the view from their eyes.

  6. Dear Miss Lakin:
    I understand perfectly what you are talking about. I catch myself at times stopping to read a paragraph I have written over and over again to see if it says what I want. Sometimes I can see the time frame waver, or peak. Sometimes I can master the nuance I’m seeking. Other times get completely away from me. After reading your information I better see how I might reach my goal every time.
    James M. Copeland

    1. I’m glad the post gave you some insights. I love playing with time. I see my scenes in movie terms, having been raised in TV and by a screenwriter. So I always think cinematic and how I can transfer over technique to fiction writing (next year’s entire course on this blog will be devoted to this in detail). if we watch how some movies effectively slow down time and make us pay attention to little details, we can get an idea how to draw out a moment and make it slow down.

  7. Susanne, I know just where I’m going to use this technique in my WIP. It will make the scene! Thank you so much. If this story of mine ever gets published, I will definitely acknowledge your influence and the “plastic bag” scene.

  8. Always learn so much from these posts Susanne. Watched this video and those connected with it. Novel writing is one thing; a poet I will always be.

    A child’s voice raised in song
    A minute away from snowing
    A dancing bag in the wind
    Heart beats
    A kiss
    The touch of another’s hand in mine
    A smile
    Electric air before a storm
    A dog on a path between trees without a master
    Falls colors
    A road to nowhere
    A lonely gray field
    Framing a sun with my hands
    A frozen lake
    A broken steeple clock
    A dead tree in a green meadow
    Snow between mountains
    Clouds of a storm
    Concrete buildings crowding streets
    A baby’s footprint
    A boat under a sunset
    An amber sun caught between trees
    The blink of an eye
    An empty swing
    An icy highway
    Wind chimes
    A pen out of ink
    A locket
    A child’s stick drawing
    The moons edge
    The lines of desert sand waves
    Flame colored rocks
    Purple deserts
    Drifting clouds
    A church choir
    A clear starry night
    Black and white shadows on the top of a forest
    Sun rays peeking through fallen branches
    Diamonds glistening on emerald leaves
    An empty campground
    A path with no footprints
    Trees I can’t see the tops of
    A child holding a camera for the first time
    The smell of a puppy
    A bird’s song
    The smell of sage
    The old man in rags against a stone building
    Waves of an ocean
    Steam rising from gutters
    Flying above clouds
    A beach without footprints
    A volcano’s lava
    A sails first wind
    A mustang running
    The first time I held my child’s hand
    The base of twisted tree trunks
    Springs first purple wild flowers
    A country fenced dirt road
    Pick cherry blossoms
    The smell of lavender
    A tree that won’t die
    A broken spirit
    The birth of something I can’t see
    The bridge I’ll never cross
    The hum of a voice in a voiceless forest
    Trees of amber in fall
    A belly full of life
    A field of wild poppy’s
    Reflections on a glass pond
    Remembering a life of things I left behind ~
    These are God’s finger prints.

    Rachealgrace Adams……10/24/2012
    Copyright protected

  9. This was one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read. There is a place in one of my books where time slows for Tahrek and I showed his thoughts. I knew that there needed to be a time shift and thought I had handled it well. This is far more elegant and left me feeling as though I’d somehow missed a great opportunity.

    As a point of reference I’ve had the near death experience when my car spun out of control going downhill on a steep slope right after it started to sleet. The car swung from side to side and I was trying to regain control as time moved so very slowly. When I finally reached the bottom and hit the rail on the side I thought I was going to go over into the several hundred feet drop off on the other side.

    You really do see your life in a sudden slideshow of events. Then all of a sudden you are back in your current time. Shocked but alive. That experience is one of the primary reasons I believe time is more fluid than we think it is. And why I try to incorporate those moments in my writing. It happens. I should not have been able to keep that car as stable as I did. Turned out it had a blow out from running over a shot gun shell. Blow out, down hill, during sleet. I didn’t have that driving skill but I seemed to be able to move faster than I should have and keep it from fishtailing into a spin on the steeper part of the road.

    Thank you for posting this. I’m going to try to implement it. Also I tried to share your page on fb but can not find the share button, only a like button.

  10. Great post, as usual. 🙂 I find myself coming back to your blog time and again.

    I’ve been doing this in my new novel quite a bit, where appropriate. Although it’s intentional, it’s also just simple (not!) observation; seeing what the character sees, feeling what she feels, finding how to put it into words. The following scene comes to mind. I feel like something is missing…

    “The rest of the besieged city was waking up, too. Gisela hugged James close and walked downstairs, bare feet slipping over the floor, toes hunting for detritus left from yesterday’s near miss. She thought of it as a near miss because they had survived. In fact, the shot had torn off the northwest corner of the house and bounced across the street to explode inside the bakery.

    She stood at what was left of the front window, ignoring the chill morning air, relishing the warmth of her son’s body. Some of the frame remained, but no glass had survived. Just below, in a tidy pile up against the house, lay parts of the decorative casing she loved so much, along with the rest of the wreckage. She saw the raw posts and beams that Rolf and his men had hurriedly set in place, but focused instead on the receding shadow of St. James’ steeple and the soldiers in formation as they turned the corner onto Bottscherstrasse, the men on the right in full shadow, men on the left kindled by the rising sun.

    She struggled to find the harmonious routine that had kept her going since the siege began. She looked for the uniform buttons that usually flashed in wonderfully chaotic unison, but all she could see were the grim faces of the tattered regiment.”

    1. This is nice. You are in a POV mode where mostly you are showing what she sees and not so much how she reacts to what she sees, how it makes her feel. So you can infuse with a bit more emotion, not by telling but showing how her body reacts. Great imagery in there.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I think you’re right. Much of my writing seems full and yet empty.

        I’ve noticed a similar problem with other street scenes, where — in my mind, anyway, and I have to assume in the mind of the reader — my characters seem to be alone and yet the streets are full of people.

        Hopefully I won’t end up like Philip Roth. 😉

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