Altering Time and Perception in a Novel

Films have so many fascinating ways to alter time and perception. They can use techniques to make action slow way down or even freeze (or even have only part of the frame frozen in time while other elements are still moving). They can make time appear to be moving at wild speeds. We’ve all seen time-lapse images of flowers opening or the sun arcing across the sky. Such is the milieu of filmmaking. So we’re going to take a look at how filmmakers do this, and then explore ways novelists can accomplish a similar effect in their scenes.

With different lenses a filmmaker can distort the image. There are fish-eye lenses that make everything round like a ball, and there are lenses that have color tints or waver like a funhouse mirror (I never thought those were fun though). In movies a singular sound can be isolated, like the ticking of a clock, or footsteps coming down the outside hallway. How many times have you heard someone’s heart beating louder than a drum, accelerating as danger nears? Novelists can do all these things just as effectively in their scenes, for it’s all a matter of perception.

Perception is Always Subjective

When we keep in mind that each scene in a novel is being experienced by a POV character from their perspective, the question to ask is, just what is her state of mind? In true Roshamon style, we all witness the world around us differently. We could be on a street corner observing an accident alongside ten others, but we all might notice different things. It reminds me of the joke about a group of people asked to look through various holes in a fence and describe what they see on the other side. Up against the fence is an elephant, but because each only sees a small portion of the elephant, the descriptions are completely different. One sees something long and wiggly like a hose and another sees a massive haunch the size of a door, and so on. What we see is determined by how we see.

And beyond that, when asked to interpret the intentions or meanings of things we see, we all color our interpretations of events through our personal experience and knowledge. A child seeing a man talking to another man on a street might think it a friendly conversation, whereas a woman from a dangerous neighborhood might immediately recognize a shakedown and bristle. We bring with us our past and our baggage to every situation in life. A man who feels like he’s been a victim his entire life is going to see everything with a victim mentality. His interpretation of a genuine kindness might be pity.

In earlier posts, we looked at colors, symbols, and shapes and saw how these can be worked into an image system determined by the novel’s themes and motifs. Time, light, and sound can also be deliberately manipulated to bring out the perspective of the POV character and enhance the type of mood the writer wants to achieve.

Altering Time

Early in the year when discussing stationary shots I shared a passage from the novel When Sparrows Fall, showing how the author Meg Moseley used a Montage Shot to create a sense of skewed time for her character recovering in a hospital after an accident. Few novelists consider the quality of time and how the perception of it changes due to a character’s circumstance. But it is a real component of our lives, and so it might just be something you will want to explore with your characters.

We all know how time almost comes to a screeching halt when waiting in an exam room for the doctor to come back with test results. And many of us women know how whacky time gets when in labor to have a baby. I remember asking my husband after the birth of our younger daughter, “Did I really only have three contractions before I pushed her out?” It sure felt like hours, and in some ways I felt like chunks of time were missing. And almost everyone wonders why time seems to ramp up speed with every passing year we grow older. Time is all subject to perception and circumstances.

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A brilliant novel that explores and plays with the ebb and flow of time passing is Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time. The book is about a man whose young daughter had been kidnapped from a market, and ever since, time seems to have stalled for him. Throughout the book McEwan plays with time—stopping it, slowing it, speeding it up, and going back in time, with present time overlapping the past. It’s a fascinating book that won him the Whitbread Prize in 1987.

This week, see if you can recall movies in which time was altered in some way. As an experiment, try to write a scene with your character perceiving time differently. Find a place (or create one) in your novel in which the character might be in a situation that calls for altered time.


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  1. Thanks for this very educational post. I read it slowly, went on to re-read your post about montages, and want to try these ideas in my writing.

    1. I feel like we often think in montages. It’s a natural way to stream memories and thoughts, and so characters can do the same to convey their mental and emotional states. It’s a great tool to use in fiction.

  2. Excellent post, Susanne, thank you. And with reference to this one and the other on Montage, I suppose that an author, much like an actor, has to stay ‘in character’, by assuming the personality and perception of the character he’s writing.

    1. Yes, everything in a novel is perception. With a film, the camera is an objective observer, but other than POV camera angles in a novel that mimic this quality (see my post on POV as a camera shot), a novel is entirely presented through the eyes and hearts of the characters (or a narrator, who very clearly is a “character” in the story as storyteller). This is so important for writers to understand, for if they don’t, their narrative will feel like author intrusion.

  3. Excellent article. I often think about time not just in how quickly and slowly it passes for a character, but the period in which the novel is set. My series of Nordic romances are set in the 1980’s and although this is a period I myself lived through, I have to really think hard to make sure I portray that time correctly. Life without mobile communications and the internet was lived at a much slower pace, and the perception of time was completely different. It’s challenging but I love writing the novels.

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