Show, Don’t Tell, How Time Is Passing

“Show, don’t tell.” Novelists know this mandate. But there are many different ways to “show,” and now that we’ve spent the better part of a year exploring how movies “show” scenes, you have a much wider and deeper understanding of ways you can show your story unfolding. In last week’s post, we took a look at the quality of time, and saw how it’s all about the perception of the individual. And so characters in a novel can also have moments in which time seems to slow down or speed up, or take on some odd or surreal quality.

Just How Do You “Show” Time Passing?

An unimaginative novelist may say something like “for Jane, time slowed to a stop as she waited hour after hour to hear news of her son” or “Time seemed to speed up as Ralph kept glancing at the clock, worried he’d never finish that report on time.” Telling a reader what time feels like to a character is ineffective and lacks power. It also doesn’t show what it looks like. How would you show time slowing down? Well, think about what it feels like to you when you are waiting anxiously for something.

We all know the expression “a watched pot never boils.” It actually does, but if we stare at it for a few minutes, we start noticing lots of little things, like the way the bubbles form at first slowly on the bottom of the pot, then grow bigger and start rising faster to the surface. We might notice when the steam starts forming like wisps of ghosts and hovering over the surface of the water. We might hear the clock ticking in the background, the neighbor’s dog howling. The golfers across the street laughing and whacking at golf balls (well, I live on a golf course, so this is what I hear from my kitchen).

What I’m trying to show here is that our attention shifts when time seems to slow down. We start to notice things we would never notice—things we don’t have the time to notice in our busy lives. But when forced to wait, we have nothing else to do but notice. We may even count the linoleum tiles over and over in a waiting room, or stare at dust motes dancing on a sunbeam. You can convey the sense of time rolling in slow motion by altering your character’s perception of time.

The same basic idea applies to speeding time up. We looked at how Montage Shots and Series of Shots can speed time up. Using clipped sentences and short words, and having a character’s attention zipping from one thing to another, never able to focus long on anything, is one way to speed up time. To him, everything seems to be zooming around him. People are talking too fast for him to understand; chaos is reining around him. News hits him without a chance to breathe. We know what an adrenaline rush feels like in an emergency or danger situation—how the heart pounds and blood races in our ears. Writers can use the character’s internal and external impressions to create a sense of quickened time.

Skewed Time

If you haven’t watched the movie Memento (2000), I highly recommend it. I’ve concluded after watching this film numerous times that the screenwriter and director Christopher Nolan must have first written the scenes in chronological order, then printed it out, took a pair of scissors, and cut it all apart and put half of them in backward order. Or something like that. The black-and-white scenes are shown in chronological order, while the color scenes work backward in time, and at the end of the movie create a circular completion, meeting at the end and piecing everything, finally, together.

Why was the movie done like this? Because it’s about a man who has short-term memory loss and whose sense of time is radically constricted. Since he can only recall short passages of time, aside from his long-term memories, the scenes are choppy and short, and cut off in the middle of what is happening. His character, Leonard Shelby, has to tattoo hints on his body, and leave himself notes and Polaroid snapshots in order to help him solve this murder mystery that he seems to be involved in but can’t remember.

Creating the Same Effects in Your Novel

So think about your characters. Are there moments in your novel when someone is waiting expectantly for something important to arrive or happen? Are there situations in which your character is slammed by an event that leaves him reeling, unable to process what is going on around him? Look for those moments in your scenes and play with the character’s perception of time. Slowing down time for a character does not equate to slowing down the novel’s pacing. In fact, slowed time, when done well, adds tremendous tension, which keeps readers turning pages as fast as they can to find out how this tense situation will resolve.

Bringing Time into Your Image System

In the movie Unbreakable (2000), written by M. Night Shyamalan, near the end when Elijah Price, the antagonist, reveals to the hero David Dunn through a touch of their hands that he had set up and caused the numerous catastrophic disasters around the city (planting bombs for example) that caused hundreds of deaths, images of each disaster are shown in a creative jagged sequence of time. The sequence only took less than a minute, but it stuck with me for years.

The shots are void of color except for bits of blue on Elijah, and Shyamalan uses an interesting effect by having portions of each clip speed up and move on to the next shot. It’s one of the most important moments in the whole movie, and so what is revealed in a scant few seconds needs to have impact. And Shyamalan does this by altering time in a subtle way, as well as bringing in color splashes to make these emblematic shots. They are also, interestingly, shot from a high angle looking down, and tilted so they are skewed, reflecting his character’s warped egocentric sense of superiority and entitlement—it’s his calling to do these evil things, but he is whacked, and so the camera angle enhances this. Great elements of an image system and all in just a few seconds of film.

Here’s how the scene reads in the script, although in the movie, Elijah says, “I think this is where we shake hands” and he extends his hand for Dunn to take, knowing he will then “see” the truth, finally.

Elijah has a newspaper on his lap. He holds it up. There’s a drawing on the front page. It’s a hooded figure shielding two huddled children behind him.

ELIJAH(soft)

It has begun.

David stares quietly at the sketch of himself.

ELIJAH

When I saw it this morning, I felt a part of the world again.

Elijah looks down at the newspaper. David hesitates and then reaches forward. He reaches past the paper… And TOUCHES ELIJAH’S ARM.

FLASHCUT: AN AIRPORT GATE. ELIJAH IS STANDING AT THE WINDOW LOOKING OUT ONTO THE AIRFIELD. HE’S CRYING. SIRENS START SOUNDING THROUGHOUT THE AIRPORT. WAITING PASSENGERS START GETTING UP AND MOVING TO THE WINDOWS.

MAN

What’s going on?

Elijah speaks to no one in particular as he stares out the window with tortured eyes.

ELIJAH

A plane just crashed.

CUT TO:

FLASH CUT: ELIJAH AND AN ELDERLY MAN IN A UNIFORM ARE SEATED IN A HOTEL BAR.

ELDERLY MAN

I’ve worked here twenty-five years. I know all its secrets.

ELIJAH

Secrets?

ELDERLY MAN(whispers)

Like if there was ever a fire on floors one, two, or three . . . Everyone in this hotel would be burned alive.

 ELIJAH LOOKS UP FROM HIS DRINK.

 CUT TO:

FLASHCUT: ELIJAH LEAVES THE ENGINEERING ROOM OF AN AMTRAK TRAIN. HE PASSES THE ENGINEER WHO HAS JUST ARRIVED WITH COFFEE.

ENGINEER

Passengers aren’t allowed in there.

Elijah doesn’t answer and doesn’t turn around as he exits train 177.

SLAM CUT BACK TO PRESENT:

David takes two unsteady steps back. Elijah has tears in his eyes as he gazes down at the newspaper. He looks up to David.

By paying attention to how time flows for you, at different moments of your life, you can pick up ideas you can use in your novels. But don’t leave time out of the equation. Great moments in film are often the ones in which time slows down or has a jagged cut to it. So think of places in your novel in which you can skew time for your character, creating an emblematic scene perhaps, that will be long remembered.

This week find a place in your novel where your character needs to perceive time differently. Think of the tiny things she might notice and slow down her perception. Share some thoughts in the comments on what you did to achieve an altered state.

 

17 Responses to “Show, Don’t Tell, How Time Is Passing”

  1. Charles Ray November 20, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    A great post. I’m currently working on a new story in my ‘Buffalo Soldier’ series, and have used some of your hints in the opening chapter to help build suspense to the real action, which actually starts in chapter 3, but will be strongly affected by what happens in chapters 1 and 2. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Deborah Jay November 20, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

    Great post – as ever. I’ve voted for you – and I see a lot of other votes up there too – good luck!

    • cslakin November 20, 2013 at 3:17 pm #

      Thank you! I’m just happy so many writers learn a lot of things from my blog.

  3. Susan Uttendorfsky November 20, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    Fantastic information!

    Thanks for sharing these tips on a very important but actually tiny subject in the wide world of writing. I’ve never seen a post on this topic before.

    • cslakin November 20, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

      Thanks! I haven’t either; that’s partly why I wrote it. This whole year of cinematic technique is something I’ve done all my life, having grown up in TV and reading movie scripts. But I’ve never seen any novel instruction at all on using camera angles and filmmaking technique in fiction. So it’s a lot of fun to explore these topics and share insights.

  4. Will Harden November 21, 2013 at 5:34 am #

    this is something that I need to work on with my novels. People say that things move too fast, or ask Questions like, ” how long before?”

    Thank you! This is good.

  5. Shirley Ford November 24, 2013 at 6:56 am #

    What a great blog article, very helpful, thank you

  6. Allynn Riggs November 25, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    I have enjoyed returning to these posts several times. Really interesting view of writing. Definitely worth reading more than once, especially if you need a new way to handle a scene. Time is important in my novel and this supports how I handled it. Will need it in upcoming novels, too. Thanks for the insight to techniques used in film that can be translated to writing.

    • cslakin November 25, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words. I see such a lack of cinematic technique in novels, and as much as some pooh-pooh all this, the result is often scenes that are mostly narrative summary, showing little and evoking even less. They main objective of a novel is to evoke a reaction, an emotional response, to the story, and that just isn’t going to happen by giving a synopsis of a story to a reader.

      • Interesting Times December 1, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

        While that makes sense on the surface, aren’t there points where narrative summary of passing time is a valid technique? Like, what if it’s important to specify a certain time period has passed, but what actually happened during that time is unimportant? In other words, you don’t so much need the character’s perceptions, but you do need to include the detail so readers aren’t confused or disoriented (I guess the film equivalent is the classic “Twenty years later” subtitle, but I’m still not certain how best to phrase that in narrative, especially when you aren’t writing journal-style where starting off with a date makes sense)

        • cslakin December 2, 2013 at 6:48 am #

          Yes. It is often the best thing to do. Much of the time in a novel, we need to move ahead quickly to a future point in time. There is nothing wrong with using narrative to do so. However, key moments in a novel that require time altered in the character’s perspective calls for something other than brief narrative. We want to reader to experience the important moments in our characters’ journey through their eyes, and as humans, time does have a flexible quality depending on the event. So if we, as novelists, can mimic that feeling in those moments, our stories feel more real and become more engaging.

  7. Crystal Collier November 29, 2013 at 9:34 am #

    I totally love Memento. The movie was sheer genius, and I’m right with you there. Time passage should be felt, not explained. The trick is determining when to take the time to allow readers to FEEL rather than quickly getting the point across.

    • Joy V. Smith December 8, 2013 at 3:23 am #

      Thanks! That’s something I haven’t thought much about and need to include more.

  8. Robert Owen December 7, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

    I am also trying to show the passage of time in our novel, but on a longer scale.
    Such as children being older every time they come in and out of the novels.
    The change of seasons, that sort of thing.

  9. Dan I. March 22, 2017 at 8:23 am #

    Great comments on time and its movement as shown by writing. As a budding writer I really appreciate your thoughts

  10. Human May 27, 2017 at 8:31 am #

    I’m writing this story about a girl anxiety-ridden who is driving but like zones out. I want to show how the time felt like an eternity. How do I do this?

    • cslakin May 27, 2017 at 10:19 am #

      Not easy to answer in a quick comment, but you may want to do a search on my blog for my other posts on manipulating time. My Shoot Your Novel book also has some cinematic techniques that will work well.

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