Controlling the Element of Time in Your Novel

Time is a slippery thing. And because of that, it poses an intriguing challenge for fiction writers.

We need to control the pacing in our stories, and one great way to do that is to manipulate time.

There are various techniques writers use to do this when it comes to “speed.” We can create beats or pauses by having action come to a halt and our characters noticing normally ignored things around them: a shift in the weather, a ticking clock, a bird circling.

We infuse beats when we want our character and our reader to process something. (This is all part of the action-reaction cycle that is so crucial to understand). Scene and chapter breaks also gives readers opportunity to take a breath and process.

In a movie there are all kinds of techniques the director and film editor can use to speed time up and slow time down. But I want to talk not just about the speed at which time can 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).

Find moments in your novel where your character needs to feel something in a deeper, maybe profound way and see if you can get time to grind to a slow crawl.

Share in the comments about books you’ve read that play with time in a creative, effective way!

Featured Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

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  1. Actually, the first thing I thought of when I read this wasn’t a novel – it was a song lyric. It’s the old Simon & Garfunkel song “Old Friends”, written by Paul Simon:

    Old friends, old friends
    Sat on their park bench like bookends
    A newspaper blown through the grass
    Falls on the round toes of the high shoes
    Of the old friends

    Old friends
    Winter companions, the old men
    Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sunset
    The sounds of the city sifting through trees
    Settle like dust
    On the shoulders
    Of the old friends

    Your point about small details reminded me of these images – the newspaper blown through the grass, the sounds of the city. I know this isn’t exactly what you’re talking about because it’s a song, not a novel, but I think it’s a good illustration.

  2. The article you shared about controlling the time element by time calculator in novels is really profound and fascinating. The way the author describes how time changes to create special emotions for the characters and readers is very subtle.

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