Posted by: Kathleen Mix | December 5, 2013

A Matter of Time

Time flies. Time drags. Occasionally, when I’m deeply involved in a project, time blurs or disappears. Time is difficult to control in life, but in fiction, time can and must be managed carefully.
Historical or contemporary is our first consideration but by no means the last. Every story has an optimal span of time in which to take place. Some stories span a month, a year, or a decade, some a day or mere hour.
Thrillers tend to be packed into relatively short time slots. A ticking clock creates high tension. If the hero has time for a long, relaxing nap or a casual approach to the problem, he might fail to save the world.
Family dramas can unfold at a more leisurely pace as the emotional stakes slowly simmer then boil. Tension can be drawn out by delaying actions and decisions. Making a reader wait for the solution to a character’s dilemma can be as effective as a ticking clock.
My romantic suspense stories can span up to two or three weeks. When a man and woman are falling in love in the midst of a life-threatening situation, emotions can flare quickly. But enduring love rarely happens overnight. A couple that takes the time to resolve the issues keeping them apart has a better chance of staying together happily ever after. The suspense element of romantic suspense requires speed, the romance requires duration. When I’m writing, I’m performing a precarious balancing act between the two.
The length of a book can also determine its time span. A fifty-thousand word novel must wrap up quickly. At twice that length, the author can include more scenes, and if the story needs time to develop, days or weeks can pass before the start of a new chapter.
I’ve just completed a manuscript with a prologue, then a sixty-one year time gap before the opening of chapter one. But from that point, events proceed in quick succession, and the main story takes place in less than a month.
When considering how many days, weeks, or years a story requires, I find it helpful to consider the question: what is the minimal amount of time in which the plot can effectively take place? Characters challenged and under pressure make choices that are the most revealing of their true nature and, therefore, are the most interesting. And a story that drags is too much like real life. Leave out the boring parts and compress time. Your readers will thank you.
So time in fiction is easy. As for managing time in your personal life and career, that’s another blog entirely. And right now, I’m behind on a self-imposed deadline and don’t have the time to write it.


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