Time is an invisible factor in every aspect of life and a significant element to consider when writing fiction. A story can span generations, a lifetime, a season, a day, or an hour. For the best telling of any story, its duration must be carefully chosen.
The timeframe has the most impact on pacing and structure. Thrillers often cover a short interval of time and ratchet up the tension with a clock ticking down to disaster. Clipped dialogue and frequent sentence fragments move the action at a breakneck pace. Subplots are few or non-existent.
A family saga that spans several generations is structurally different and naturally slower. The story requires more description and narrative transition. Readers expect a relaxed journey along a storyline with peaks and valleys and the occasional pause at a scenic overlook.
The time available for a story to unfold also influences how deeply an author can delve into point of view and connect with a reader’s emotions. A coming-of-age novel requires poignant intervals when the protagonist can reflect on recent events, learn a valuable life lesson, and mature. The time required to motivate the growth passes slowly while the author goes deep into the character’s mind showing angst and confusion and, eventually, the revelation that completes their arc.
In contrast, the saga may show relevant episodes in the lives of important players, but the pressure to keep time moving forward over years or decades precludes an in-depth examination of a large number of characters. Readers may feel empathy for a few select characters but not know any of them intimately.
A thriller racing to a climax often draws the camera back further. The focus is on the story action and excitement. The hero, who may be James-Bond-like character, doesn’t stop in the midst of a gun battle for self-examination. He or she has a more archetypical role and is less fully developed.
Time is an important consideration when planning a novel. What genre are you writing? How much time does your story require? What events do you want to show? At what point in time should your story begin: what moment is too early, what moment is too late? Is your story plot or character driven? If it’s character driven, will your protagonist grow through trauma and an over-night epiphany or spend weeks moving slowly through incremental changes that lead to a dawning of knowledge?
Time must pass as your story progresses. So, when you’re starting a new story or revising an early draft, take a moment to consider duration. Matching your story to the proper timeframe will help you make the most of every fictional minute.