Time Markers in Stories
Time in stories was the subject of an Odyssey online conference. I hadn’t really thought of time before, at least not until I started putting light into every scene.
When I was in Desert Storm, time was strange. We didn’t have weekends off, so it was get up each morning, have formation, go to work. It was hard to keep track of what day it was because the war interrupted the natural pacing of a normal week. It also had the effect of making time seem like it was really long even though it was only five months.
From the writing side, time starts out as a function of setting and setting is interpreted by characters, so that’s also characterization. Even my real life Desert Storm time was a function of where I was (a war) and how I was interpreting everything around me.
When I added light to the story in some way, it immediately anchored a specific time. A character is turning in for the night, or starts out on a mission as the sun rises.
But then there’s also the feel of the setting, like if you’re outside and the sun is rising, it will get hotter as the day gets later and then the character gets all sweaty. I remember in Desert Storm, during the hottest part of the day, we would all retreat to the tents and try not to move too much.
Or walking on the beach during summer and seeing the sharply cut shadows of myself sprawl across the beach. Of course, that’s also seasonal time, since shadows don’t act the same in winter.
Then there’s food. Meals are a great way to show time. Breakfast makes it obvious it’s morning. I’ve seen some books where a character is a prisoner and they have no sense of time because the meals are served irregularly. Or they identify it as a frame of reference for time.
How about the type of meal? Turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie sets its own time of the year.
The Editor’s Blog had this interesting bit about how aware we are of time:
People are almost always aware of time in their daily lives—time of day or month or year; time in relation to a job or task that needs to be completed; time in terms of religious holidays or seasons; stages of life such as infancy or teenage years, school years, years of fertility, and old age; era, such as the Roaring Twenties or Regency England or the frontier years on Mordant Five; or time as it relates to anticipation of either a dreaded or an eagerly anticipated event.
It’s both a simple and a complex topic, depending on how it’s used.