dog in bed resting and sleeping , with newspaper, dreaming in bedroom under the blanket , very tired

Dog photo © damedeeso / Deposit Photos

Time is a writing topic that doesn’t get a lot of discussion. I suppose it’s because it seems like it’s black and white, when it’s anything but.

Time is one of those things we all know, and in many cases instinctively. We connect with it all day long, from seeing the bit of morning sun peaking out from cracks in the blackout curtains to the time we report to work; we might have a meeting at a specific time, or a doctor’s appointment; meals occur at certain times. And, of course, we might tune into our favorite TV show at a specific time and shut off the lights for bed at another time.

Human beings are part of the bigger picture of the world, where the sun rises and sets, and the seasons change…more in some areas than others. When I was in Southern California, there were two seasons, hot and hotter. In Northern Virginia, there is a distinct divide in the seasons. I can mark the passage of seasonal time by walking through a park every day and looking at the leaves growing in the oaks, maples, and birches above me.

In a story’s scene, time can be a specific time listed,  like what James Rollins does in his book. I think his way would leave me pulling out my hair; he takes it down to the minute, like 4:23 AM ET.

But it can also be a reference to the morning, or the weather (which can do double duty on occasion, like a late afternoon August thunderstorm so you get day time, month time, seasonal time, and weather all in one event.

It sounds simple, and yet, it isn’t. Many writers fixate on plot, no doubt because it feels more concrete than other elements of the story, feels more important. But it also lends itself to ignoring how time progresses in the story. I remember trying to figure out how to add a scene that I needed, and yet, I felt like I would have to pry the timeline apart to do so.  Then, I was following the mantra of “Add more plot” that plagues the writing community…and couldn’t step outside of the advice to see that I was causing my own problem.

A novel can happen over 2 days or 20 years. Time can compress, such as building suspense and tension, or stretch out leisurely when the characters and readers need a little downtime. It becomes a vital component of all pacing because of that.

You can also summarize events, which you might do at the validation at the end of a story, or skip over what would be boring to show. Characters driving from point A to point B, for example.  We might move backward in time with a flashback, or a dream, or time travel. My favorite episode of Stargate SG-1 is Window of Opportunity, because it merges time with the characterizations.

Writers are told that flashbacks are evil and should never be used. I think many writers have the image of a flashback like from a 1980s soap opera, where the scene gets fuzzy and we see the characters interacting on screen with an event that happened weeks before (or even more commonly, a “clip show” where the whole episode is flashbacks because they needed to save money like Star Trek The Next Generation’s Shades of Gray).

Flashbacks themselves don’t have to be a physical scene taking place in the past. They can show up as a few paragraphs or more of a character remembering something that happened to them, such as Kieri in the Paladin series remembering and discussing with other characters about being a slave when he was a child. In that case, time is both in the present and the past as the character remembers his past and applies his present experience, accumulated from the years in between, to it. Time is complicated!

Backstory itself cannot happen without some element of time, and this is probably more intuitive to most writers. Less intuitive, and likely so because of the discouragement of doing any kind of description, is how time applies to the setting in every scene. Dave Farland has said to include some form of light in every scene. This doesn’t have to be the sun rising; it can be the velvet darkness of a night when the moon is in full shadow, or that moment of absolute quiet at about 2 AM when it seems darker and colder than it should be (something I always experienced on guard duty when I was in the Army!).

With only taking a minimalist view of setting details, it suddenly becomes too easy to end up with a character going to school every day, even on the weekends; or having a character experience more events than a single twenty-four hours can handle. I had problems with one book that took place over two days because the author didn’t anchor it well in the time. When she finally mentioned in the story that it had only been two days—3/4s through—it threw me out because I had been picturing something different. With a lack of it, some readers will fill in their own, but others will simply put down the book without understanding why.

When I write, I’ll put a placeholder of the month and day in the story, since that will influence the weather (i.e., what the character is wearing) and other setting details, such as tulips blooming in late March/early April. Then I’ll add to that placeholder what day of the week it is, since that also has its own details, like rush hour during the week, or barbeques on the weekend. Finally, I add to my placeholder the hardest thing; thinking about the duration of the scene.  That’s surprisingly hard to think about, but it helps keep the time happening in the story in perspective.

How do you deal with time in your story?