Monday, December 3, 2007

Time Stops for No Writer

I have a love/hate relationship with time. Mostly, HATE. My least favorite thing to do as a writer is struggle with the timeline of a story. I want to cram more hours in a character's day than is possible. I want some weeks to have at least nine or ten days. And then, when I need the story to get to the Next Big Event, I want months to speed by without attracting the attention of the Time Police. Yes, I know, as Writer Goddess of the story, I can manipulate the passage of time in my own telling of it. But there are limits to what I can do. The sun must rise, for instance. (I think that's known as the Hemingway rule.) Seasons must follow each other in order. If the characters go to school, I must keep track of the days of the week, and not send them to class on a Sunday.

I would really stink at a farm story, like Charlotte's Web, which demands that the writer pay strict attention to time and season, like how many hours of daylight there are in a early winter's day, the warming and cooling of the earth, and the lifespan of a spider. How did E.B. keep up with all that?

For Letters From Rapunzel, I tried to duck the whole issue of time in my rough draft by telling myself the story should have a "once upon a time" feel to it. My editor thought NOT. She said I should consider letting the reader know at least how much time passes between each letter. As I revised along those lines, I suddenly realized that I had made a major mistake in not dealing with time.

Of course, someone who feels as trapped as Rapunzel does in her tower would think about the passage of time! They would probably, in fact, obsess over it. Don't prisoners mark the days of their captivity on their cell walls? So I began adding, at the top of each letter, not only which day it was, but also which minute it was. I discovered that a letter written at 2:02 in the morning under your bedcovers with a flashlight has a completely different feel to it than one written at 3:02 in the afternoon in the boring confines of Homework Club.

I don't think authors should detail the passing of every second in their books, any more than they should dwell too much on descriptions of the weather. But this weekend, I made sure that the characters in my next book aren't showing up at school on a Saturday morning. They go to bed after enough hours have passed (if their parents make them) and if they don't, there's a mention of why not. I put a clock in their classroom, and the teacher looks at it (unhappily, I might add) and I even---this is a triple back flip---mention a time zone difference between one character and another.

What about you? Do you notice what an author does with time in her story? Or is it one of those things we writers slave over, give minutes---no, hours---no, days!---of our lives to that, when done well, is not marked by readers at all?


  1. Oo, that triple-back-flip is mighty impressive, Sara. Kudos.

    My time issue is whether or not to include dates at the top of chapters. In my mind the book is a diary, but I never know if dates throw the reader out of the story. But I actually print out monthly calendars so I can write in each box what happens that day. If I don't, it gets away from me, just like you said.

  2. Time is definitely an issue to me, both as a reader and a writer. I used to have the same types of challenges you describe (so aptly!) and have found that using a calendar or timeline or mindmap helps iron out those sorts of wrinkles.

    Thanks for such an interesting post.

    - Literary Safari

  3. I tend to notice time (a) when it's important and (b) if you get it wrong.

    I think time was a very important aspect of Rapunzel and I did notice it because you're right--a letter written in the middle of the night under the covers is very different than one written at Homework Club.

    There was another book (which shall remain nameless) where she included the times various things happened one afternoon. The author's time-line made NO SENSE. As this scene happened early on in the book, it ruined a story I think I would have otherwise enjoyed.

  4. I don't write fiction, of course, but even with essays I often have to chart out timeframes. I will sometimes resort to getting a calendar from the period of time I'm writing about and plot things out as much as I can day-by-day. This has the side benefit of helping me remember things, too.

    What I often have trouble with when I'm writing is moving people around. A lot of times I forget to do this entirely, like everyone I'm writing about did everything they did in a vacuum.

  5. SUCH an interesting post, Sara! I am with you all the way on this one....I struggle with timeline a lot. I think it's because I get caught up in my story and just don't get bogged down with the small stuff - or at least, if feels small to me. But obviously, when a copyeditor gets her mitts on it - it's not small. You wouldn't believe the #$%^ I went thru with HOW TO STEAL A DOG with timeline! I had her going to school on the weekends and lolling away the day on school days, etc. It was maddening!

    Now I literally do a day by day timeline AS I WRITE. I note: "same day" "the next day" etc.


  6. Oooh. An actual calendar is a great idea. I usually (very late in the process) jot down the major events in my notebook and write down next to them what day it is. That's when I discover I have ten school days in a week or three Saturdays in a row. It IS a lot of &*#@! as Barbara so lovingly put it.

    But I keep telling myself that next time, I'll do better. Next time, I'll start with a calendar beside me. Next time, I'll have my personal assistant schedule my characters' days. Hahahahha! That fantasy didn't last nearly long enough.

  7. While you're at it, Sara, you might want to download the school schedule from some school in your area, or the area where you story is set. It's really useful to know when kids have vacations, half-days, etc. I transfer those dates to my blank calendar (also downloaded from one of the many calendar sites) so I don't trip all over myself.

  8. Great topic and post, Sara!

    As a reader, I like to have some sense of time to keep me grounded.

    As a writer, I take the easy way out ... my first ms and my current WIP both take place over the course of less than a week, so it's been pretty easy to keep track.

    One other aspect of time in a novel: For mysteries in particular, a compressed timeline can really help ratchet up the tension. For example, each of the mysteries in my novels need to be solved in time for a specific event on the last day.

    One of my first blog posts ever discussed how the TV show "24" does such a great job of this. Actually, that would be a great show to watch for anyone struggling with the concept of time in their craft, because it all takes place in "real time" over a 24-hour period. Gives you a real appreciation for the challenge of keeping to a minute-by-minute timeline!

  9. And from the other side of the book, let me say that it's pretty interesting getting kids to study/notice the huge variety of ways authors alert readers to the passage of time, and how authors stretch some moments long and zip past whole huge chunks of calendar other times.

  10. Linda, I thought about "24" when I was writing this post. My son is a huge fan. The interesting thing about "24" is that the writers make you feel like the story is happening in real time, but in actuality, they pull off some ridiculous, time warp kind of things, especially when you figure in drive time in L.A.

    And I like that your mysteries cover less than one week. I wonder what the ideal length of time for a middle-grade novel to cover is? A week? A month? A school year? YA goes into multiple years sometimes. Hmmm. I may have to do a time study of some of my favorite books. Like Mary Lee and her classes are already doing!

  11. "especially when you figure in drive time in L.A."

    LOL. So true. So true.

  12. I know Tolkien dealt with the wildly diverging timelines in Lord of the Rings by paying close attention to the phases of the moon. You can fit the jigsaw together if you look for the mentions of what the moon is doing.

    My personal bugbear, as well as timelines, is FREE time. My characters are schoolkids. So how do they get the TIME for their adventures? Time when their parents are not wondering about them? Etc. I have a personal theory that a vaste swathe of children's literature would never have been possible were it not for the long summer vacation. In fact that's the mistake evil always makes in children's fiction - attacking during the summer holidays. If evil stuck to exam time, it would be ruling the world by now.

  13. "If evil stuck to exam time, it would be ruling the world by now."

    Ah yes, that would be an interesting dilemma for an ambitious character: save the world or pass Calculus? Especially when you're not sure the Evil you're seeing is real, or if you can do anything to defeat it. Which could make derivatives seem like a piece of cake.

  14. Great topic! I think I really do need to print out a calendar, like Robin, for the novel I'm currently revising. Just yesterday I was struggling with the issue of time because I took out one scene--about a page--and as a result, I had to change ALL the references to time in the preceding two chapters as well as the following chapter. Once I figured out how to make it all make sense again, that is!! I'm glad I'm not the only one who struggles with this type of thing.

  15. As a writer, I struggle with timelines all the...time. As a reader, I *love* when the timing in a book is apparent and important. It adds not only immediacy and setting/mood, but also tension. I love deadlines in books, where something is going to happen at a certain date/time, or it will if something is not accomplished, etc.


R-E-S-P-E-C-T (or you will be deleted)

You can receive followup comments to this conversation by checking the "notify me" box below the comment window.