Well, I’m back. After two weeks of being a tourist in New York City, of visiting with family and friends, of exploring my old home town and indulging my nostalgia, I’m home again and trying to get back into the swing of work and our family routine. It’s August in Tennessee. Hot and sticky; we step out of the house and wade into air as heavy and thick as peanut butter. My younger daughter starts school tomorrow — fifth grade. Yeah, she’s still young, but I swear to you she was in kindergarten just yesterday. And the older one is about to start her freshman year in high school. Don’t even get me started on how utterly impossible that is….
Last week, I posted from the road on the narrative of memory, on the ways in which stories inform not only our sense of how we entertain ourselves, but also how we define ourselves. Today, I’d like to talk about pacing and the passage of time, in real life, and in our writing. I’ve often said that fiction is a reflection of real life, and that our stories affect our readers most powerfully when we touch on emotional themes that relate to the challenges we face in our everyday lives. But fiction is, of course, an imperfect reflection. There are things we do to the characters in our books that we’d never expect real people to encounter, and there are things that happen in real life that we can’t or don’t do in our books (A few weeks ago I used the example of my daughter’s good friend whose name is the same as hers — cute in real life; confusing in a novel).
Time is a strange and enigmatic phenomenon. On the face of it, time is unvarying and inexorable. Our perception of time, on the other hand, varies constantly. My daughters have grown up in no time at all, but I’m continually amazed by how slowly the clock on my workout machine ticks down. Time flies, it drags, it gets away from us, and yet it keeps a watched pot from boiling. The more we try to marshal our minutes, the quicker the hours seem to slip away. We can try to use our time wisely, but in truth we have no control over its flow.
As authors, on the other hand, we have complete control. (Not over deadlines and their approach — that, I’m afraid, falls under the heading of “Time in Real Life.”) The control I’m talking about is creative. We pace our narratives, we decide the interval that will be covered by our stories, we even use language to speed up or slow down the passage of time as it’s experienced by our characters, and thus our readers. We can bend and manipulate time; we can jump back and forth between the present and various pasts. At the same time, we have to respect time and use it in such a way as to maintain some sense of reality and some gauge of our narrative progress that makes sense to our readers. So let’s take a closer look at a few ways in which we can use time in our stories.
In the most basic sense, time provides an understandable framework for the action we describe in our books and stories. Most tales use understandable time frames to order events (although not necessarily to keep events in order). Even if we create a fantasy or futuristic world that doesn’t use years, months, weeks and days, hours, minutes and seconds, we will usually come up with similar units to describe the passage of time in both a macro and micro sense. Narrative often demands some sense of chronology. Again, I don’t mean to suggest that the story has to be told in strict chronology. Far from it. Whether in books (The Sound and the Fury, Angle of Repose, Daggerspell) or in movies (Pulp Fiction, Fried Green Tomatoes, Godfather II) the elasticity of time and chronology can be a powerful storytelling tool. But even in those examples, a narrative order emerges, even if the strict chronology is unconventional.
But time can also be used to ratchet up the tension in action scenes, or to give valuable clues in to readers trying to work out a mystery. Pacing is the word we use to describe the ebbs and flows of storytelling. But pacing means more than dropping in a murder or a fight or a bedroom scene to keep a plot moving along. Pacing also refers to using prose to manipulate our readers’ perception of the passage of time. For instance, Faith has said in past posts that when the action in her books picks up, she tends to change her prose accordingly. She shortens her sentences, makes her descriptions more terse. I find that I do much the same thing. I phrase my fight scenes one way, my romantic scenes another, my descriptive passages yet another. I want to convey different emotions, evoke different responses from my readers. And, in part, I do this by altering the speed with which things happen. This is somewhat counterintuitive: When the action speeds up, I will strip away much of the description — I’ll use those short sentences Faith talks about. But I’ll also slow down my readers’ perception of time’s passage. It’s almost as if I switch into slow motion. I have to explain movements and tactics that might be invisible to the human eye in “real time.” So I give more info, but I give it more succinctly.
At other times I might use what many refer to as the “Rashomon” method. Rashomon is a movie directed by Japan’s brilliant Akira Kurosawa. It tells the story of a vicious crime through a series of flashbacks, each covering the same time period, but with vastly different perspectives. The technique has been copied by many artists (including yours truly in my first novel) and is a terrific way to use time and narrative to present information about a key scene.
In all of this, the thing to remember is that while the length of hours and minutes might be constant, while chronology must be at least somewhat clear, time for the author is an elastic tool. We can slow it down and speed it up as necessary to make our stories work. We can use our characters’ perception of time to convey emotions. We can present scenes and events out of chronological order so as to (paradoxically) make our plot lines clearer. In real life, we have limited control over the passage of time. As artists, we can and should use it to make our books and stories more exciting and more entertaining.