Tempus Fugit … (or does it?)

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of draft manuscripts, including a couple of my own, and for some reason I started thinking about the use of “time” in story structure. It may be a function of what was on my desk this week, or something deeper and more profound, but as writers we don’t seem to often talk about the specifics of time movement in our work. We hear lots of general guidelines like “avoid opening with a flashback” or “avoid too much backstory; it can interrupt pacing.” We even hear things like “the pacing lags in your piece.” But generally these comments are vague shorthand for a feeling someone has about the manuscript in terms of the emotion – or lack thereof – on the page. Probably the most specific thing I’ve heard consistently about time in the editing/critiquing context is that when you write an action scene it’s good to use short, sharp sentences to convey a faster pace.

What about time writ large?

What more can we do with time in our writing to create the emotional depth we’re seeking in our work?

I found myself recently suggesting to a writer that she compress the time period over which her short story took place on the basis that there was no apparent need for the story to take 12 months when it could just as easily take two or three. That was simply a gut feeling on my part. My thought was that compressing the time period would raise the tension in the piece (the genre was psychological mystery so tension on the page was particularly important).

When I’ve taught flash fiction (stories typically between 500 and 1,000 words) I’ve suggested avoiding any kinds of unnecessary time jumps (backstory, flash forwards etc) and simply keeping the reader in the present moment of the story. I’ve seen flash forwards (forward time jumps) done effectively in flash in some circumstances, but backstory hardly ever seems to work in such a compressed story form.

I find myself thinking about time much more in short pieces than in novels and novellas. And epic novels are another story altogether. I just finished reading the third and final book of Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy and he ends up spanning centuries (more accurately, millennia) and jumping backward and forward in time, inserting lengthy backstory etc all over the place. In that context, it works for the most part.

So is it true that we need to be more careful about the passage of time in shorter works than in longer pieces? I don’t know for sure but it seems plausible (although there’s no excuse for a longer piece that drags and loses the reader because of a lack of pacing.)

What’s the best approach to handling time in the writing context?

I’d love to hear what other writers think about this.

I suppose it’ll all become clear to me in a matter of time …