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Navigating Time in Fiction: Novellas/Short Novels


Tradition, resistance to tradition, private experience, and innate belief go into any author’s choice of how many imagined minutes or years a story needs to make itself clear and felt. How much time it covers has everything to do with what it means.

                                    Joan Silber, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes 

Every story shapes a pattern in time, and its writer must find that shape. A writer who studies sequencing is concerned with some of the most basic and essential elements of storytelling: selection, order, the passage of time, and the creation of narrative. Anyone who has told a joke will understand the importance of getting the facts in the right order.

Lan Samantha Chang, “Time and Order: The Art of Sequencing”  

What does it mean for a work to traverse different kinds of time? What in each writer’s life, biology, or brain structure leads us to our particular time fingerprint? Most writers have a natural period of time we focus on – past, present, or future – and a natural way of covering that time, from rich expository compression to moment-by-moment depiction of scenes, from straightforward chronology to braided or cyclical accounts. (Then, too, different times and different countries have fashions in fiction, in the handling of time as much as subject matter, level of realism/surrealism, etc.)

Of course, nearly every writer needs, and has, more than one way of moving through time. We may make an effort to push ourselves outside our comfort zones. Still, most of us have a particular speed of seeing/depicting the world, whether we poke along like children amazed by each new ant on the sidewalk or run through a decade or more at a time, evoking a whole series of awkward love affairs or economic disasters that change our characters’ approaches to life.

Joan Silber and Lan Samantha Chang are both brilliant on the subject of time in fiction. Silber’s book The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes has chapters full of examples of “Classic Time,” “Long Time,” “Switchback Time,” “Slowed Time,” “Fabulous Time,” and “Time as Subject.” And the sections of Chang’s essay “Time and Order: The Art of Sequencing” (in Creating Fiction: Instructions and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, ed. Julie Checkoway) look at “Shaping a Pattern in Time,” “Flashbacks,” “Flash-Forwards,” “Frame Stories,” “Figure Eight,” “Reverse Order,” “Out of Sequence,” “Finding the Shape of Your Story,” and “Chronological Order.”

I’ve been reading/rereading a few short novels/novellas: Anton Chekhov’s Story of an Unknown Man (in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation), Lan Samantha Chang’s Hunger, Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, Joan Silber’s Paradise (in relation to the other linked stories/novellas in The Size of the World), and Dinaw Mengestu’s Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. I’m including the last of these because, though it’s longer than the other novels/novellas, Mengestu braids two very focused narratives to compress what could have been a four-hundred page novel into less than two hundred and thirty pages. His single narrator tells two stories in different time streams, one story fully revealed and finished, the other still pending when the book finishes. Since the novel ends before the story would have, Mengestu keeps us as suspended and anxious when we’re finished as we were when we were reading. In keeping with the book’s heartbreaking examination of immigration, loss, and class, we are not allowed an ending that might let us off the hook and give us a false sense of resolution.

Sometimes habitual actions build a sense of the passage of time while they show characters in relation to each other, like the habitual and increasingly bold thieving of the maid Polya from her master’s mistress in The Story of an Unknown Man. The inability of the mistress, Zinaida Fyodorovna, to protect her scarves, purses, falcons, tortoiseshell pins, kerchiefs, shoes, etc. shows her ever-weakening position in the household and also creates moments of recognition/repetition that move us through the book. Ah, here we are again! One more lost item, one more move toward Zinaida Fyodorovna’s defeat.

Another possibility for getting through time elegantly is the single paragraph that slides us through several years via a few key details, giving information and also creating an emotional atmosphere, a sense of why the narrative needs these details and how they relate to the meaning of the story, as in this melancholy and abstract/vivid summary from Chang’s Hunger: 

We gave her the Chinese name of Anyu, Tranquil Jade, and the American name Anna. She grew intelligent and sturdy – a well-behaved first child. Perhaps the heavens took heed of my disappointment and produced a careful soul and body – sound and solid, taking no chances. She did everything exactly when the Chinese rhymes declared she would, flipping over at three months, crawling at eight, teething at nine with barely a murmur. 

Or, from Joan Silber’s Paradise, a paragraph that both takes us into the ominous beginnings of a family’s economic disaster and shows us, specifically and unsparingly, how they look after each other:  

In the second year in Florida my father was always consulting with someone about how to raise funds on property whose value was not what it had been. To save money, we had to let the cook go, and my mother took over the kitchen and made great efforts to fuss over my father. Would he only eat more breaded pork chops? Wasn’t banana cream pie his favorite? It was a very tender time between them. My father looked like a weary old lion, squinting in his chair, and my mother cajoled and teased him. 

Those old comfort foods, the chops, the pie, become ominous in context – and the concise way of narrating these troubles prepares the reader emotionally for the true disaster that’s coming, so much worse than the economic difficulties that preoccupy the characters at this moment in the story.

Here I find myself in my own predicament over time and space: I wanted to look at specific moments in each of the works I’ve mentioned and also at the overall structure of every one of them in relation to the time periods they cover, the structures they use to order their time, and the ways these relate to the meaning.

But that’s a book, not a blog entry. And – oh how sad this is – whether in a blog or a book, we cannot cover all the correlations in the books we’re reading, or, in fiction, every juicy or perplexing thing that happened to all our characters, cannot describe every one of their friends and relations, cannot give all of their friends and relations the dignity of their own story. For some writers, the need to concentrate the story naturally makes sense. And I do love to read those stories. But when I’m writing a book, focusing on an individual life or a few aspects of two or three people together would feel constricting, just as to other writers a short span of time may feel constricting. When we pat down the edges, it sometimes seems to me that we’re pretending not to have left so much out.

In my ongoing attempts to tell the story of the group, in all its ramifications, I find myself splintering my narratives, choosing a few central moments and leaving everything else out, not trying to smooth over the rough places in the collage, just laying down ideas, images, and events, one next to another, and letting the juxtapositions reverberate.

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Ah, time!

I like the idea of time passing rather than calling it a book's "structure"--the latter feels so ominous and unmanageable. I struggled with structure in my memoir, and now I'm challenged by the passage of time--a lot of it--in the novel I'm trying to write. I'm looking for novel models that cover decades--mine travels forty years: from 1968 to 2008. Thanks for these thoughts, Sarah!

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novels that cover decades

Thanks for this response, Kathy. A writer who thinks in ambitious terms, the way you do, is likely to feel it as a struggle. But then the results are so rich when you take on these really large subjects and projects. For works that cover long time periods, Joan Silber mentions V.S. Naipul's A House for Mr. Biswas, Jhumpa Lahiri's Namesake, Carol Shield's Stone Diaries, among others. There are also long stretches of time in Sara Pritchard’s Crackpots, Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World, and Beloved or Song of Solomon, which you could use as examples for this as for almost anything (though I don’t know if you’re looking for more straightforward chronologies – one of the things that’s endlessly fascinating to me about Morrison is the way she handles time and language so brilliantly that she never loses vividness or momentum when she bends time backwards). Would love to hear some of your favorite books that cover decades!

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great article and references

how to talk about time has always perplexed me, because no matter how the time is structured, what seems to matter most is creating a sense of *lived* time so real that the reader is drawn into the time of the story, almost like astral time-travel. The Magic Mountain does this for me: Time almost seems to be his secret subject. But other sprawling novels don't. Sigrid Undset does it in her novels (always a series) about 15th century Norway. (Kristin Landvansdatter or The Axe, one a trilogy one a quatrology.) These work for me because I am drawn into a lived sense of time, the time on the page somehow corresponds to the time in the story even though it scrunches up and fans out like an accordian (sp?).

Great overview, Sarah. thanks

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lived time

Thanks for this great and thoughtful response, Thaisa. This completely makes sense: how interesting it would be to explore the question of how time can be scrunched up and fanned out (wonderful image) and yet remain alive. What kinds of surprises in details, observations, images, and language keep it immediate?

You make me think of one of the greatest time moments in fiction -- "Time Passes" in To the Lighthouse, that beautiful bridge between "The Window" and "The Lighthouse." So alive, so lived, even with all the central characters disappearing, even dying off stage, as the house rots and regenerates.

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I hadn't thought of those books. I want to read them again.

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Navigating time

Time in fiction is so much like time in life - hard to manage because every minute is not created equal. For the novel, especially, I appreciate your permission: to "let the juxtapositions reverberate!"

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the minutes

Thanks for the reminder of emotional time vs. clock time, Carolyn. A challenge to convey the different kinds of time unobtrusively enough that they don't become the primary subject of the novel or story...