Time in fiction
Time is the dark horse of fiction. Without a sense of unfolding, emergent time—time that is happening at the very moment of in the story--the reader remains outside the story, as one would stand on the banks of a river. Just as a character needs to convey the sense that they are moving through space and embodied, time needs convey a sense of immediacy. It’s far easier to give a character embodiment because you can think of a character moving in space and assume time. But since time and space are simultaneous, we are deeply immersed in time, instantly at one with time. And time (for us and for characters) never occurs without a space. So it’s hard to think of “time” as a singular element.
For this reason, much of the work you need to do to convey time consists of not depending on a voice that conveys timelessness, or thinly disguised attempts to fill the reader in. Here, then, are some things not to do.
1. Long narrative detail that is meant to provide the reader with facts.
2. The use of flashbacks that interrupt the flow of the narrative.
3. The use of flashbacks that are meant to give information and don’t convey the flow of time as it is happening in that moment.
4. Expository or explaining dialogue—either between characters who are solidly in the story or characters who meet after not seeing each other and talk in paragraphs about what has happened since they last met.
5. Sudden “memories” that overtake characters.
All of the above take the reader out of the time of the story and throw them on the
bank of the river. There are, however, some things that do work—and I’m sure you can think of more.
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