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 to 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.
1. Trust that the facts will come out in the emergence of the narrative. They often do—and the action of the characters or the momentum of the narrative arc will convey details that you thought you had to convey.
2. Use a scene in present time that forces the characters to revisit the past: A trial, a missed reunion, opening a letter that’s not been opened on purpose. In the movie The Angel’s Share this is handled beautifully when the main character has to have a discussion with someone he assaulted. (This is a tradition in Scotland after one has served a jail term.) In this discussion, we see elements of the protagonist’s past right in front of us.
3. Get the reader to be curious about something, so the flow to the past satisfies a curiosity about the present and often some action in the present. (Think of the reader swimming in the river, noticing something floating in the stream and reaching backwards to get it.)
There is an opportunity for timelessness in fiction. This is when the voice of the narrative persona (the voice of the author of the story) emerges. This can happen in third-person fiction but not often in first-person. You’ll probably notice that many of the things to avoid in fiction involve relying on timelessness—which takes us out of the river of the story. Among them are endless expositions and static flashbacks. A good writer, however, can find ways to ally the reader with the narrator so the segues between action and information, past and present, are seamless. Ben Marcus does it in his current story in The New Yorker) (The Dark Arts by managing to stay close to the feelings of the character. He has the advantage of telling an up-close third person story—i.e. one in which we stay with the feelings of one character and remember and see the world through his eyes. But there are other techniques—even in the first person—for example when the butler’s memories in Remains of the Day are tied to something that is deeply important to him at the moment. Perhaps one of the most challenging forms is an omniscient third person narrator who inhabits many different characters. However, even in this form, you can use an up close approach every time you zero in on a character. Or—as Jane Austen or Flannery O’Conner do—you can insert a brief narrative comment, never taking the reader out of the river but allowing them to rise above it for a miraculous instant, that is to know they are in a river.
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