By Lisabet Sarai
Can you control the flow of time? I’m not talking about managing your own time in order to be productive (though that would be a worthy topic for another article). I’m referring to managing the flow of time in your stories.
Authors of paranormal or speculative fiction, where time travel is a common element, might answer in the affirmative. Historical writers also need an acute appreciation of time. Those of you who write in other genres, though, might not have thought much about the question. You might be more focused on building compelling characters, producing vivid descriptions, or writing realistic dialogue. If you don’t consciously control the passage of time in your books, however, you may create problems your readers.
In most fiction, time provides the sub-structure for the story. The events that comprise the plot are associated with different temporal “locations”, strung out from the past to the present like beads on a string. A close author friend of mine uses the metaphor of a clothesline. He writes scenes as they occur to him and then “hangs” them on the line in temporal order. (See his example below. You can read about his method at the Oh Get A Grip blog).
Aristotle advised dramatists that all the action in a play should occur within a single day. That approach might work for a short story, but novels usually stretch over a longer duration—anything from days to centuries. This expanded span introduces a variety of risks for the author.
The risk of confusing the reader. Your reader needs to understand when things are happening in order to make sense of the story. Thus, you need to clearly communicate the temporal “setting” of each scene (including flashbacks or scenes from the past that are described by your characters).
The risk of “losing” periods of time. If your story jumps from point A in time (e.g. Monday) to point B (e.g. Saturday of the same week), what happened during the intervening days? This might not be relevant to the story, and you don’t necessarily need to fill in the blank period in detail, but both you and your characters need to be aware that the gap exists. As a reader, I find it really irritating when a new chapter begins a month later than the previous one, without the author telling me anything about what occurred during that period. In general, as time progresses, things change. Longer time periods result in more significant alterations of people, situations, and environments. Keep this in mind as you write.
The risk of repeating periods of time. This is the flip side of (2). Make sure you don’t end up with two Saturdays in a row!
The risk of factual or celestial gaffes. Authors frequently use natural phenomena to anchor a story. Phases of the moon are a particular favorite of mine. If the moon is full during one scene, I need to actively consider what phase it will display a week later. Certainly it won’t still be full! Seasonal variations are another example. My novel Necessary Madness begins in late November, in New England, and continues through December until Christmas. I describe the weather as progressively colder and more inclement, as it usually is in Massachusetts during this period.
The risk of logical gaffes. Humans expect a logical sequence of phenomena, from cause to effect. A glitch in your fictional time line can create a situation where an effect is described before its causal event has occurred. For example, a character might mention another individual in the story, before the two have met or learned of each other’s existence. A reader might or might not notice this sort of error. In the former case, she’ll be confused. In the latter case, she’ll be critical of your skills as a story teller.
So how can you avoid these sorts of problems, especially in a longer work like a novel? One common technique is to create a time line for your story. The line should start at the earliest event you describe (even if that is in the past when your story begins) and should extend to the tale’s conclusion. As an example, here’s a time line I used as I was working on my M/M speculative fiction novel Quarantine.
Quarantine historical events timeline
Because this story takes place in the future, but is influenced by history, I’ve broken my time line into two parts. The first has a larger granularity (years) and shows historical events leading up to the beginning of the book, both personal to the characters (above the line) and public (below the line). I’ve included the public events because they are mentioned by the characters.
The second, more detailed time line shows the course of the story events themselves. Its units are days. The book takes about two months to unfold. As we get toward the climax, the days of the week become important because the “Freedom Crossroads Rally” event must occur on a Saturday.
The second half of the detailed time line reflects chapters I hadn’t yet written at the time I created these diagrams. I was not completely sure about how the end of the book would play out and that uncertainty shows.
I’ve used diagrams for my time line, but a spreadsheet might work as well. One problem with using graphics is that there’s no obvious way to record details (like the phase of the moon or the timing of the tides) that might be ancillary to the tale but still important from a consistency perspective. With a spread sheet, each row would represent one point in time (one triangle, in my graphical representation). Then you could define columns for date, day of the week, scenes or events related to characters, external events, phase of the moon, or whatever, expanding the definition as necessary to capture the information you need.
Quarantine has a relatively simple, linear plot, and thus can be handled by a single time line. Some books, especially those with multiple point-of-view characters, may have multiple parallel time lines. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by Gordon Dahlquist (one the best books I’ve read in the past decade!), features three main characters, each of whom has independent adventures. Their individual time lines merge in certain scenes, then diverge again. I don’t know if Dahlquist used time lines (if he didn’t, I’d like to know how he kept track of such an incredibly intricate tale!), but I’d imagine if one tried to do so, one would need separate time-tagged event sequences for Miss Temple, Cardinal Chang, and Doctor Svenson, braided together like the multiple channels of an ancient river.
Handling time in Quarantine was relatively simple for another reason. The book is narrated using “standard” third-person limited, past tense. I’ve written four novels at this point using first person, present tense. It’s a tricky combination but one that I like for erotica because of its immediacy. Here’s a bit from my erotic thriller Exposure narrated by exotic dancer and (it turns out) amateur sleuth Stella Xanathakeos:
It’s early, and it’s Monday, slow. He’s the only one sitting close enough for me to use my stare, and it isn’t working. He’s good-looking in a clean-cut, straight-laced sort of way. Blond crew cut, blue-eyed, muscles that show even under his expensive suit. At least it looks expensive to me.
He has not taken his eyes off me since I strutted onto the stage, but his face is without expression. It’s like he has walls behind his eyes. I can’t see into him at all. Now it’s me that’s getting frustrated and hot under the collar. I’ve already stripped down to my pasties, boots and thong. I peel one of the tassels off my nipple and dangle it in front of him. He looks only at my eyes. He’s measuring me, sizing me up for something.
I prance around on my stiletto heels. I shake my hips, do a slow, sensuous shimmy, cup my tits in my palms and offer them to him. No reaction. I take off the other tassel and attach it behind, where my butt cheeks meet, a lewd little tail. There’s a whistle from a table in the back, but Mr. Clean just continues to study me.
First person present narration complicates the control of time because you can’t allow significant gaps. It feels odd if the narrator’s voice simply disappears for a day or two, then pops in again. The events in Exposure (except for the final chapter, which is something of an epilogue) take place over the course of a single week. Every moment of Stella’s time needs to be accounted for. Furthermore, she needs to give the reader clues when the time line advances without her providing a blow-by-blow description.
Three quarters of the way through writing Exposure, I discovered that I’d lost a day. I was tracking the days of the week because the plot required it. I realized that I’d skipped from Thursday to Saturday without Friday ever happening. This necessitated some temporal repair work on my part!
Perhaps the most complicated juggling of time I’ve done as a writer is my short story “Underground”, recently published in the ERWA paranormal anthology Unearthly Delights. In this tale, less than 7000 words long, I begin in the present:
So maybe it’s not totally sane. I’ve always been fascinated by madness.
As for safe, where’s the thrill in safety?
You can’t, however, deny that it’s consensual.
Ducking into a blank alley, one of thousands in this city, I make my way to the metal door near the end. The keypad gives off a faint green luminescence. I tap in the combination and the door swings open; my pulse is already climbing. My boot heels ring hollow as I descend the industrial steel steps, and the thump of the bass rises to meet me. Excitement wells up, flooding my cunt, even before I’ve buzzed the final door and been admitted to this most particular and perverse playground.
The techno soundtrack punches me in the solar plexus. My heart stutters like I’ve been shocked by a defibrillator. Delicious weakness sweeps over me, a premonition of what’s to come.
I give the readers a glimpse of my narrator’s personality and desires, just enough (I hope), to pique their curiosity, before shifting to a flashback:
The long years before I found Underground and Z seem like some bad dream—an endless series of fetish groups and kink clubs, personal ads and bar hook-ups, as I searched everywhere for someone who could understand and satisfy my particular needs.
S&M folk like to believe they’re tolerant and accepting. They weren’t ready to tolerate me, though.
The remainder of the story flips back and forth between past and present. Each brief section set in the present advances the particular scene initiated at the start of the story. Each flashback (there are three such sections) reveals more about who the main character is and what she really wants. The tale ends in the present, as the narrator reaps the consequences of her history.
This was a pretty ambitious time line. It took me several rounds of edits to get it right, to create the correct balance between flashbacks and current events, and to make sure the action was advancing consistently in the present. In fact I didn’t fully grasp my target temporal structure at first. The crits I received on the Storytime list helped me to clarify my own goals.
I’m tempted to warn “don’t try this at home”, but in fact, you need to follow your own instincts about the time progression in your stories. If you feel that you need a complex time structure, don’t ignore that insight.
My goal in this article is simply to focus your attention on the question. Maintaining awareness of time in your work can be critical not only for helping your readers understand your tale but also for creating special emotional effects as I did in “Underground”. Sloppiness about time can make your tales annoying, confusing, even unreadable.