Hello, novelists! How did your writing go this week? Did it seem like the hours were flying by as you worked? Or did each minute drag on and on in front of the blank page?
Today, as you’ve likely guessed, we’ll continue our exploration of technique in novel writing with a discussion of time. Not, for once, the time you devote to your writing, but rather the primary ways in which we use and evoke time to tell longer stories.
One of the most consistent and omnipresent ways we express time in fiction is via tense. If you’ve ever studied a romance language, you know that the possibilities are vast–the subjunctive, the conditional, the imperfect, etc. Generally speaking, most novels are written in past or present tense. The past tense will switch as needed between past (I walked) and past perfect (I had walked). Present might similarly shift into the present progressive (I am walking vs. I walk). A present tense novel may also include the future construction (I will walk) for dramatic effect. Generally speaking, most prose in English only uses the compound tenses (future, conditional, past perfect) when necessary–it’s unlikely you would write an entire novel in those modes, partly because their construction is somewhat ungainly. (Not to say that you never would, but as with most unusual stylistic choices, you would want a compelling reason to use it.)
So at the end of the day, for English-speaking novelists, the choice comes down to past or present tense. There are advantages to both. Past tense leaves space for reflection–it allows you to anticipate certain events in the novel. For instance, the narration in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is a confession written by Humbert Humbert. This makes the meditation in the novel’s first paragraph possible: “She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” Despite only just beginning the story, Humbert has already told us much about what has happened.
Present tense may be used for a very different effect. Consider, for example, the narration in Chuck Palahnuik’s novel Fight Club: “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s putting a gun in my mouth . . .” Here we not only have a suspenseful plot (our protagonist reflects on the what led him up to this point while the gun is in his mouth) but more importantly a narrator whose experience of time is entirely in the present. The job as a waiter is as immediate to him as his current situation.
Of course, very few novels occur start to finish in a single, complete timeframe (exceptions being novels such as Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which occurs in one day). Rather, the narration pauses, sometimes for the space of a few minutes, an hour, or several years. These transitions are easily enough managed with time stamps or use of detail, but the frequency and duration of such jumps have a critical impact on how readers experience your work. Let’s look at another novel by Woolf: To the Lighthouse. Divided into three sections, To the Lighthouse occurs over two days separated by ten years. Its middle section, called “Time Passes,” is the shortest and yet covers the greatest span of time. The events in this section–which include multiple deaths, a World War, and the deterioration of a family–have a significant impact on those in the final section and yet they are not the novel’s focus. Rather, the contrast between the two days, which anchor each end of the novel, raises its central points about art, change, and the complexity of the human experience.
Ultimately, time jumps are more than merely convenient. They impose the novel’s structure in a much more palpable way than, for example, the division of chapters. It is always worthwhile to examine where your jumps happen and why.
Finally, we have the slippery concept of “pacing.” Pace is merely the rate at which events in your novel occur, but it can be a difficult thing to predict, particularly as you are working through a first draft. And mind you, a fast pace is not always preferable. For instance, we wouldn’t want Infinite Jest to move at the same pace as The Da Vinci Code, or vice versa. Of course, there are always exceptions–some suspenseful, action-driven novels (such as The Song of Ice and Fire series) are in fact quite slowly paced.
Neither is pace a uniform quality in any particular text. The pace might accelerate or decelerate based on your narrator’s feelings about a subject, which event you’re relating, and how much detail you need to communicate to the reader. A sparse, dialogue-driven young adult novel may reasonably pause for a long, descriptive passage as necessary. However, making these transitions can be a challenge–consequently pace is often best shifted gradually.
What role does time play in your novel? How have you evoked it?