January 5, 2011

Time in Fiction

The passage of time in fiction is a long and fascinating subject and is intimately related to other choices such as point of view, narrative distance, and many other things. I can be no means address it all, but I thought I’d ruminate on it today, specifically as it relates to the two novels I’ve written so far.

I’m kind of just thinking out loud here.

Pace is a closely related thing but not exactly the same thing. Pace is more the reader’s experience of a narrative and has more to do with rate of revelation than it does the passage of time. A fast-paced book has a lot happening, whether it’s physical or psychological, and a book with a slow pace takes lots of time to ruminate and to digress. It’s more about reader interest and how fast things “seem” to happen.

Time is not directly related to pace. You can skim through time very quickly and go vast distances as a writer and book may come across as slow. That may be because it’s boring to the reader or because not much is being revealed or because the narrative does not seem to relate to the main plot. On the other hand, you can do the Proustian thing and take 50 pages to describe someone waking up and getting out of bed, yet it may seem fascinating to some readers because the rate of revelation ~ of new developments and interesting details ~ is high.

I guess maybe pace is most closely related to how connected, how unified and coherent, all the elements of a narrative are. It’s probably other things too.

But the passage of time. Fiction writing is so amazing because you can make a moment last a lifetime or you can make a lifetime last only a moment. It’s very powerful. Two different writers can take the same concept and one will hold you rapt and the other will bore you to tears. It’s connected with how fresh and uncliched things are. Also whether you’re this person’s ideal reader ~ enough alike that you get what they are saying but not so exactly alike that what they have to say in new to you.

How you handle the passage of time can make or break you as an author. People must feel that they are in good hands. I’ve heard the assertion that fiction is nothing more or nothing less than the expression or handling of time.

Maybe I should just talk about the two novels I’ve written.

One novel, called Deep Down Things, is set in present-day Loveland, Colorado. It’s in first-person present tense with four alternating points of view, only one point of view per chapter. Within each chapter, time moves at a steady clip, but between chapters there can be jumps. No chapters overlap in time but move steadily forward one after another. The novel is in two sections with a six month gap in the break.

On a deeper level, time moves pretty quickly within the chapters. That’s because there is not much recollection or reflection or projection into the future. The characters are pretty much in the present and reacting to what’s in front of them. Partly this was because I grew up in the reserved stoic west, and like many western writers this narrative stance comes naturally to me. Also, though, these were characters who are not very self-aware nor self-reflective. Also, first person does not lend itself well to having a narrator (the voice of the author or overarching consciousness) that is detached from the point of view voice.

The other novel, called Earth’s Imagined Corners (that I’m rewriting now), is historical women’s fiction. It’s set in 1885 Iowa and Kansas. It’s third person limited point of view with two protagonists and a narrator with a strong overarching voice. The point of view may be one per chapter or may switch between the two characters within a chapter. Time in this novel moves steadily forward, no gaps in time, but there are many digressions and recollections and reflections and projections. These are not gratuitous on my part (I hope) ~ they have to be directly tied in to the plot in some way. Time also overlaps, so one character might talk about a day’s developments and then in the next chapter another character might talk about the developments of that same day but from his or her point of view. This always moves the narrative forward though. It’s not simply a rehashing of the same events.

Time is very interesting in this because I’m jumping all over. (I’m thinking about rereading Out Stealing Horses by Per Pattersen because he jumps all over in time too.) In the real time of the novel, I try to move steadily forward, but in the recollections I may just give impressions or a thumbnail or I may do a whole scene.

In both of these, I’m always trying to balance the reader’s expectations with what I need to accomplish. I believe that you need to set up expectations and follow through on things and you should try to go with as basic a structure as possible ~ straight narration as much as possible. I’m always asking myself: Will this break from the pattern I’ve established be worth it? Does it contribute to the effect I’m trying to achieve?

I guess fiction writing is all about pattern in some sense. You raise expectation and either fulfill or deny it. You have motifs that return and twist and change throughout. You have a theme that may confirm or surprise your reader in its outcome. You and your reader are in this intricate dance where you have to bring all your skills to bear to lead as best you can and hope that your partner enjoys him- or herself.

Questions of the Day: Any thoughts to add to this discussion of time?


Melissa Crytzer Fry said...

Tamara - love your blog. And this post about pace and time is excellent. I've been having a similar debate in my head about whether I should 'jump' around in time or be more linear. I tend to be one who appreciates flashback and internal rumination of characters. Those are the stories I truly love to read - the more literary works where I CAN see the author show off a bit. Likely not what the publishing industry is 'selling,' but it's what I like.

I look forward to reading your novels when they're published!

Tamara said...

Thank you, Melissa! It's such a hard question, isn't it? You don't want to lose people, but then you want to have faith in their intelligence, you know?

And thank you for your kind words!! I hope you're having a great start to the new year.

~ Tamara

Tamara said...

PS Everyone check out Melissa's blog! It is abfab.