Managing Fictional Time

Are you managing your fiction’s time? Last post we talked
about exposing your character’s deepest secrets. Yet a story can’t be
compelling if you reveal that secret in Chapter One. Managing Time efficiently
is essential to keep tension rising.

Writing Tip for Today: All fiction writers must be time
managers. Here are some tips for good time management in fiction:

Life v. Story Action

In real life we constantly get interrupted, do mundane tasks
and go down plenty of rabbit holes and side streets. In fiction, we must write
some of these details to keep our stories realistic, but in general, we’ll skip
over or summarize all events/actions which have no bearing on the story
outcome. Why the difference?

Because readers. Readers not only become bored with details
and events that don’t matter to the story, they also constantly look for clues
about how the story unfolds. If you write a scene which has nothing to do with
the story’s promise—what you’ve set up readers to expect—they will quickly
become confused, lose interest or both.

One way writers confuse realism with story management is by writing scenes or narrative meant to illustrate character. By separating the character’s qualities from the main story, you send readers down one of those rabbit holes. Instead, try to integrate these qualities by embedding the qualities into dialogue, action and emotion.

For example, let’s say the character is afraid of snakes (Duh). If you write the whole scene that illustrates the fear of snakes yet has little to do with the main story, readers will scratch their heads. Instead, try weaving a line here and there about the fear—and link the fear to what is happening in the real time scene.

Rate of Revelation

In general, the more important an event in fiction, the more slowly it should unfold. You need readers to understand the importance of events, and time management is a great way to signal importance. For example, two characters are having an argument. The tiff may start off rather insignificant, but as they argue, the stakes rise and readers find out what’s really eating the characters.

If the writer draws the characters as adversaries early on
there may be short and subtle clues that something is building. Each clash
becomes a bit more intense, and therefore it’s drawn out a little more. The
last set-to between these characters should be the most intense, with the most
at stake—the scene where secrets and subtext (what’s unspoken) meet.

This climax calls for the most detail, the most emotion and
the most reward if the character prevails. Knowing this, you’ll want to let the
weight of each previous encounter build a little at a time. If you write this
build-up in a logical way, readers are more likely to feel satisfied.

Pacing is Everything

Many new writers draw out “getting to know the character in
ordinary time” introductions at the opening of a story. Readers will not stay
with you unless we find out early on that there is something the character
wants that’s worth reading for. My advice is to hint at the coming high stakes
even before the storm begins.

Other writers do the opposite and throw everything at the character in the opening. Readers do need something to hook them but remember that “building up” idea. The saying goes, “If in your novel, the character’s favorite tree is destroyed, don’t burn down the tree in chapter one.” Remember, every good story must have tension that rises. If you write the most dramatic scene one page one, where can you go from there?

Getting the pacing right is a skill most writers learn during revision. As you draft your story, the pacing may be too fast or too slow. If you storyboard when you start revising, it’s easier to step back and observe where things happen too fast or not fast enough. Then you can cut or flesh out scenes to give them a more logical (and reader-satisfying) pace.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

3 comments on “Managing Fictional Time

  1. Mark,
    Thank you so much for “sharing widely” my post about pacing. I appreciate you and all my readers.
    Keep Writing!

  2. Pingback: Writing Realism, Part I - Linda S. Clare

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