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Handling the Passage of Time in a Story

An area of story telling I don't see talked about much is pacing.  It turns out that pacing is a huge subject, though, since it also encompasses rhythm and how much or little we share with the reader (and when we share it).  Since it is a huge subject, I thought I'd just start with discussing how we portray the passage of time.  One way to do that is to look at the different kinds of time we use, and some of their advantages and disadvantages.

Real time:  When the reading of the story closely mimics the experience of living through it, the story is in real time.  When a story includes a dialog without any skipped parts, it's in real time.  It's good for dramatizing important actions and making the readers feel like they are experiencing the story.  Some stories will be flawed by putting into real time an event that might better be summarized or left out altogether.

Condensed time:  Events can happen in the story that are important for the reader to know, but not to experience, like, "They dug ditches all morning."  Often condensed time provides a transition from one part of the story to the next.  The biggest error I see with this kind of time usage in stories is when the writer condenses the part of the story it was trying to set up (like the climax), or any other scene that would be more effective in real time.

Exploded time:  The opposite of condensed time, exploded time happens when the writer takes an event that would pass quickly in reality, but stretches it out subjectively.  The best example of exploded time is almost the entirety of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," where most of the story takes place in the time it takes a condemned man to reach the end of the rope that is hanging him.  Exploded time is what happens when a man drowns and "his life passes in front of his eyes."  It's great for creating suspense or for emphasis.

Stopped time:  This is another term for exposition or the infodump.  Despite its bad reputation, and the good advice,"show, don't tell," there can be a time and place for exposition.  It can be dribbled out in bits to lessen its impact, or it could come all at once.  The key is to not infodump until the reader really, really wants to know the information.  I particularly like the infodump in Dark City, where Kiefer Sutherland's character tells everyone else about the true nature of their city.  This was as they rowed a boat to get to Shell Beach.  Stopped time is exactly that, however.  It's the equivalent of every character in a stage play freezing into position as a narrator steps to the front of the audience to tell them background information.  The biggest issues I see with infodumps misused is writers putting them in too early, too often or when the information in them comes out in other ways in the story.

White Space time:  Occasionally there is no need to mention the passage of time at all.  For example, at the end of a breakfast scene, where the characters were talking about what they were going to do at midnight, the writer might triple space or put three asterisks between the paragraphs, and the line that he writes next is, "Turn on your flashlight.  It's pitch out here."  The readers know the time has passed without a sentence to tell them so.  I find white space time can be addictive, and it sometimes makes me lazy.  If I can't figure out how to do the transition, I'll default to white space.  On the other hand, there doesn't always need to be a transition.  Check Nick Mamatas' take on scene breaks (via jp_davis).  White space works for changing settings too, especially if the story uses multiple points of view, which takes us to . . .

Simultaneous time:  There's no reason a story needs to be told chronologically or from a single character's point of view (as long as it works, right?).  If a story has multiple points of view, it may be necessary to tell what is happening at the same time but to different characters.  The classic transition into simultaneous time is, "Meanwhile, back at the ranch."  Edgar Rice Burroughs made an entire career out of switching viewpoints and simultaneous time.  I think almost every Tarzan book tells you what Tarzan is up to for a chapter until he gets in trouble, then cuts to some other characters and what they are up to until they get in trouble, and then it's back to Tarzan.  The simultaneous time creates suspense and paces the story.

Nonchronological time (including flashbacks):  Not every story needs to be told in the order that it happens.  A flashback is a classic type of nonchronological ordering of a story, where a scene is fully narrated, but it happened before the story you're reading started.  Flashbacks serve much the same purpose as stopped time: they give the reader important background information so the current actions in the story make sense.  A really cool use of flashbacks and a very twisty, nonchronological plot is in Louis Sacker's Holes.  You also see nonchronological time and flashbacks in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

So there is a quick primer on time.
 

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( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
aries_jordan
Nov. 9th, 2007 08:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm bookmarking that one because pacing is a big deal to me.
ex_frankwu
Nov. 9th, 2007 09:00 pm (UTC)
That's really helpful, Jim. Thanks. I feel like I just learned a little bit about writing.
mckitterick
Nov. 9th, 2007 09:43 pm (UTC)
These are great, Jim. Thanks for sharing them.
david_f_g
Nov. 9th, 2007 10:20 pm (UTC)
Dark City
I absolutely love that movie. My favorite scene is where Sutherland inserts himself into the hero's life, all the way back to his childhood.
jimvanpelt
Nov. 10th, 2007 12:24 am (UTC)
Re: Dark City
That is a great scene, and I love the movie too, although I'm not sure that part of my attraction to it is that Jennifer Connely gives me goosebumps. *g*
david_f_g
Nov. 10th, 2007 12:38 am (UTC)
Re: Dark City
(Sigh) Jennifer Connely...(insert Homer Simpson drool here.) ARRGH! Wife...has me...in headlock...gtg.
jp_davis
Nov. 10th, 2007 03:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Dark City
Ahh, Jennifer Connely... I've had a crush on her since Labyrinth. And then I watched Labyrinth the other week and realized that I have now reached the age where that is dirty...
agilebrit
Nov. 9th, 2007 10:29 pm (UTC)
*nods* The abrupt scene break is my friend, and I will hug it and squeeze it and call it "George."

...Or "my very favorite crutch." *eyeshift*
joshenglish
Nov. 9th, 2007 10:59 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the list. I hadn't clarified it at all. I've been thinking about meaning motion. In bad movies (especially the ones for MST3K) there are countless scenes of people parking, getting out of cars, getting into cars, etc.
I am trying to examine how successful stories get people from one place to another, and why they opt to do that. I tend to write the exposition on the boat scene: Mention the physical travel and get information out. I'm not sure it always works.
jimvanpelt
Nov. 10th, 2007 12:23 am (UTC)
Sometimes I'll get stuck at a transition. You know, something really stupid, like I can't figure out how to get a character up from his chair and out the door. I'm not sure my solutions always work either.
jp_davis
Nov. 10th, 2007 03:39 pm (UTC)
Good post. The section on white space time, which I use an awful lot myself, reminded me of this post from Nick Mamatas's LJ about the use of scene breaks. He seems to be in the "don't do it" camp, which I disagree with somewhat, but I think there are some valuable insights in there about when scene breaks are and aren't necessary.
jimvanpelt
Nov. 10th, 2007 05:07 pm (UTC)
Hi, JP. I added the link from Nick to the white space section. Thanks for the heads up on the link.
kmarkhoover
Nov. 10th, 2007 09:06 pm (UTC)
True, ERB used this a lot....
ruvdraba
Nov. 14th, 2007 10:02 pm (UTC)
Jim, this is very helpful, but I wonder if it goes deep enough. I was thinking through what 'real time' meant -- since the time it takes to read a scene is not the time it takes to actually perform a scene (except maybe in our youth when love scenes for example really could take 90 seconds!)

It struck me that our perception of 'real time' actually depends on synchronising four things:

  1. The rate of dialogue;
  2. The rate of character actions;
  3. The rate of character reactions, observations and decisions
  4. The rate of external events


Since there are four separate time-streams, you can actually mess with any of them - or more than one. 'Real time' is when all four synchronise and provide the level of detail we'd expect if we were living through the events.

But if you look at 'exploded time', say, you can explode just one time-stream and get some very different impacts. E.g: 'bullet time' where just the character actions are exploded, or 'comic time' where only the dialogue is exploded, or 'funride time' where the character is whirled through a series of events but can react to none of them, or 'impact time' where the character observes and realises far more than it normally would. All of these are exploded time, but all are used differently.

The same is true with 'condensed time'. You have 'link time' where some linking dialogue extends over multiple scenes (used often in comic-book narrative), 'checklist time' where you feed the reader a checklist of the things the character did, but no detail about dialogue, event or impact, 'ostrich time' where stuff happens but the character remains unchanged by it, and 'soliloquy time' where the background pauses while the characters in the foreground do their stuff.

When you condense everything, that gives you 'whitespace time'.

I think that 'Whitespace time', 'real time', 'Stopped time' and 'Simultaneous time' are objective story times. We use them when we want to progress objective story either with detail or without.

But I believe that 'exploded time' and 'condensed times' are subjective story times. We use them when something about the character arcs or impacts concern us.

There should be some guidelines about when these things are likely to be useful or problematic... At the moment I don't know what they are.

That's my current thinking anyway.

A very thought-provoking post, Jim!
jimvanpelt
Nov. 15th, 2007 01:51 am (UTC)
Not nearly as detailed and thought provoking as yours! You've done some advanced discussion on time here. My post is sort of an intro to time.

Thanks for your efforts here. I'll post a note about your thoughts on my next entry.
ruvdraba
Nov. 15th, 2007 04:12 am (UTC)
Jim, I think that control of time has a strong impact on control of tension. I agree with you that it's odd then that so little has been written about it.

This looks like it will be a very interesting series. I look forward to reading it!
(Anonymous)
Dec. 15th, 2007 12:51 pm (UTC)
Idetrorce
very interesting, but I don't agree with you
Idetrorce
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )