Thursday, May 18, 2006

Do you have the time?

If I could save time in a bottle - Jim Croce

Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?- Robert Lamm (Chicago)

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It's abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? -Samuel Beckett, (Waiting for Godot)

Time is one thing writers seldom talk about. When we discuss the craft, and how we approach our stories, we focus on point-of-view, character development, and description. We do talk about tense - past, present, or future (usually pointing out a writer who has let one tense slip into another) What we don't focus on is the role of time in our stories.

Most of my stories consist of scenes that consume a finite amount of time - minutes, sometimes hours, seldom more than days. When I combine those scenes, though, the story traverses a grander scale of time. Transit Gloria moves through three decades, offering snippets from each before moving on to the next - or the previous. On the Bluff carries forward through a half-century, pausing at intervals to shine a spotlight on my characters in their then-when, before pushing forward several years to another spotlight.

The other night I was reading the Publisher's Lunch and one of the deals was described something like this:

John Smith's novel about love between a young man and his lusty and beautiful middle aged neighbor, and his struggle to deal with the breakup of his parents marriage while the country prepares for war, all takes place on the night of Joey Luckybuck's senior prom.

It occurred to me that although I've read books that encompassed very short periods of time, I've never considered writing one. My natural inclination is to go the opposite direction. My first novel attempt was a fantasy tale that would have spanned a millenia if I'd ever finished it.

How about your stories? Do they cut a wide swath through the decades, or is a day enough to tell a great tale? Do you have a natural clock that guides your writing? What role does time play in your stories? Have you ever stumbled across something that made you want to stretch your legs, to try a path you hadn't noticed before? If so, what's inspired you?

I think I'm going to be playing with time for the next little while... or long while. Hey, I've got the time.

Closing time. Time for you to go out to the places you will be from. - Don Wilson (Semisonic)

Mark Pettus,
Thursday, May 18, 2006

14 comments so far. Thank you, Blogger Mr. Faust, Blogger M. G. Tarquini, Blogger Adam Hurtubise, Blogger S. W. Vaughn, Blogger anne frasier, Blogger Matt D., Blogger Bernita, Blogger Michele, Anonymous Anonymous, Blogger Jeff, Anonymous Kirsten, Blogger Dana Y. T. Lin, Blogger September, Blogger Naomi,

Let me know what you think

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at 10:03 AM Blogger Mr. Faust said...

I think the issue of time is largely a factor in two genres - the thriller, where a deadline cranks up the potential for suspense (cf 24), and the literary novel. In the case of the latter, it's a literary device, usually symbolic, such as in the cradle-robbing novel you described, or in Joyce's Ulysses.

Definitely some fodder for a future post on my part. Thanks!

at 12:16 PM Blogger M. G. Tarquini said...

I wrote a fantasy that happened over the course of a year and a half. However, the entire third part happened over the course of 24 to 36 hours. The last part happened over the final 8 months or so. Part 1 covered 4 months. part 2 covered 5 months. It's currently 105K words.

I wrote a...tale...that spanned about five decades, but mostly centered around one date which is the catylst for the rest of the novel. It hops back and forth in time and from one protag to the next. There are three protags.

HINDSIGHT mostly happens over 5 months, though the full timeline is about 15 months. Then 30 years.

Hmmm...does that answer your questions? I've other novels, they tend to follow anywhere from a few months to many years. Your story dictates the timeline. That's why I like short stories because I can write something that endures from a few seconds to a few hours or longer. I don't think I could manage an entire novel that takes place in one evening.

at 2:45 PM Blogger Adam Hurtubise said...

Great post, Mark.

The novel I'm writing right now takes place over 8 days.


at 4:40 PM Blogger S. W. Vaughn said...

Ah, time. You're right; I haven't seen much discussion about time among writing advice. And now that I think about it -- I've never really thought about it, as a reader at least.

The only thought I usually give to it in my writing is how time affects what's going to happen and how long my characters have until THE THING occurs. Of course, this dismissal of time has led to some interesting rewrites, particularly when I found out I had two characters reporting to their nine-to-five jobs on Sunday morning (oops!).

My first novel took place over a year. Second one was three months. The third: three weeks. My recently completed fourth happened in six days. Hmmm. I'm sensing a pattern here. Maybe I'd better not go too much further in this series, lest I end up trying to write a novel that takes place in half an hour...

at 9:51 PM Blogger anne frasier said...

i've always wanted to write a book that takes place in a night. my thrillers tend to take place over a period of a few weeks.

at 1:28 AM Blogger Matt D. said...

This is a really good post.

I like to write short stuff that happens all at once, but the longer stuff tends to span large amounts of time.

I think it's one of the reasons Dan Brown does well. People seem to like stories that move quickly.

at 7:00 AM Blogger Bernita said...

Since I have time travel as a central plot element this is a squishy question.
Except for that departure, I use time in a linear fashion, dictated by the temporal logic of introductory scenario, a week-long conference - and the foray into the past strictly adheres to the present's passage of time.

at 12:15 PM Blogger Michele said...

Food for thought.
I never considered that aspect. Until now.
Although I'm just starting, your question forced me to ruminate on that a bit. I'm inclined to say a time period of up to two weeks will elapse for all threads to be tied. In my reading habits, I seem to get bored with following decades of story threads.
People wax poetic about sagas such as the Thornbirds - won't see me in that line.

Of course, now I worry about what - if anything- it says about me, the person. Hmmmmm...

at 3:53 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

My work in progress is a story linear in time over the course of a couple of weeks. I have to say it's been easier than stories which jump around. Transition is so much more fluid.

A story which happens in the course of one evening or day would be a rush, but you've got to construct one pretty rockin' day!

at 10:21 PM Blogger Jeff said...

Most of my short stories take place over a day or two, which is probably true for most shorts. I am in the process of planning my first novel, and at this point it looks like it might cover a time period of one year, and possibly two.

at 2:56 PM Anonymous Kirsten said...

For some reason, my novels -- just finished the first draft of #3 today, none pubbed yet tho -- have all spanned a period of 4-6 months. I think that timeframe works for me because it's long enough that my protag can adjust to the jarring events that I work into the plot, internalize her takeaway & realize whatever transformative effect they might have . . . there, how's that for a litero-wonk response, lol, now I think I need a cup of coffee or a beer or maybe both . . .

at 10:42 PM Blogger Dana Y. T. Lin said...

Most my stories, whether novel-lenth or short story tend to stay within a month or two. I just like it that way. If it's any longer then I know it needs a sequel.

at 1:37 AM Blogger September said...

I had never thought about it before. Thinking at many of my stories, they tend to follow the MC from childhood to adult hood or through several years of adulthood.

My short stories -- those are different. Since they are usually based on an event, they can scan anywhere from a few minutes (The Grandfather Clock) to a few days or months. Though, I tend to give them flashbacks.

Also - the TV show 24 comes to mind suddenly. They have been successful making a whole season based on one 24-hour period. (I love that show)

at 7:01 AM Blogger Naomi said...

My first fantasy novel took place over the course of a year; my current project takes place over about six days. I agree with Mr Faust - it seems to be largely a factor of genre. The first novel was an epic fantasy, the current project is urban fantasy.


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