This is my second post about time. As time goes by, maybe there will be more.
When you’re considering the time span of your whole story, intensity is a variable. If a few characters are trapped together (think of a stuck elevator, a haunted house, a jury room), everything will be compressed. Your characters will be forced to reveal themselves quickly. They don’t have to form long-term bonds. They need only to solve the crisis. The story may take place in just a few hours or a few days. The urgency creates tension - delightful for the writer.
Out in the world, where you do want some of your characters to form deep relationships, you need more time. In the mystery novel I’m working on (which I just finished the first draft of, hooray!) Elodie, my main character, is given refuge by Meenore, another major character. As soon as Elodie is safe, the mystery begins and they separate again. Wrong! They haven’t formed a bond yet. As I revise, I have to build in a few days, maybe a week, for them to get accustomed to each other, and I have to work in some tension while they do.
My Mesopotamian fantasy, Ever, was inspired by the bible story of Jephtha and his daughter. Kids, this is a disturbing tale. If you look it up, you may want to discuss it with a trusted adult. For our purposes you need only know that Jeptha’s daughter has two months before something horrible is going to happen to her. My book isn’t much like the bible story. Among the many changes I made was shortening the two months to one. Two months felt squishy. One month felt tight. Enough time for relationships to form, not so much that boredom sets in.
On to short-term time-- Take this scene: Three friends go out for ice cream. I want to demonstrate what they’re like, so we see that Bree can’t decide among four flavors. She twists a strand of hair around her finger and enumerates what she likes and dislikes about each flavor. Vanilla is too plain but also pure. Chocolate has to be rich but not too rich, sweet but not too sweet. And so on. Luna interrupts to order a scoop of mocha in a cone, no sprinkles. Tim tells Bree she has to make up her mind because he wants to have a scoop of whatever each of them has, which sends Bree into more agonies of indecision while Luna tells him he needs to find out what he likes, not what they like, and he thanks her for the lecture. We’ve learned something about each of them, but I’m stuck in real time in the ice cream store. They have to pay, and there’s got to be shtick about that, because Tim has only forty-eight cents, and Luna gets mad when she learns that the store doesn’t take credit cards for purchases under twenty dollars.
Five pages have gone by, and even if I ever get them out of the store, there are a million diversions on the street. What to do?
First of all, I don’t have to lay the detail on quite so thick. Bree can dither among three flavors or even two, for example. But detail is good, so I don’t want to cut too much.
I can just pick a point in the dialogue and hit an extra space bar to create a gap and start again at a later time or in a different place. This works best if the last speaker says something that rings at least a little bit final.
Or I can wrench the story away with a statement like, After half an hour, the three left the store and separated for the day, each one IMing the others by the time they were two yards apart. This introduces telling rather than showing, but that’s okay. Nonstop showing is impossible.
If I’m writing from the point of view of a character rather than an omniscient narrator, my POV character can help. I can imagine Luna saying, "Enough! I’m out of here." She leaves and I’m gone too. It’s cool when I can do it that way.
Or, an omniscient narrator can simply jump in with something like Meanwhile, across town.
Sometimes I can bring the real-time segment to a crisis, and this is my favorite technique. Suppose Bree thinks Luna is bossy, and Luna is feeling that everyone is criticizing her. If I have Bree say, “Yes, Mommy,” Luna might blow up. If the friendship is important to the story, Luna’s explosion might be powerful enough to end the chapter. Then, ta da! you can start the next chapter at a later point.
Anyway, it’s not so bad if you do go on too long. In early drafts you can let a scene drag, finish it finally, and keep writing. When you revise, you’ll be better able to judge what to cut and what to keep. Just don’t do what I often do: tinker forever to get the segue just right. Then, later, I find that the whole scene is unnecessary and cut it.
It also helps simply to be aware of time. How many minutes and hours are ticking by during a scene or chapter? Is it still morning? Has time arrived for a meal? Is everybody getting hungry? Are they starving because a week has gone by and you (or I) haven’t fed them?
As I revise my mystery, I’m going to write a chronology by days in a separate document. For each day I’ll list the events that happened. I should have done this in the first draft, but I’ll do it now. I have time.