This article first appeared on Writers Fun Zone.
Now that we’ve entered a new year—a new time, essentially—it seems like a good moment to think about how you use time in your story and what place and function it serves.
Your protagonist’s story begins on the day that changes—when the world becomes unstable—and ends when everything becomes stable again. The time that passes in the story is current time, or the Now of the story; how you use that time affects the story’s content and meaning.
Stay in the Now
Generally speaking, you want readers to feel the rising tension as your protagonist feels it. This tension is interrupted if you step outside the Now and:
- Slow the narrative pace until the action is unfeasible
- Interrupt the story for authorial intrusion or flashbacks
Think how real-life conversations work, and don’t let your characters sit and think when they’re talking to someone or in the middle of a hair-raising rescue. If two of your characters are chatting and one of them stops to think for a page, the other character is just standing there, doing nothing. If the first character snaps out of it and apologizes, you’re still in the Now because you’ve acknowledged that a page’s worth of time has passed. You’re also still in the Now if the second character complains about the first character’s daydream.
But if you resume the conversation after a long sidestep with no acknowledgement that time has passed, neither your characters nor your readers will be in the Now because you broke the scene’s pacing and destroyed that sense of experiencing the action with the characters.
Avoid Interruptions: Authorial Intrusion
Authorial intrusion (when the author tells readers something directly, as in “She learned later…”) also disrupts the Now. First person and third person omniscient POV legitimately use authorial intrusion, but even then, don’t stop mid-scene to explain something or make comments for any longer than would be possible in real life.
Avoid Interruptions: Flashbacks
Let’s say your reader is caught up in the story, swept along by the urgency of the Now, and then you include a scene—a flashback—that happened ten years ago. Then you go back to the story.
Does that work? Many readers like flashbacks because they tell Why. But your story is really about What. (Notice how readers or TV or film viewers ask, And then what happened?) Flashbacks are poor storytelling devices because they tell history, not current events, and they yank your reader out of the Now and destroy the story’s sense of urgency. (If you’re convinced that readers need to know Why, feather backstory throughout the Now narrative as appropriate.)
Remember, nobody flashes back in reality. A flashback is a scene from the past, exactly as it happened. But nobody in real life knows exactly what happened in the past, they only know what they remember. What they remember is in the Now, and what your characters remember reveals a lot about them.
Instead of backstory, use memories. What’s important about characters’ memories—for both plot and characterization—is why that character has that memory at that moment. Something happened Now that evoked that memory, and that’s what matters to this character and drives what happens next.
The Time is Now
To keep your story tension strong, keep your story in the Now. Create the sense for the reader that the time she spends reading your book is the same as the time that passes for your protagonist. In that way, the story never stops.
And that’s the best time of all.