Time in life is inflexible – if you’re stuck in a traffic jam, there’s no way to fast forward to the excitement of your destination. But in writing, time is infinitely malleable. Good writers are able to vary the relationship between narrative time and story time to highlight key incidents.
Video transcript follows below:
Here’s a question for you: Which is the longer story – Solomon Grundy
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Grew worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday.
This is the end
Of Solomon Grundy.
or James Joyce’s Ulysses? It depends what you mean. The Solomon Grundy ditty is longer in the sense that it relates a whole life where as the action of Ulysses occurs in a single day, but Ulysses is longer in that whereas Solomon Grundy’s life is covered in thirty words, one day in Dublin is stretched over a punishing 900 pages. There have been attempts (by Sartre and others) to explore ‘real time writing,’ but in most compositions formative decisions have to be made concerning narrative time and story time.
‘Story time’ describes the duration of the action (one day in the case of Ulysses), while ‘narrative time’ describes how long it takes to recount it (in Ulysses, 900 pages).
Novelist Sarah Waters has said that:
Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.
Think about combat sports movies. They may cover months or years of a character’s life, but the climactic moment, the final battle that will see the hero ultimately victorious, often takes as long on screen as did months of the hero’s preparation and training. The director knows to go close and slow because this is the moment that really matters.
Similarly, in your writing you want to devote more narrative time to the important moments and rush through – or omit completely – the times in your characters’ lives that are less important to the story. For instance, if Tina drives home from work and finds her husband dead on the kitchen floor, you might devote a sentence at most to describing the 45 minutes she spent driving home, but several pages to the few minutes during which she notices the door is open, enters cautiously, sees her husband, and tries in vain to resuscitate him.
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
The thumbnail for this video uses an image by the very talented Alice Popkorn. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of her art here: http://alicepopkorn.wix.com/alicepopkorn-