When?

UnknownWho? What? When? And Where?

Somewhere in elementary school we were all told that these are the questions you must answer to write a story. I want to focus on the last two, which often get overlooked. Without them, a story is incomplete. The seemingly trivial matters of time and place are two elements of storytelling which are as integral to a well-wrought novel as any other. But they are not as sexy. You won’t find many chapters dedicated to these two elements in Craft of Writing books.

First, time. When I launched into my first draft, it didn’t take me long to realize that I had two major problems with the element of time in my book. I realized quickly that all of my chapters were starting with some version of “she got out of bed…it was morning.” Yikes. The alarm clock was getting as much screen-time, so to speak, as most of my supporting characters. Boring.

And yet, the problem persisted—how do I get my hero—and other characters—through the maze of time? How much time do they need to do what they are doing? It has to be slow enough that the reader feels like they’re getting the whole picture (spoiler alert: I was moving them through time too slowly), but fast enough that some real growth can occur inside my heroine. People don’t change their whole lives in a day.

And I need to give my readers enough clues about time that they know how much is passing, and that time does, in fact, exist inside the world I am creating. Part of what makes the human condition so poignant is the constant press of time. But, I don’t need a clock and a calendar printed in the margins of every page, either.

That brings me to the second observation I made about my writing process the first time through. I was writing about the seasons in real time. In other words, because I wrote the first draft in six months (woohoo, Agile Writer Method!) spanning winter and spring. . .my novel also took place in six months. Spanning winter and spring.

But, actually, my main character and plot needed a little more time than that to evolve. They needed about a year, actually. So, I needed to slow time down, and allow for gaps, and adjust the changing of the seasons accordingly.

I think there is one thing that can help you with these sorts of transitions more than anything else. Reading fiction, particularly other novels. I think that reading fiction as a fiction writer is such an important topic that I plan to write another blog post devoted entirely to exploring that subject. But I think that seeing how other author’s handle elements of storytelling, such as the passing of time, is enlightening and informative. Who knows? You might stumble on an example of how to treat time that you wouldn’t have conjured on your own.

Next time, a few thoughts on the element of place in crafting a novel.

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