Character Time and Reader Time
We’ve all had the experience of something being over in a flash and, in contrast, of time feeling endless. Time feels different, depending on where we are and what we want. It’s the same for our characters—and our readers.
As writers, we juggle several kinds of time. I hadn’t really thought about this—not explicitly—until I was faced with a conundrum in my work-in-progress. In a nutshell, my problem was that I needed more time for the relationship between two characters to develop, but I only had a specific amount of time, given the parameters of the plot. It seemed unresolvable.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
Before I talk about how I solved my problem, let’s consider the question of time for a writer.
First, there’s narrative time, the months or years or decades that the story covers. There are novels that take place in a day and novels that span generations. At one extreme, there’s Michener’s Hawaii that begins with the creation of the Hawaiian Islands, millions of years ago. At the other extreme, Joyce’s Ulysses is 265,000 words long and covers a single day. Most books fall somewhere in-between.
It’s rare for every hour of that narrative timespan to be on the page, especially in a novel. Unlike what we call “real time”—when we experience events as they’re actually happening, without pausing or skipping ahead—in narrative time, there are parts of the story that are depicted in scene and other parts that are summarized or simply omitted (when he woke up the next morning … by the time she got home … in the months that followed …). As a writer, these choices indicate how you want to signal importance and build or release tension.
Narrative time—the span of the story—doesn’t have to be linear. Flashback, memory, and backstory interrupt linear time; so too, a chapter told through the eyes of a secondary character can halt or divert the forward motion of the primary narrative. And then there are novels, like Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light or Anita Shreve’s The Last Time They Met, that turn time on its head by telling the story backward, in what’s called “reverse chronology,” as well as those like Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife that deliberately jump around in time. As with other unconventional narrative structures, “playing with time” works best when it’s purposeful; one of the things that makes The Time Traveler’s Wife so effective is that the non-linearity of time is what the story is actually about, rather than simply being a way to disrupt reader expectations.
Sometimes stories are framed by a specific (that is, limited) amount of time—a journey from A to B, a race to accomplish something before X happens, a vacation, anything with an end point that’s already been set. Even in a novel like Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, in which the characters don’t know when their time as hostages will end, the author herself knows, and this timeframe shapes her story.
Narrative time is a property of the story as a whole, and the characters that populate the tale exist within that time—that is, they correspond to it and proceed through time at the same way. If it’s winter or a year later for Jo March, it’s also winter or the next year for Meg and Amy and Beth.
Then there’s the reader’s experience of time—how the reader experiences the forward movement of the story. Nope, this has nothing to do with how fast a person reads. It’s the reader’s subjective experience of the story world.
It’s like pacing, only from the perspective of the reader rather than the writer. That is, pacing is what the writer believes she’s doing; reader time is what the reader actually experiences. Kind of like the difference between cooking a meal and eating it.
For example: Have you ever felt as if things were happening too quickly in a story? You want to yell, “Wait, wait! They wouldn’t have resolved the conflict … or given up … or switched loyalties … or realized how much they cared for each other … It’s too soon, too quick!” You want to linger a while, savor the anticipation. You might even be put off by a plot shift that felt artificial, rushed, unearned.
That’s exactly what was happening to me in my WIP.
Here’s what I was facing: I needed my protagonist to get together with the male lead but they only had a few days for that to happen, given the structure of a ten-day vacation in Iceland that frames the plot. While flames can ignite quickly, even in real life, as written (by me, anyway), it was happening way too fast. In other words, it lacked credibility.
What to do? I couldn’t add extra days—that is, increase the span of narrative time. Adding incidents—more interactions and conversations between the couple’s first encounter and their eventual union—would slow things down, but not in an effective way. Instinct told me that readers’ interest would flag if my characters kept talking and meeting and meandering, without really moving the story forward. Using more words to recount the events—what we used to call “padding our papers” in college— seemed like the worst idea of all. We all know how excruciating it is to listen to someone tell a story ever so slo-o-o-ow-ly, with words and detail that weigh it down instead of giving it more life.
I was tearing my hair out when the solution came to me. Or, I should say, when I realized that I was trying to solve the wrong problem.
I didn’t need to add days or scenes, plot twists or events, merely to delay the crucial pivot in their relationship. Nor did I need to slow the pace by adding more description, more dialogue, more interiority.
I needed to prolong the reader’s experience of time. Not word count, from the author’s perspective. But experience, from the reader’s perspective.
To do that, I had to add complexity. Layers, nuance, depth. When I was a qualitative researcher, we used to call it “thick data.” Not more respondents, but respondents who could provide richer data.
I realized that “richer data” could be offered in each moment of narrative time that I already had.
I let myself play with a conversation the characters were having, let it veer into areas that were about being human and didn’t relate, necessarily, to the plot. Moments of poignancy, sassiness, stillness, connection, and humor. Overlapping, the way they do in real life. Incomplete, contradictory, messy. By opening to the characters’ lived experience—not just throwing in more description of the scenery or more visceral referents (stomachs clenching, etc.)—I could let the reader live the scene with them.
The story slowed. Went vertical instead of horizontal, deep instead of fast. Suddenly, there was plenty of “time” for their relationship to develop in a credible, authentic, and layered way.
I’d tapped into reader time.
It struck me later, as I was drafting this piece, that it’s a bit like our experience on a roller coaster. On the ascent, we move ever more slowly—and then, once we’ve passed the peak, whoosh, we pick up speed on the way down.
Speed and story pace aren’t the same thing, of course. Speed on a roller coaster is a real thing that can be quantified, while story pace is a subjective experience. And yet there’s a similarity. As we move closer and closer to a climactic moment in our narrative, there’s a natural desire to prolong the anticipation, to linger and savor all the elements that go into the buildup—which does not necessarily mean adding days or detours or extra setbacks. Savoring is deep and wide; it’s not slow-motion.
And then—after that peak, ensuing events start to happen quickly, rushing headlong into consequences that feel both inevitable and surprising.
Thinking like this has enlivened my approach to the book I’m working on. I’m interested in the story—and how I want the reader to experience that story. Though intertwined, the two things are not the same.
That realization has opened up a whole new layer of craft for me—of search, of wonder and excitement.
What about you? Have you struggled with this question in your own writing? What’s worked well for you? Can you share an example?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!
Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES launches in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published a book for parents of quirky kids and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.