The Making of a Novel: The Passage of Time

10/18/2010 06:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I just got some very good news: my agent likes my new book idea! Woo hoo!! But -- isn't there always a but? -- she had a very excellent question about when the action of the story takes place. I have a long jump from a moment of betrayal to the moment of discovery about that betrayal. It's 42 years -- a period of time which I thought gave the character's revenge more weight -- but which my agent suggests might actually dilute the power of the action.

My task in the next few days will be to examine what might be gained and lost by taking away the time lag and concentrating the action around the moment of betrayal. This got me thinking about the passage of time in a novel, and all the decisions you have to make about time. Here's a list:

  • What is the backstory? What significant events happened before the story even starts? How will these inform the action of the story?

  • How much time will the "present action" of the novel cover? A ride up an escalator (The Mezzanine)? One weekend (On Chesil Beach)? Three generations (The Thorn Birds)?
  • Does time proceed chronologically in the story, or does the narrative jump back and forth, past to present, and possibly even to the future?
  • How much time does each chapter or section cover?
  • How often are flashbacks used? How long do they last?
  • How does time move in the story -- quickly or slowly? How a writer plays these two speeds off against each other can have an enormous impact on the story. It's often what we think of when we think of pacing and rhythm.
  • To read more about time in fiction:

    This is a very informative article on keeping track of time from The Editorial Department

    To learn more about time and pacing, check out Fiction Factor or Randy Ingermanson via Writing Fiction Right.

    A scholar attempts to understand the passage of time in Anna Karenina -- though it might be better just to read the book!