Today, we’re talking about time, and how it relates to plot.
Time is one of the story elements that sits in a very unique position – either the story is built around it, or it doesn’t get mentioned outside of passing details that end up being of little consequence. You can’t say that about other elements like setting or description of objects. Time is at once critical and not, flexible and fixed, static and dynamic.
We need to know the time. It provides a boundary over the scale of a story, it helps gives actions and characters a significance. If we’re telling the story of a kidnapping, knowing the time of certain scenes and beats help us map out the events of the story, even if it gets all chopped up Rashomon style. If we’re telling the story of a planet being forged out of starstuff and gravitic forces, we’re less concerned about the congealing of hydrogen on a particular Tuesday, and more interested in the zoomed out galactic view of millions or billions of years.
The nice thing is that as storytellers we have an infinite supply of it. Even if our storied is bounded within the confines of a single day or a weekend or a few hours, no matter the boundaries we can set up the pacing of the story to allow for lots of actions to be occurring simultaneously within our chronological windows. As I write this post it’s early afternoon. I’m willing to bet that while I’m writing this post, there’s someone elsewhere who is answering a phone, or pouring a glass of water, or thinking about pickles. I’m comfortable with that bet because there are so many people and places in the world that I can’t easily conceive or count them all, so I’m chalking a lot up to possibility.
As a creative, you have such enormous control on what’s possible in your world. How much can someone do in a day?
Well, Die Hard (the movie that’s on in the background while I’m typing this), takes place over one night. John McClane does a lot of things, if by a lot you mean shoot, run, and quip.
I pick that film because it shows a stretching of time. Over the course of an evening, Gruber and his forces infiltrate, take hostages, begin a robbery, and get foiled, all before the sun rises. Outside of a few plot demands that people be released or actions be taken at certain times, you don’t really know how long it’s been from shooting that security guard to the Rickman plummet. And you don’t have to. In Die Hard, time is immaterial. It takes time to do these things, but whether it’s 3, 5, or 7 hours doesn’t matter to you.
Contrast that with Ghostbusters. There’s a pretty generous collapsing of time. How long does it take for the busters of any g-h-o-s-t to build a following, make radio and television appearances and get a small business in New York City off the ground? Sure, it’s all montage with cuts back to Sigourney Weaver, but that montage represents weeks or even months.
Between those two films, you can see the flexibility of time as applied to story.
Ask yourself how critical time is in your story. Do we need to track time as if it’s finite (as in a kidnapping or heist story)? Do we need to stop considering time altogether, because there are more important things at work (like in high fantasy where it’s all warfare and drama)?
Ask yourself what benefit time has in your story. Are your characters challenged by a lack of it? Is time so abundant they can procrastinate without any consequence?
Ask yourself if time is bound or unbound. Bound time is the period of time the story takes place in as a range of days in sequence, but we don’t look past it. A story about a weekend bachelor party where we’re only concerned about Friday to Sunday, is bound time. Yes, we have an idea that time exists beyond and existed prior to the story, but we’re only asked to focus on a specific range of contiguous time.
Unbound time is the period of time the story takes place in, but it doesn’t matter if the days are in sequence or not. A story told in non-linear chronological order, or a story with inconsistent stretches of time (a weekend here, a Tuesday over there, a Monday to a Wednesday later on), gives us a sense that time is a thing, and it’s “sort of” acting as a boundary in our story, but it’s more of a guideline than some concrete rule.
We’ll end today with this – managing time in the story goes a long way to giving it credibility and a feeling of groundedness. Even if you don’t use our Earth-based calendars or time metrics (any of them), even if you rename all the days and months and give them irregular lengths or durations, you’re still giving the story one additional layer that people can hold onto and invest in.
Don’t dismiss time. Don’t put it off. Some of us have waited many many years for some stories to get advanced, so don’t think it’s not important to us.
*I apologize for the brevity of this post. HOLY SHIT TODAY IS STAR WARS DAY! WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT ANYTHING OTHER THAN STAR WARS?!
See you tomorrow, where we’ll conclude our discussion of plot with Plot Crutches.