Good morning. Welcome back to the week. The sky is clear, the sun is out, I think today might be worth seizing. So let’s pour ourselves a morning glass of iced tea into our best mug (mine talks about butts) and talk writing, shall we?
Today, I want to talk about time as it is used in a story. Time is one of the most manipulated and relied upon elements of storycraft, because it’s instantly familiar to the audience regardless of genre or any reader specifics. We all know about time, we all have feelings about time, we all know how time works.
And like the other instantly familiar concepts (like emotions or world physics), when it’s done well, the story maintains its cohesion and proceeds as planned. However, when time gets monkeyed with (and I don’t mean as a function of the story, I mean when the author sucks are expressing the passage of time), it can stick out like a sore thumb.
It’s that point I want to address. Time has a lot of story components, some of which I think warrant more explanation and definition, rather than just a blanket statement.
Have you ever defined time? It’s the progression of events in one direction, presumably forward. We have different units of time that we all agree upon (seconds, minutes, centuries), unless the genre calls for a change to them, as may happen in science fiction where a particular planet has a month marked in 41.3 days or something.
There’s something known as baseline time in storytelling, and that’s the idea that there’s the accepted measurement of time in story as the readers have in real life. When a story mentions a day, they mean 24 hours, that sort of thing. This baseline creates familiarity, and keeps the author from having to eat up valuable space in a manuscript laying out the chronological metrics.
There’s something known as assumptive time, which is the basis for Stretch Theory. Assumptive time is the idea that a “moment” where a story beat happens isn’t defined unless the story calls for it. A bomb defusing scene, for instance, has a need for time to matter more than something vague like “And then Sharon went to the grocery store.” because we don’t need to know that Sharon spent 9 minutes and 3 seconds in the store, just that she went there. Stretch Theory is based on assumptive time, and says: A beat stretches or dilates time as needed in order to present the most complete version of itself. Translated into English, Stretch Theory says things take as long as they need to.
There’s something called narrative time, which is the time that passes during the story as the events of the story happen. Harry Potter, for instance, measures narrative time in an imagined school year, allowing for seasonal changes as well as social change to be factors in-story.
There’s also something known as read time, which is how much time the reader spent in the act of reading, both on a sentence-by-sentence case, but also the bigger scale of how much time the person sat down to read.
When you combine all these things together, you start to see the potential of time as a story element. You want to maximize read time, because more reading is good, and builds audience, is enjoyable and leads potentially to sales, etc etc. You want to use accepted time as a way to keep the reader following along, giving them a frame of reference they can understand, so that they can focus on what you’re talking about (also maximizing read time) and you want to manipulate assumptive time so that you present the most interesting beats and moments in a story.
Let’s do an example as we dig deeper. Suppose we have two people, let’s call them Kerry and Tracy. Assign genders and age as you like, but let’s put these two people in a relationship. Let’s not marry them yet, but let’s say this example is the story of how they met, and concludes with them getting married. Let’s also agree that we’re not going to introduce too much randomness into this example (like there’s no magic spell to make them fall madly in love on a Tuesday and be married Wednesday). Here are two people in a story, regardless of genre, and we’re telling their story.
Time and relationships is tricky, because while yes, I have tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of words I can devote to creating this relationship, there’s a sweet spot as to what’s going to be believable and what isn’t. Take too long, and the reader can grow impatient, assuming the obstacles preventing the relationship’s development aren’t substantial (Tracy not calling Kerry back “just because” is not as substantial as Tracy not calling Kerry back because Tracy is still getting over the loss of their ex due to a tragic playground accident.)
Move too quickly, and the reader won’t believe these characters truly care. (I’m looking at you Les Mis and Twilight). This is due to reader experience almost universally indicating them that outside the world of your story, relationships take time. This is particularly important if we’re going to put some realism in our story, because realism is going to require us to mirror reader experience.
So how do you find the sweet spot?
The good news is that you can look to other story elements to figure it out. A relationship is a symbiosis between people, so it’s important to have a sense of the qualities and shortcomings of each character in the relationship as well as a sense as to how they overlap.
Coming back to Kerry and Tracy, let’s keep Tracy with a problem letting go and a dead ex, and since we’re building a healthy relationship here, we can either give Kerry a skill at letting go, or a comparable issue with relationships, since we want to see the two characters develop together by working on their issues collaboratively as well as individually. Let’s give Kerry different issue, so they’ll have no problem with letting go, but they’ll instead have a problem that Tracy can assist them with.
(This is called “simple symbiosis”, when Character A’s faults play to Character B’s strengths and vice versa.)
But, you ask, how long can this take? Stretch Theory.
Map the expression of the plot and symbiosis across beats, not chapters, and here’s why: Because beats compose chapters, and staying fluid here allows you to let Stretch Theory be an asset and not a bore.
Take the problem at the heart of the story: Tracy and Kerry need to get together, stay together, and get married. If we present this arc as three beats, or even 3 chapters, it’s going to be a very short progression, and its brevity asks a lot of the reader – the less information provided, the more assumptions you’re tasking the reader to make and agree with. (There’s a danger in information saturation, where there’s too much material, but we’ll get to that.)
We can divide this whole relationship into pieces. When slicing, try to end up with even or divisible numbers, because your overall structure benefits with division. (It’s easier to tell a story in 8 parts with 4 two-parters, than a story in seven parts with 1 4-parter and 1 3-parter.)
Here’s Kerry and Tracy’s relationship, divided into thirds, because three act structure.
1. Characters meet
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy
4. A date is arranged
5. Dates happens
6. Relationship faces difficulty
7. More difficulty
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties
These 9 elements could be scenes, they could be chapters, they could be beats. Right now, this is the story mapping stage, so I’m not concerned yet with word counts for each part, because I’m just putting my ideas on paper. Subsequent development will have my putting word counts to each section, and expanding this very crude outline, likely with dialogue and a breakdown of the moments that interest me: specifically 3, 5, and 6, because those moments are where I can write some really fun stuff and show off my writer skills.
Notice though that there’s no concrete mention of a chronology with graduations. I’m not specifying here how long the 9 steps take. Step 5 must take some bit of time though, because I’ve labeled it as “dates” (plural), so I must have some idea about multiple things that will happen. The unspoken graduation is forward progress, and that’s established in the idea that the sections are meeting, together, marriage. But within the three parts, there’s additional progression baked in, one thing leading to another until we reach our goal.
When we put time into this outline, we start to see a sense of scale and pace. Let’s put together a really simple progression and use the seasons as our chronology. This will turn our outline into this:
1. Characters meet (SPRING)
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry (SUMMER)
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy (LATE SUMMER)
4. A date is arranged (AUTUMN)
5. Dates happens (AUTUMN TO WINTER)
6. Relationship faces difficulty (WINTER)
7. More difficulty (WINTER)
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties (END OF WINTER)
9. Marriage! (SPRING)
By partnering our outline with seasons, not only are we giving our story a sense of “how long is this gonna take”, we’re also playing with the assumptions and expectations a reader may have about what the seasons mean to them. Spring is often rebirth, so we end our story with these two people starting a life together with new growth, winter is a dark and miserable time, so we partner it with the rough part of our story.
But this still doesn’t tell you enough about how long this should be. Even if we add in word count, like this:
1. Characters meet (SPRING) (5k)
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry (SUMMER) (4k)
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy (LATE SUMMER) (4k)
4. A date is arranged (AUTUMN) (4k)
5. Dates happens (AUTUMN TO WINTER) (10k)
6. Relationship faces difficulty (WINTER) (5k)
7. More difficulty (WINTER) (2k)
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties (END OF WINTER) (6k)
9. Marriage! (SPRING) (5k)
word count isn’t an indicator of time passing within a story. I can spend a thousand words in the present tense while describing the contents of a suitcase and never advance narrative time forward, though reader time passes, because human reading is not instantaneous.
Story believability is not a function of narrative time. Many adventures take place over an unspecified number of days, often without characters doing anything outside of the specific adventure (Hi, first season of 24, where Jack Bauer doesn’t stop to pee). For our Kerry and Tracy relationship, we’re not counting on time doing the heavy lifting of broadcasting our idea. Time is there, but it’s a support structure: the actual events and character growth relative to those events are what’s going to make this relationship feel realistic.
(For the people still looking to get incredibly crunchy and prickly over time, I’d like to point out that the montage, flash forward, and scene transitions all show time as a malleable narrative factor if that’s the story’s need.)
Go back to our outline, and look at item 5, where there are multiple dates happening. We’ll likely have to subdivide that time into its constituent date components of planning, executing, resolving, and the repeating those phases for each date. Additionally the successes and failures stack, so that date 4 is predicated on date 3 going well, and over the course these dates we’ll also escalate the attraction and presumably throw these characters into bed together, likely after they laugh while getting caught in the rain after one too many margaritas at happy hour … or something.
I point these dates out because each date is important, but not the timing of each date. One date might be seeing a movie, written out in two or three sentences, despite the movie consuming 2 hours of narrative time. The total read time for that date? Depending on how long it takes to read the paragraph, so … seconds? Our seconds translate into their hours.
Time is malleable, and we buy into its progress not because we micromanage it, but because we use it to buttress our developmental efforts.
There isn’t a clear formula where you plug in variables for number of characters or word count and get the precise amount of narrative time necessary. In two words (“Years later…“) I can advance time a non-specific amount, even though I give you an indicator of its vector when I use later, suggesting that time has advanced, so likely Kerry or Tracy has an eyepatch or scar or cybernetic limb in the dystopia spawned from in an alternate timestream only visible to Kerry while dreaming after a date night when they stayed up too late playing a very aggressive game of Uno.
The amount of information I use to distribute the the progress and growth of characters is not always proportional to the importance of the thing the character does in order to grow. Yes, it might take years to master an ancient martial art, but I can turn Tracy into a warrior within less than a dozen words: Tracy eventually mastered Fighting Hippo Style.
Let’s wrap today by taking our outline and putting it into a paragraph breakdown. We’ll include the 9 steps parenthetically.
Tracy and Kerry meet (1) at the corporate mixer for new employees of The Job Corporation. Both Tracy and Kerry were hired by Gary, and both of them develop a friendly relationship after some initial professional competition (2 and 3). When their individual dates bail/were secretly killed by Gary, Tracy and Kerry agree to go out together (4), and eventually see more and more of each other (5), though Tracy’s rigid martial arts training that started after their ex was killed by a rogue jungle gym and Kerry’s inability to avoid office drama, keep their relationship somewhat unstable (6).
Gary institutes more corporate changes in his bid for power, and the Tracy/Kerry relationship hits its lowest point (7), when Kerry is kidnapped by Gary’s robot army and Tracy must use their martial arts training to rescue the person of their dreams (8). With Gary ultimately defeated, the couple reunites and moves forward with their lives (9).
Framed like that, time becomes an afterthought rather than a panic engine. This story will develop at the pace it needs to, because we see the whole map, and we’re not just faffing around when we want our characters to grow/change along a particular arc.
My many thanks to my client ZA Maxfield for suggesting this topic. I’ll see you on Wednesday, when we’ll grab a question out of the inbox.