The Art of Writing No. 49

Time and continuity are essential ingredients in books and films unless the author or director is setting out deliberately to play with our daily conceptions of the its passage. So the film Memento travels backwards in its plot, and Pincher Martin by William Golding envisages the entire action in the novel being the last few seconds thought of a dying man. Watching one of the new Nordic Noir series this last week (The Bridge), there were discontinuities which irritated me so that, despite the production’s overall value, they detracted and undercut the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. The serial killer simply could not have done what he did in the time available. Novels are much the same. Time is one of those ingredients that a writer must get right, not only in murder mysteries where it can be almost an extra character. I believe that it works at an unconscious level and even if the reader never investigates your plot (some do, of course and write to tell you, gleefully) it adds to a pervasive, if slight disenchantment with your tale’s integrity. Events in general fiction (by which I mean that fiction which represent life as lived) must adhere to certain principles. In Azimuth the Magus hunts and prepares and eats meals. Whether using shorthand or detail the time taken must be conveyed to the reader. In Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story it is ‘time the character’ which becomes an explanatory force, drawing together apparently unrelated hemispheres in the globe of the story. As mentioned in another blog, Azimuth covers sixty of more years of a man’s life. The central character has children with two different women, he ages, as does his mother and all the other character and so I ended making up a post-hoc time chart for myself which led me to make many small modifications. I didn’t want even an unconscious frisson of doubt to impair the story’s progress in the reader’s imagination.
The backcloth of time can help you in unusual ways, too but you must be explicit with the reader about what you are doing. As in film where we now expect flashbacks, slow motion and parallel imaging, a novel needs to signal exactly how the story’s time-line works, even if it is a post-script denouement or twist in the plot. In Azimuth a sage demonstrates how time is almost infinitely extendable and I conveyed this by setting up the different time scales being lived by three characters in a scene by using different punctuation and an explanatory preface within the account.
For verisimilitude, get your time scale right for the reader and aid his or her total immersion in your story.
Through a Mirror Clear and other works at

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