World of Writing Series: TIME
As a writer, TIME was possibly one of the last things I thought about when writing my first novel. It did not occur to me that in order to build a world for my reader, I would have to instruct them (subtly) on the passage of time. It sounds stupid now I think on it but I thought that it would be the one thing that as I wrote the reader would simply catch on that time was passing in the way I imagined time was passing in my story. And this is because we rarely have to think about it in the real world.
But consider how, come one o’clock on a Friday, when you’re bursting to leave the office, the hours seem to drag on before reaching five but then whip through the weekend where, before you know it, you’re chasing down that final glass of wine whilst watching the Antiques Roadshow on a Sunday evening (don’t try to deny you watch Antiques Roadshow, we know you better than that). When we look at these two perceptions of time we can understand how time might seem to pass quickly for one person but pass slowly for another. It is for this reason that time needs to be managed in the novel so that our reader’s perception of time is as we, the author, intend.
To make the most of how you might manipulate time in your novel, you must first look at the many ways it has to be shown to the reader. Not only do I have to instruct the reader on how TIME passes in the story but I also have to reveal to the reader how my characters experience TIME. I have then to decide how my narrator views TIME and all of that has to filtered through how I, the author, am experiencing TIME. Do I need to alter the language used in order to write a more convincing story, for example in a historical novel? This will alter the tone and pace of the narrative voice and also includes the decision about what tense and perspective to use.
For fun and because I love the sci-fi/classic clash I am going to cover how TIME can be manipulated in fiction by looking at the movie, INTERSTELLAR and the novel, WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Two stories that have more in common than you’d think. I’ve chosen Interstellar as TIME is a major theme and its use in the movie is interesting and I’ve chosen Wuthering Heights because TIME is also a major theme and the nested structure of the novel’s narration places particular challenges on both reader and narrator by its use of tense and therefore time.
I had a discussion with friends at the weekend on concepts of time and the conversation quickly turned to Interstellar. Both said they loved the movie but one was watching it for the third time as the aspect of ‘time’ as was created by the story required detailed watching to get the full benefit of the story.
A brief explanation of the black hole theory in Interstellar: think of space as a giant piece of suspended fabric and this fabric is made up of the horizontal and vertical fibres of time. Think of the black hole as an invisible spherical weight that has been dropped onto the fabric of time. The horizontal fibres closer to the weight are pulled and stretched apart, slowing time. Thus anyone close to the black hole will experience slower time than folks who are further away. In the movie this translates to the team of astronauts in space and the dying population remaining on earth.
In Interstellar, we are first shown video clips of people relaying their past from a distant future, interspersed with scenes of present action. So our interpretation is that events are being relayed in a past tense but in a chronological order. And in a way they are truly relayed chronologically only our understanding of where the characters are in time when events are happening alters the further we go into the story. And not only that but as events unfold, the characters themselves are influenced by their future selves but don’t know it yet. So we have future within the past that’s unfolding in the present – head scrabbling when you think too deeply about it. This is because the characters’ future selves have managed to manipulate time by exploring the theoretical 5th dimension of time. I know! Don’t even. Anyways, even if you don’t have a degree in physics you can enjoy the movie because:
The creators, use character perception to show to us the effects of time. We stay with the characters as they leave their families and launch into space. When they approach the black hole, we are given the information directly that time will slow significantly in comparison to time on earth. Thus leaving our space goers appearing much younger than their earth bound colleagues. We don’t see any change in the characters’ appearances directly but we see how carefully they weigh up the decision to spend time, we see how their children and family have aged in the video messages that are sent to their space craft and this is enough to carry us through the story.
Tense is the only fixed measure of time within a novel. In Wuthering Heights the story is relayed to us through Lockwood’s writings and within that we get a type of tiered narration from Nelly and through her nearly all of the main players in the novel from different stages in their lives. We are not presented with or told the story directly or in a liner/chronological fashion but instead of this keeping us at a distance, it has the opposite effect of allowing the reader’s imagination to build the story themselves from numerous points in time, giving us an incredibly intimate knowledge of the characters’ lives, more intimate than any of the characters, even the narrators.
This would not be possible without Bronte’s manipulation of time in the novel. Like Interstellar when the novel reaches its most emotional points, it feels as if time slows or as Lockwood says: ‘…time stagnates here…’ The closer we are drawn in, the slower the narrative gets—like the blackhole in Interstellar— emotion playing the part of gravity, it pulls on the fabric of time stretching it out until it slows. As the story moves onwards, we are offered views of the characters from past, present and future. In some ways it is almost as if we, the reader, are viewing events in that 5th dimension.
So how does Bronte do this? Bronte uses various techniques such as letters, diaries, Lockwood’s own interactions with the characters and Nelly’s stories. But mostly, she uses her narrators to cleverly fold time into whatever shape is needed to give us a truly rounded experience of her characters.
How do you convey time in your writing? Do you offer a date at the start of a chapter? Perhaps you use the seasons to suggest time’s passage? Or maybe you prefer a simple: Later…
Olivia Kiernan is author of Dawn Solstice and Becoming Lady Beth (Olivia Bright)
On Twitter: @LivKiernan