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establishing time « fictionwritersmanual
  

Example 1: Narrative vs. In-scene

Narrative telling.  (Quick, effective.)

The ship sank.

In-scene showing.  (More story time, more engaging.)

The ocean liner listed, taking on water through the hole the torpedo made in her portside.  The bridge shuddered from two explosions in the engine room, and as the crew struggled to release the lifeboats, the bow disappeared beneath the surface first, soon followed by the hull.

D.  Establishing time

Every reader needs orientation in time as the measure of existence—birth to death for humans, from start to finish for anything.  Stories describe what happened in the way humans experience time, but almost all stories are told in a shorter time than the story would take if lived. Therefore, the stories are condensed (and parts are left out).  Scenes, paragraphs, dialogue—all time-related elements—are altered from real-time progression.

Story time.

Story time is almost always chronological from start to finish.  Readers must know when the story takes place—date, time.

Flashbacks (back story) happen before the start of the story.  When flashbacks are multiple and/or extended, story time can be confused for the reader.  Flashbacks should be used sparingly.

Character time.

Each character has a life lived, so that readers need to know characters’ ages.  Age gives clues about the characters’ mental, emotional and physical states—and since characters speak differently throughout their lives, age helps establish an effective, consistent and realistic voice for each character.

In addition, each character uses chronologic story time that must be proportional to the character’s importance in the story and in relation to other characters.

Narrator time.

Narrators relate stories from a certain time in their imagined lives.  The narrator time, for best distancing and maximum effect, should be different than author time.  The author creates in 2007 a story that is set in 1961.  The narrator might relate the story from his or her present in 1972.  The author does not need to state these relationships, but they should be well established in mind.  Authors should at least think of these relationships for best dramatic effect and accurate characterization.