Time is such an important element in writing, and maybe we don’t talk about it enough. There is the time period in which a story or poem is set, the span of time that occurs within the work, how we move through time in the piece, and the reader’s experience of time while reading. All are elements a writer is crafting in their work.
Time as setting
Events take place not only in a particular location, but also in a particular time period. A love story will have different elements set in the 1940s, the 1960s, or the 1980s. A story about AIDS will be strikingly different if set in 1981, 1988, 1998 or 2017. It is part of the author’s work to evoke that era through a faithful rendition of its language, its concerns, its mores, its historical events, and its cultural representations. This may require research, which can involve reading books or periodicals from the time period, reading books about the time period, talking to people who lived in that time, consulting online almanacs for the particular year, and/or viewing photographs or films from the time period. Such research can help you immerse yourself in the time period.
Span of time
What period of time the work will cover—is it an hour, a day, a week, ten years, or three generations?
There is always a “present” (although this does not necessarily determine the choice of verb tense), a time in which the protagonist is either undergoing or realizing the effects of his/her arc of change. Change can’t happen in the past, and so the plot advances in the present.
There may also be a “past” (or more rarely, an implied future), revealed through back story or scenic flashbacks. It’s important to keep in mind, the past is always there to be in service to the present, to help us understand why the character is making the choices they are. Sometimes writers will use the present merely to create a frame for a story set in the past, but unless something is happening in that present time, you’re better off to let it go, and let the historical story become the “present.’
Some novels with a broad span of time treat this passage as a continual, unfolding “present,” as with Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
Ordering of time
When we speak of the structure of a story, we often mean how one arranges time in the work. One may tell a story in chronological order, but this is not the only choice. There are as many structures as there are stories. Charles Baxter’s novel, First Light, for example, is told in reverse chronological order, beginning with the end and working backward toward the beginning.
A story with flashbacks obviously inter-cuts different time periods. It’s critical that flashbacks be triggered by events in the present, and that the reader be returned to the present, which is the place where the plot advances.
A work may contain parallel time periods, such as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Or a work may contain multiple points of view about a single time period, so that a moment may be replayed in the work from different vantage points, as with Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
Duration of time
A writer must choose which moments to elongate as scenes and which to condense into exposition. Moments containing action that is pivotal to the plot of the story, or behavior that is specifically revealing of character and motivation are usually most effectively presented as scenes. It’s important not to let major moments take place “off stage” or simply be referred to in exposition.
The author must also decide about the duration of such scenes (are a few lines of dialogue in a specific setting enough, or does the action need to play out in a semblance of “real time”?).
Moments or spans of time which are more incidental are often best dealt with exposition (keeping in mind though that this too should be made vivid through specific observation and sensory description.)
Movement in time
Is the action continuous from beginning to end or are there breaks in time? Movement in time is typically signaled in the following ways: end of chapter; end of section; paragraph or, in poetry, stanza breaks.
It’s crucial to keep the reader oriented as to where they are in time. This may be done by attaching Date/Time headers to chapters or sections, or by building references to time into the text of the work. (“Three days later, she…” or “A long month passed before he saw his father again…” or “Seven summers blazed and died again before she returned to the island…”)
Reader’s experience of time
What kind of experience does the author want the reader to have? Long, slow, meditative, reflective? Jagged, disturbing, disrupted? Edgy, heart-racing, page-turning, can’t-put-it-down? Among other elements, the manipulation of time will contribute to this reading mood.
How does the reader perceive his/her experience of reading? If the experience is too slow, they may become frustrated and not finish the work, but if it’s too fast they may feel unsatisfied, as if they’d gleaned no substance. The author can’t avoid such factors as people’s shortened attention span and faster pace of life.
Scenes with action and dialogue tend to move more quickly than paragraphs of description or exposition, due to the reader’s involvement in the action.
Pacing is affected by the density of text — ratio of action/dialogue (through which a reader tends to move more quickly) to description/exposition (through which a reader may move more slowly).
Another element is diction. Elevated language, unusual syntax, or an unfamiliar dialect will all contribute to slowing the reader’s experience of reading. Simpler language, conventional grammar, easily understandable slang will all move the reader through more quickly. I’m not saying faster is better, just that you are determining your reader’s experience of the text.
Then we can consider the following: Sentence length — usually one wants variety with this, but longer or shorter may predominate; Paragraph length — a reader moves more slowly through long paragraphs than through short ones; and Chapter length — how much span of time is contained in each section—a moment, a day, three weeks, a year? And, are the chapters divided into sections that signal shifts of scene and/or breaks in time?
The element of time may not be the first thing you think about when beginning a first draft. Often the initial rhythms of a piece—languid or breakneck—appear intuitively. However, this craft element is an important part of your toolkit when you begin revising and refining your work.