How long is your novel? I’m not talking about word count or pages—I mean the length of time that elapses from beginning to end.
Does it take place in one afternoon? A few weeks? Several years?
While reading Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees (highly recommended advice from an editor to writers), I came across a section about structuring the timing of your novel. Betsy says she’s worked with brilliant authors over the years who have committed all kinds of “time crimes,” not seeing the structure their own sentences and paragraphs suggested.
To me, timing can be controlled by two things:
How you pace each scene- Betsy notes a writer can use paragraphs and space breaks the way a poet uses stanzas. These are devices that instruct the reader, almost like giving a guided tour through a house:
“Here, this way, come with me over here, here’s a new room that we’ll check on later, be sure to remember that decoration in the bathroom, yes, there’s a basement, but it’s dark and we don’t want to go in there, interesting painting over there, let’s take a breather, relax and have a cookie while I tell you about the owner, etc.”
Long paragraphs can be like a realtor talking about a single room for an hour. Your eyes start to glaze over and you really just want to see the rest of the house—there are exceptions to this, of course, but it can be especially true in novels for younger readers.
How you transition breaks in time- Have you ever been frustrated while writing because your character has to change venues before a more exciting scene takes place? Don’t always feel like you have to document the car ride, train ride, plane ride, and fill it with inner thoughts, phone calls, or descriptions of what your character had for dinner (though, personally, I always love food descriptions). If you're doing that, there better be some important information revealed that keeps the plot moving forward.
If you’re writing it just to get to the next scene, it may come across as forced. That’s what chapter breaks are for. Your readers are smart enough to be able to transition their thought process—“Oh, it’s next week now. Okay.” Just be sure to do it in a way and at a place that makes sense, instead of jarring the reader.
Whether your protagonist’s journey is a week or a year long, you need to be aware of timing, and the structure of that timing. It’s kind of like the show, Next Food Network Star, where they give contestants 1 minute to do a food demonstration.
Some of them start really slowly and comfortably, then have to squeeze all their information into the last ten seconds, which just doesn’t work well. Others get nervous and talk so fast that they’re out of important things to say by the time the clock hits 30 seconds, and they end up trying to add awkward filler. Try to strike a balance.
That’s all for today :)