Writing Excuses 9.6: The Experience of Time
Key points: During certain incidents, our experience of time alters (or perhaps our memory). Time stretches, or sometimes disappears. Surprise, anticipation, and adrenaline? Time slows, or perhaps you get snapshots. Often cliche, but you can lay the groundwork, and demonstrate how this affects the character, and use it. As a writer, you control the passing of time. You can spend many pages on a short time, or make eons pass in a few words. Signposting, cuing the reader. Give the reader the emotional sense of time passing. Use paragraphing and scene breaks.
[Mary] Season Nine, Episode Six.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, the experience of time.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And the part of Dan today will be played by two gerbils with a harmonica.
[Mary] [squeaking – hee, hee, hee!]
[Brandon] Today we once again have Mette Ivie Harrison. Thank you so much, Mette, for joining us once again.
[Mette] Hello everyone.
[Brandon] We actually jumped to this topic for our podcast because Howard, between casts, was telling a wonderful story that I thought, “We can use this.” That’s what writers do, right? We look for things we can use.
[Howard] We totally use these…
[Brandon] Just like our last cast, this is life experience that we are using. Howard, tell us your story.
[Howard] Okay. All right. So here comes some creative nonfiction. A very snowy morning, I was driving on a road, 2230 N. in Provo. It’s a sort of a shallow hill that hits a four-way stop, and then further down… Or not a four-way stop, a two-way stop. It goes straight through and there’s a traffic light. I’m driving, and the car in front of me… It’s early morning, everything’s dark. The car in front of me puts on its brake lights at the top of the hill and then accelerates away from me with the brake lights on as it’s descending the hill. Immediately, a portion of my brain registered the fact that this is not something that cars should do when they’re applying the brakes, and that this whole descending patch of hill was covered in black ice, and that I needed to take steps. So I looked around at the intersection to see which way I could go. Unfortunately, the cross street, there was a car turning on one side and there was a car turning on the other side and there was a car kind of cracked up in the middle of the intersection. The car that was in front of me was probably going to hit him. I don’t actually remember what happened to that car. But I looked at all this and realized, “I have nowhere to go.” Everybody’s… The intersection is full. Then my brain rewrote the scene and I realized those people aren’t turning. Those are people who’ve tried to do exactly what I was going to try to do and have failed and have slammed their cars into curbs. There is no place for me to go except maybe this front yard that’s on the other side of the street, as the street hooks to the right and this front yard is on the left side. So I aimed for the front yard. Figuring that there’d be some traction once I got off the street where the black ice usually forms. Sure enough, I hit this driveway and front yard and was able to get control of my car again and hooked the car to the right. Now I’m on the left side of the street, in the grass… Well, the snow, driving on the sidewalk. A car passes me on the right, oncoming traffic, and I realize, “Oh, well, it’s clear now. I could just drive back onto the road.” I’ve missed the whole accident, multiple accidents, and so I pulled back onto the road. Adrenaline is pounding, and I was shaking for the whole day. As I have driven through the intersection… Every time I’ve driven through that intersection in the intervening 20 years, I’ve looked at that scene and I’ve realized, “There is no way I had that much time to do that much thinking. There’s no way that picture could be that clear.” I try and overlay the scene… I can’t imagine there being enough space for my car to do what my car did. Something about the memory, something about the experience, has compressed the time and altered the space. I mean, I know which side of the road I was on. I know that I pulled it off. But…
[Mary] You’re not dead.
[Howard] I’m not dead and there were no dents on my car.
[Mary] Yeah. That’s… I think the compression of time is something that’s really interesting. One of the things that kicked this off was Mette was talking about a really horrific race that she was in. I want to get this example in, and then I want to very quickly bring up a nontraumatic example of compression of time. Then talk about ways that you can use this, and why we’re talking about these examples. Do you mind telling us about your horrific accident?
[Mette] Oh, yeah. So I was in a bike accident. In the bike part of triathlon, there’s usually a sprint distance and an Olympic distance. The sprint distance is half of the Olympic distance. So there’s a turnaround point, often, and volunteers are out there. Their job… Their main job at this turnaround point is to make sure that the people who are turning move to the center of the lane. They have to make a really tight turn. But that has to happen because if the people who are turning to the right… They’re going to crash into the people who are going through. This particular intersection, they didn’t have volunteers who understood how important their job was, and I wasn’t being careful enough as an athlete. Now I’m very, very cautious at these turnaround sections. So I barreled through as the volunteers were saying, “Come on through,” and this person turned right into me. I had this weird sensation of… The realization that I was going to hit him seemed to last… The moment between when I knew I was going to hit him and the time when I actually hit him seemed to last a long time. Even though I was aware of the fact that it was happening quickly. But I had no time… There was no… There was no chance for me to stop it from happening. That’s why it seemed like it lasted forever, because my reaction time wasn’t fast enough to apply the brakes or do anything. Then I hit him and we both collapsed. In fact, I ended up finishing the race, although I was still bleeding by the end of the race. But it was one of those moments where I thought, as a writer… I was thinking in this very moment, “Wow. Time really did seem to stretch out.” I had never… I’d read about that happening before, but that was the first time where I actually experienced that.
[Mary] So the example that I have is something that is counter to this, which is a time when time apparently just vanished. It’s… I fell down the stairs. Basically, I’ve reconstructed what happened, which is that I was on a ship and I was reaching for something on a shelf and my foot went out from under me. My experience of it was I was at the top of the steps and then I was at the bottom of the steps. There was no intervening time in between. The difference, and this is important I think for a writer to understand, is the difference is between the anticipation and the surprise. Everything that happened to me after I hit the bottom of the stairs I remember very, very clearly because the adrenaline had kicked in that point. What happens when you get adrenaline is that it speeds up your perception of time. So… Or it speeds up your reactions, but not enough sometimes to deal with things. So that is part of why it seems like you have more time to deal with all… To process all of this stuff. So if your character can see an accident coming, the adrenaline is going to kick in, and that is where you have this thing where it seems like it takes an eternity because the adrenaline is there. When your character doesn’t know that something is coming, that’s when you get these reactions where… You get just snapshot images. The other one for me was we were driving, and did not know there was an icy patch on the road, and we had done a 360 before we had a chance to react to it.
[Howard] 360’s way better than 270’s.
[Mary] Yes. Yes.
[Mary] 360, mountain pass, no guardrail. We are so lucky we aren’t dead.
[Brandon] This is a really interesting thing because it’s an actual experience. It’s an actual… It happens to people, it’s an actual phenomenon, but it’s also a cliché. This is… I’ve run into this difficulty in my writing before, I’m like, “All right. Time slows down. Wait. I can’t write that. That’s a cliché.” The problem with a cliché… A cliché exists because it’s usually related to something real, but when it becomes a cliché, it kicks readers out. They read that and they’ve read it so many times that it loses meaning and it either stops them from reading or it stops them from paying as much attention because it’s just… It’s meaningless phrases. So it’s a challenge as a writer to convey this idea, to maintain your readers attention while using it, because it is a real phenomenon and it is somewhat useful as a writer as a tool.
[Mary] I think a lot of it comes down to how much groundwork you have laid. I mean, like anything that is unbelievable or might be perceived as trite, how much groundwork you’ve laid into that before you go into the thing. And how firmly you are into the character’s POV. If you said, “Time slowed down for him,” that’s where you run into problems. That is, frankly, lazy writing. But if you demonstrate the slowing down of time…
[Brandon] Right. If you show instead of tell. You can see, in Howard’s story, that he slowed down his narrative and did all of these sorts of things and then afterward gave the “There’s no way I could have thought all of that.” He did a show in his story.
[Howard] In… That last bit, you know, “There’s no way I could have actually thought all that?” I will tell that bit when I’m telling the story as an example of the compression of time. If I’m just talking about lucky ducky snow driving and getting away with it, I tell the story without the time compression, and I describe it the way I experienced it. Because that’s how I experienced it.
[Brandon] Now, let’s stop for our book of the week. Actually, Mette has our book this week. It’s Déjà Dead.
[Mette] Déjà Dead is the first in Kathy Reichs 20 book series about Temperance Brennan. You may think that you know Temperance Brennan from the TV show Bones, where Emily Deschanal plays a character who’s named Temperance Brennan, but the character in Kathy Reichs series is quite different. She is an anthropologist and she does deal mostly with people who… With bodies that have been dead for quite some time. She has a very scientific way of describing death and bodies which I find interesting. But it is never as gross, in my opinion, as the TV show sometimes is. I find the character to be very warm, and interesting in a completely different way. So if you like the Bones series, or even if you don’t like it, you might want to try Déjà Dead and experience a really interesting forensic anthropologist.
[Howard] Excellent. Head out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership, pick up Déjà Dead by Kathy Reichs and have someone read Temperance Brennan to you in a format where she is a little more socially adept.
[Brandon] Now, I love this topic of the passing of time in books, because as a writer, you have a lot of control over this. I’ve said before, if you wanted to… I don’t know that it would make a great story, but maybe it’s a challenge to do so, you could have a hundred pages take place in one moment. The Wheel of Time famously covers two years, and yet it took 20 plus years to write and… Well, 20 years to write. And it took… It covered 14 thick volumes and that’s two years. At same time, you could write… I’ve read short stories in which eons pass. You have this ultimate power as a writer to control how time is flowing. It’s one of your tools as a writer that I think a lot of writers don’t recognize as a tool they can use.
[Mary] I think one of the reasons that writers forget about it is that when you need to have a lot of time passing, you have to ignore the show, don’t tell and in fact tell.
[Brandon] Yes, you do.
[Mary] You have to do a lot of telling to have time pass quickly.
[Brandon] It’s kind of… We’ve talked about this juxtaposition before that telling is faster than showing, and yet… And so a lot of times, you would think the opposite. Well, if I show, I’m saving words, because I’m not doing these long explanations. No, it’s the other way around. You’re using more words to bring the reader into the moment the characters are feeling.
[Howard] When I commuted to work, back in the days when I worked for Novell, regularly, I would arrive at work with no memory of the drive. I was worried about this. I thought, “Well, how can… That’s not safe. I was driving asleep.” No, it’s not that it’s not safe, it’s that what happened is my short-term memory processed all the things that were going on and said, “You know what? There are no lessons to be learned here. Everything worked the way we expected it to work. I’m not going to bother committing this to long-term memory. There are other things to do with the brain.” So by the time I got to work, nothing was in long-term memory about the drive. I mean, I could not remember it. I bring that up because if your book is doing something where nothing plot important happened during this space of time, the characters changed positions on the stage but there weren’t big lessons to be learned, then you can get away with the tell instead of the show because you’re moving into a part where you’re now going to show because important things are going to happen.
[Brandon] Right. As a writer, I sometimes… As an early writer, got worried about having too much time pass. Where I’m like, “Will be reader feel like oh, no, if this much time has passed and I’ve missed these moments in the characters’ lives, will it leave some sort of regret to them?” Then I studied the Harry Potter books, in which a year passes in each book. They work wonderfully. Their passage of time gives a sense that the school year is progressing and that things are happening. They work wonderfully for that. Comparing that to something like one of Jim Butcher’s books where he compresses everything into a couple of days usually, and it is a wonderful tool that he uses because it gives this sense of, “Oh, no, all of this stuff is happening!”
[Mary] Well, one thing both of these examples I think highlight as something to pay attention to is sign posting. That you actually need to cue readers how much time has passed any time you have a scene break, that they will try to figure out how much time has passed. Some of the ways you can cue them are… You can do the flat out and say, “Since yesterday, she had done…” Or “In the past three months…” But you can also do it… So that’s the tell-y way. But you can also do it in the show-y way, which is, “Autumn leaves outside… And now, the golden sun of summer…” It’s… You can cue them, but you do need to cue people otherwise they will spend time trying to figure it out. Or they will place it in the wrong period and…
[Brandon] Yeah, it will throw them off and it will confuse them.
[Howard] There was an episode of the Simpsons in which… It was… The whole story centered around fertility drugs and Apu, I think, who… He and his wife ended up with like eight kids. So nine months need to take place, need to pass in the middle of the episode. There is a point in the middle of the episode where the screen says, “Nine months later.” Bart made a passing reference to some adventure he’s had where he’s learned this incredible lesson, and Lisa makes commentary about it, and Homer says something that sounds almost wise, and then we cut to the delivery room. I remember looking at this and thinking, “This is the writers of the Simpsons saying it’s okay in this situation to tell instead of showing, except we really should have shown you these things, but we’re not because it’s funnier for us to call attention to the fact that we didn’t.”
[Mary] Yup. And one of the things in that, aside from the… This is… Whether or not it’s moving the plot narratively forward. Is that… That that… What that does is it does also give the emotional sense of time having passed. So sometimes it’s not enough to just sign post, if you need the emotional sense that time has passed. So that’s when you wind up getting training montages. Which are also a cliché, but the reason they exist is because… Is to give you the emotional sense of having someone put that time in. So one of the ways you can do that as a writer… I mean, you can do the training montage, but you can also pay attention to other pacing tricks, like paragraphing, scene breaks. Longer paragraphs feel like they take longer because it takes longer to read.
[Brandon] Yup. And the idea of the kind of the thriller pacing, where each chapter ends with a hook into the next chapter, gives a sense of frantic pacing and everything being compressed, where coming to a narrative resolution with the breather, gives a sense of time is passing and we are done with this part of the book and moving on to another part of the book.
[Howard] The chapter that ends with, “Sensei, how was that?” And sensei says, “That was awful. Do it again.” The chapter ends. Well, we know that he’s going to do this a hundred more times and we can skip that.
[Mary] Yup. So the implication is also an important tool that you can use. One of the things that… One of the things that I read when I was in college in Stephen Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, which has been very useful to me and is useful in this context. There’s a… It’s a wonderful book, but there’s a painter and he talks about the creative process as being long stretches of minutes followed by short bursts of hours. I think that this, when you’re looking at what to do with your character and how to make that decision about how long to spend on something, that part of what you’re looking at is how important it is to the character and where it ties into their area of expertise.
[Brandon] Right. I think that’s a very lucid point. We are out of time. So…
[Mary] It felt like it went so fast.
[Brandon] Yeah, it went so quickly. Those gerbils with that harmonica were…
[Howard] It took forever.
[Mary] [squeak, squeak, squeak]
[Brandon] Mette. Will you give us a writing prompt? By the way, I want to give a special thanks to Mette, who came to record this session for us because Dan is audaciously… Yes, still in Germany.
[Brandon] He refuses to come back. He will be back eventually. But thank you so much, Mette. Can you give us a writing prompt to take us out?
[Mette] You’re welcome. The writing prompt is I want you to go back and find something that you’ve already written that has a sort of a traumatic moment where you have used a cliché, and I want you to try and find a way to make that cliché more literary and more true to the specific character. So get some specifics in there about how this character experiences trauma and the time passing.
[Brandon] All right. Thank you so much. You listeners, this has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses, now go write.