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On Writing Well - Time And Distance In A Narrative

By Author: Peter James
Total Articles: 37

During one of my creative writing workshops a while back, a man who had served on the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier read me a scene from a war story he'd written. The prose was fine, but the flow of his material was disrupted by constant references to military time, as if he were providing a report to his superior officer, on a rigid schedule.
Constant Time References Retard Pacing
Nothing can slow the pacing of a story quicker than constantly referencing time. The reason is that time references inherently draw attention to gaps, and the reader tends to wonder what happened during the periods that are not accounted for. The problem becomes especially acute when the reader's attention is drawn to long spans of "missing" time. The assumption is "What did I skip?" when nothing was omitted from the story.
"Soon" and "Later" Are Great Levelers of the Playing Field
Timeline issues are exacerbated when the reader is focused on them. If something starts at 0043 hours and nothing else is discussed until 2357 hours, readers are going to wonder what happened for almost a full day. To remedy drawing attention to gaps, words that express time in the abstract such as "soon" and "later" can be used to fill "open space" in a narrative.
Avoid Specificity with Time and Distance
Not long ago I remember reading that it was about 2:27 p.m. First, 27 minutes is as exact as it can get unless the book is about Greenwich Mean Time or some event that requires split-second action. Simply write "at 4:27" and continue the thought. And if something happened at 4:27, there had better be a very good reason. Otherwise, round the number to the nearest half-hour, as most readers hate having to pause to consider exact time.
However, for purposes of pitch or tone, a writer might use "about" or "around" to modify time. The same with phrases such as "shortly before" or "just after" a specific time reference. But the decision to write time in this manner should be made with care.
Distance Has Its Own Set of Preferences
Walking "about" a mile, or something was "approximately" a half-mile away, is a waste of two good adverbs. "Walking a mile" or "It was a half-mile away" is much easier on the reader. "About 6 feet tall" is certainly acceptable in some circumstances, but writing "6 feet tall" without the modifier is almost always better. Likewise, "He weighed about 200 pounds" is not superior to "He weighed 200 pounds." Does anyone really care about "about?"
Here's an Easy Exercise Regarding Approximations
Would someone write that his shoe was almost a size 10 1/2? or that his cap size was approximately 7 3/4 inches? Most people would write that he wore an average-size shoe and a medium-size hat. Even though these examples pertain to size, if we think in those terms it makes it much easier to express time and distance in a way readers can quickly assimilate.

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