Writers are effectively the masters of time because we can determine how long events transpire and can essentially revert to the past or even fast-forward to the future with minimal effort. It’s a powerful responsibility that we shoulder, and even some of us forget or are possibly afraid of using our superpowers in our works. I’m here to tell you that manipulating time to your advantage is easy once you understand how to make a timeline for your own story.
Let’s start with a simple question you will probably ask yourself before you write your novel, or you may have written it and now you can revise with this in mind: When does your story begin and how long do the story events take? Let me bring in two examples of a video game and a book that have a very specific time frame for their stories. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One’s stories take place within a very specific three-day timeline. Despite the many differences these stories share, they both are wrapped around a very short time span, but Zelda writers and Whitehead are not constrained by this timeline at all because they know how to extend the boundaries of this time, with Whitehead using irregular flashbacks and Majora’s Mask actually making the player the master of time by constantly reverting back to the first day in the story to start from a different objective and effectively building to more than four different stories despite being trapped in a three-day cycle.
What you can take from my examples is that shifts in time meaningfully change the story in interesting ways. In Zone One, the protagonist often finds his thoughts shifting to his past in the apocalypse and we get a better sense of his character’s development and trauma that occurs from the zombie outbreak, while in Majora’s Mask the hero Link is unable to rectify the crimes the Skull Kid has wrought on the four regions in the game and so Link has to use his Ocarina to extend the timeframe. When you take into account how long your story will take place, you will be able to do what Link does with his Ocarina: bend time to work for you.
While your story doesn’t need to be as tight as three days, you should be aware of what your story’s timeline will do to your characters. Consider, for example, a time frame of fifty years. If the story is set within the first twenty, what will the other thirty years do for the story’s plot and how will the character grow in those thirty years? We all age obviously, and we will experience a lot of life changing events throughout our lifetimes, so mastering time involves creating the life changing events and still trying to hold up to the major story. Considering the example again, if the character was the exact same person, this wouldn’t make sense. If the character was the same, time is not being used to effectively portray the character and just isn’t a realistic depiction. Keeping the story real is important, and while it may seem intimidating, you should just remember that you aren’t the same person you were 5, 10, or even 20 years ago. Getting to know your different selves could help you build a character and his or her different selves throughout the many different timelines you may use within your stories.
So we’ve talked about the linear framing of timeline, but now we should focus on how to mess with time to structure your story differently. In the cases of the stories above, it was an integral part of their being to be set in a three-day timeline that jumps into the past on occasion, but they still progress forward. Your own story may not feel right to you, and maybe you can’t pinpoint why. You should now ask yourself this: Does my story have to go from Time A to Time B? If your work really only picks up near the middle of your story and the beginning seems to drag at some points, you might need to redo the order. You’ve probably been told to start in media res, or starting in the middle or the action, and in the above scenario, it just seems to be that as a time master, you really need to cut the middle and paste it at the beginning, and you’re following that rule now. If that beginning is so important to you, don’t you think you might explain it another way? You could explain it as a flashback, or a character may just reiterate the beginning instead, but that way you have reworked your story into something that is not only more compelling, it also gives the story a unique twist. Consider another book, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin; the story switches between the present and the past every chapter. This gives us insight into the Anarchist society of the planet Anarres during the past segments, and the present gives us the anarchist look into the planet Urras. The past in the story leads to the present, while the present in a way brings us to a point before the past segment begins. The story’s beginning, in media res, actually would have made for a climax if the story was told chronologically, but the way it intros brings readers into the action and disorients them, helping to make for an intriguing tale.
Copying this style may not be the way to go about writing a story all the time, but beginning in the heat of the action and using time manipulation to back track will likely lead to an interesting starting point for a story. While you may not be comfortable with using time to build an intriguing story now, eventually these things will be learned from simply reading books or playing games like the ones above. Watching someone else manipulate time is surely the best route to figuring it out for yourself. You will learn what other authors do to make successful transitions in time, and hopefully they will help you become an excellent master of time.
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