Friday, December 19, 2008

What Time Is It?

Time is a funny thing in fiction. I can speed it up, slow it down, bring it to a dead stop, jump forward or back, even have multiple times simultaneously. The only thing I can’t do with time is eliminate it, for it is a constant companion. Consider a story about a time traveler. Even as he is going through the process of moving from one time to the next, we may describe what he sees. In television they like to use tube like things to show people are moving through time, but there is a passage of time relative to the character. In all forms of fiction, to end time is to have nothing.

We think of time as measured by clocks, the sun or the moon, but time is about moving from one event to the next. In out daily lives there are many events that don’t matter much, but as we move through them they help us keep track of time. In fiction we ignore the insignificant events, so the storyteller tells us how much time has passed, if it is important. Sometimes the storyteller leaves the listener to assume things about time. In a television show liberties are often taken with time because the crime fighters must solve the crime in a week. Real life isn’t that way, but viewers are fine with it because they really don’t care how long it takes to get DNA results back, only that they were used to solve the crime.

Clearly, we can use liberties with time in our stories, but we also need to be selective. There are some things that must take as long as is required. It takes nine months give or take a few weeks, for example, for a woman to have a baby. Unless she is carrying an alien child, you don’t mess with that. That doesn’t keep us from mentioning the pregnancy test in one paragraph and the birth in the next, but we shouldn’t then tell the story like these things were a day apart.

Time is often as much a character in a story as anything else. It doesn’t follow the rules of time in the real world, but it is always a part of the story.