The Blog of John Hewitt

Maintaining your Novel’s Pace-Time Continuum

Hours, days, months or years

While it is possible to write one, I have never personally read a novel in which the events took place in a matter of minutes, but I have read novels in which the action took place over several hours or a couple of days. Franny and Zoey, the novella by J.D. Salinger, is comprised of two events that happen over the course of a few hours. Bright Lights, Big City takes place over the span of about three days. The World According To Garp is a novel that spans the entire life of the main character, T.S. Garp, moving from the events of his birth all the way through his life and his death, followed by a descriptions of the remaining lives of just about every character in the story.

Pick a Pace

The way you teat time in your story should have a fairly consistent approach. For example, if you write one scene in great detail, with each moment discussed at length, then you should consider that approach for most of your scenes. It would be odd to have a scene written to that level of detail followed by scenes that happen much faster and are far less descriptive. There might be reasons why you would make that choice, but for the most part you want the pace of your novel to say fairly steady unless there is a specific result that you want to achieve by changing the pace.

Jump With Care

Moving forward and backwards in time is also a tool that should be used with great care. A flashback can add value and perspective to a story, but it can also jar the person out of the narrative or leave them confused about the sequence of events. Sometimes, for the sake of continuity, it is better for a character to discuss the past events than for there to be an actual shift in time. It a choice that should be made carefully.

Watch Your Place

Be careful when it comes to the sequencing of events. If your story is supposed to take place over the course of a week, for example, be sure that the events could logically happen in that time frame. Also, especially if you write your novel out of sequence, make sure that when the finished product comes together, everything happens when it is supposed to.

Questions you should ask yourself when you are describing things for a story

Here are some questions you should ask yourself when you are describing things for a story. You don’t need to describe every element of a story to a minute level of detail, but you should consider what will make your descriptions better, and what can send you off course.

What would the characters notice?

Describing a place in detail can be very good, but only if the descriptions would matter to the reader or to the character. The view outside the window of a car doesn’t matter if the main character spends the trip reading a book, unless you are trying to show what the character is missing. If a carpenter and painter are both looking at a brand new house, they are going to notice different things, and both will probably have a different view than a policeman or a teenage runaway. A happy and comfortable person may experience a place differently than a depressed or angry person.

What senses make sense?

Most writers tend to focus on visual details, which can be very important, but the way something smells, sounds, tastes or feels can also improve on the experience. Food is an item that lends itself to all five senses. Try to give details that involve more than one sense. Crowded places can often be described more effectively using sound and touch. Smell can be a very useful way of demonstrating a radical change in environment, especially for the worse. Danger and despair almost always have a strong odor.

What does the story require?

If you are writing a story about the lives of two wealthy people, you are going to want to portray that wealth through your descriptions of your environment. If you are writing a story about a poverty-stricken area, you’ll want your descriptions to capture the desperation of the situation. You should use description to reflect the moods and attitudes of your story as well as the people in it.

What are the spatial relationships?

It doesn’t always matter where people are things are in relation to each other, but there are times when that minor detail can mean quite a bit. Are two people sitting next to each other or across from each other? If they are next to each other, are they touching or creating space? Are they comfortable next to each other or uncomfortable next to each other? If they are sitting across from each other, does their difference in perspective give them a radically different view? One person may be staring at a wall while the other one stares out a window.

Are items arranged with a specific order or are items placed haphazardly? These things don’t always matter, but you should be ready to describe them if they do. If the characters are of different heights (Such as a father and a young daughter) does the difference in their perspective change what they see significantly?

What is the reality?

When you write a description, each character may have a different perspective on where they are, but there is a certain reality to the place as well. There are things that will exist, and may matter, whether the character observes them or not. It is important to reflect the character’s views, but it may also be important to show how skewed that character’s perspective may be.

For the reader to know that a person is surrounded by beauty, but doesn’t see it, it must be clear that the place is objectively beautiful. Also, depending on your story, you may be dealing with real-world settings that your audience may be familiar with. Make sure that your descriptions match what is really there, or if they don’t, be able to show why they don’t. For example, the Eiffel Tower is, for the most part, brown and gray. If you describe it as green, you had better have a reason to do so.

Six Quick Tips for Writing Descriptions

  • Close your eyes and try to recreate the image in your head.
  • Remember that people have five senses. Don’t just rely on visual description.
  • Adjectives should describe, not evaluate. Describing skin as smooth or tan is better than describing it as pretty or perfect.
  • Don’t over-describe things. A description should enhance the story, not drag it to a stop.
  • Don’t describe things that don’t matter. If you spend a paragraph discussing a minor character’s mustache-grooming ritual, it had better be important to your story.
  • Draw your descriptions from real-life memories.

Six Quick Tips For Starting Your Story

  • Start with the scene you’ve been visualizing the most.
  • Get to the action. Don’t worry about introducing your characters. You can always go back and do that later when you’ve been working with them for a while.
  • Accept the fact that you aren’t going to get everything right the first time. Keep moving forward.
  • If you can’t think of a first sentence, start by stating a character’s problem. Billy hated bats.
  • If you don’t like what you started with, try something new. Don’t erase what you have, just move on.
  • Relax.