Fast Time and Slow Time in Fiction

I’ve been reading The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes by Joan Silber for a while now. It’s a small book, and easy to read, but it packs in a lot of concepts, and I don’t want to rush my reading of it both for that reason and because I’m enjoying it so much. There’s a mix of lofty concepts of time and story with practical writing tips.

In fiction, things might happen at a “normal pace,” depicted in scenes. Or events might be summarized, so in effect something that would take a long time if lived through minute-by-minute can be reduced to a sentence or two. Conversely, an event that in real life would take only five minutes can be stretched, in fiction, to fill out a dozen pages. Think of novels whose action all happens in a single day, and short stories that cover years.

One way to make an event seem longer is to focus in tightly on details, making each detail relevant and vital. The moment stretches as the reader reads and experiences each detail. Another is to play with time in the interim spaces, adding in flashback or internal monologue between current events. Speeding up time can be accomplished by skipping over those details.

So when Darth Vader is falling off a log, he might only have time to gasp (whoosh) and then splat, he’s in the dirt. If you want that fall to be long, he could gasp and then remember the events leading up to his needing artificial breath support, or realize that his gasp brought in air tasting like pine, or is it pine plus rotting leaves?, and wonder if the fall will damage his helmet. (Okay, so he would use The Force and not fall in the first place. Just go with it!)

How the writer depicts time has to do with the story she’s trying to tell. Techniques might vary between short stories and novels; at the least, she’s probably using a different range of techniques depending on length.

If you want more information about the Silber book, this review at Minnesota Reads gives a good overview.

I dug into one of my own short stories, “The Magnificent Threesome,” and pulled out this example:


[summary of events] Shouts and pistol cracks, and more shotgun blasts, covered any more dialogue. [more summary, and the word slow; detail brings reader back into real time] Austin followed DeVille’s slow creep around the corner and was nearly knocked down by a reeling, brawny figure wielding a flaming branch in one hand and a pistol in the other. [followed by direct action in real time] The intruder swung the pistol at the side window; Austin leapt at him, wrestling for the torch before he could shove it through the hole in the glass and set the house afire.


I followed that pattern of time-depiction because, first, the story was erotica and I didn’t want to spend too much of my limited wordcount on the action scenes. Second, I wanted to focus in on the interesting events that were unique to my story. Hooligans attacking is easy for a reader to picture, so I didn’t have to provide a lot of detail. The actions I detailed were leading up to one of the story’s most important events, one that precipitates the sex scene.

I am hoping that this concepts from this book will help me to have more control over certain aspects of my writing.


I have a post up at Heroes and Heartbreakers today: You’re My Waterloo: Top 5 Napoleonic Wars Heroes & Heroines.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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