by Annette Lyon
Throughout your story, time will pass. Story time, that is. (Even more time will pass as you write it, but that's another topic.)
Handling time can be tricky, and if it's done poorly, your reader may get confused, annoyed, and, quite possibly, put the story down. Here are the most common ways writers mishandle time that I see as an editor:
Back Story Dumps
This is one of the most common ways to mismanage time: dwelling on back story, especially in the first couple of chapters. Get to the now of the story right away. Give us whatever information we need from the past in small bites (usually later), and probably less back story than you think we need. We've talked about this one elsewhere, so we'll jump to the other time problems.
While I'd never say you can't use a flashback (few writing rules are so solid you can actually say "never" to them), I would say to be wary of them and, when using them, learn to do so well.
A few flashback tips:
1) Make the transitions into and out of the flashback crystal clear so the reader can follow easily. We need to know where and when we are at all times.
2) Keep the flashbacks short and few. Lots of flashbacks aren't a story. You don't want your novel to get mired in what led up to this point; tell us what's happening now. That's where the current conflict (and therefore, what your reader will care about) lies.
3) Use flashbacks with a clear purpose, deliberately, when you've gone through other techniques and are sure that there's no other way to effectively accomplish what your story needs. Don't fall back on this technique as your default. Chances are, the easiest way to tell the story isn't going to be the most effective.
Flashbacks Within Flashbacks
Laugh if you will, but I do see this. A flashback all by itself has the potential for confusing the reader about what happened and when. Adding a second flashback inside the first is doubly confusing. If the second flashback includes time words like "two weeks ago," we have no idea what's going on; is that two weeks prior to the second flashback? Is the second flashback two weeks prior to the first? Or is this two weeks before the main story line? Confusing? You bet. It's also sloppy.
This is when, for example, Scene A covers the time from 3 to 6PM, and then the writer goes on to write Scene B, but backs up in time and repeats some or most of what happened in scene A, only from a different POV.
Here's the problem: After reading scene A, which ends at 6PM, most readers (understandably, since in our lives, time moves forward) will assume the time is 6PM (or later).
Rewinding is jarring in the extreme. Readers expect time to flow one direction unless clearly told otherwise. So if that expectation is violated, the reader gets pulled out, has to reorient, and only then move forward. You've just given the reader the perfect chance to close the cover and walk away.
In one rewinding case I saw, two characters see one another for the second time. We first see the brief meeting from the man's point of view. He went on to have a pretty long scene with other events. So when the next scene began, from the woman's point of view, I assumed an hour or two (at least) had passed.
The scene read fine that way at first. But halfway through, the door opens, and she sees the man. I assumed this was their third meeting. It wasn't until a page or two later that I realized that oh, this is meeting #2, and we're seeing it for a second time.
Among the problems with this particular story: The second viewing didn't add a thing.
As with flashbacks, there's no hard and fast rule to avoid this technique, but I'd caution against it even more than with flashbacks.
Rewinding: A Caveat
As an editor, I have seen rewinding done well . . . a total of one time.
In that case, it worked for several reasons:
1) When we jumped from Character A to Character B, the section was labeled with the B character's name clearly identified as the POV character. I knew right away that we'd changed locations and POV, and when the time shifted too, I was ready for it.
2) Although we were reliving a time period, a significant amount of Character B's story didn't feature Character A at all. For the most part, we weren't seeing the same scenes, just the same time period.
3) During the moments where we were repeating a scene, we got a brand new perspective with new, important information. Both perspectives were crucial to the story.
4) We weren't ping ponging back and forth; each section was several chapters long, so we had a significant amount of time with each POV before swapping to the other.
In the first case (that didn't work), none of these items were present.
1) We simply moved to the next scene with no marker or header telling us where (or when!) we were.
2) We relived not only the same time period, but the exact same moment.
And the kicker:
3) The two characters' perspectives weren't different enough to add a single thing to the story.
A rule of thumb regarding POV:
Use the point of view of the character who has the most to lose in any given scene.
That means you can't pick two characters to use and then show the scene twice.
As an exercise, feel free to write both. Then see which is the most effective and choose the better scene. I can guarantee that one of the two will be better than the other. Use that.
Then throw the other one away.
Handling time in fiction, especially in something as lengthy as a novel, can be tricky. Avoid the pitfalls of back story dumps, flashbacks (plus flashbacks within flashbacks), and rewinding, and you'll have eliminated a lot of potholes, making your story much smoother reading.