By Josi S. Kilpack
I am revising a portion of my current WIP right now and got to a part where my character knocked on a door for several seconds. Try knocking on your desk for for several seconds. If someone knocked on my door like that, I might not answer--okay, I probably would in order to tell them to stop it:
In the same scene from my book, my character's standing on the curb looking at the door of an apartment and "a few seconds later, she knocked on the door." A few seconds. Did she fly to that door?
Finding these faux pas reminded me of some other doozies I've read in the past, for example:
She gazed across the table and held his eyes for several minutes, thinking of how much she loved him and how complete her life had become since he had entered it.
Now imagine you were sitting at another table in that restaurant watching a man and woman gazing across the table for several minutes. Can you say creepy and uncomfortable?
Or how about:
The moments ticked by on the clock, bringing them closer to the inevitable separation.
I don't know about you, but I have yet to be able to find a clock with a "moment" hand on it.
Time is a funny thing in fiction. To pay it too much attention is to interrupt the story, which is why you don't often write things like:
She left the house at eight on Thursday morning and stopped at the post office before heading to the office. She arrived at 8:23, two minutes later than usual, but that was to be expected. By 8:30 she had opened her email and a few seconds later, Cheryl walked by and they chatted about what they'd done the evening before--Wednesday. A few minutes before nine, the phone rang and she stared at it with trepidation. A second later it rang again. Should she answer it? Was it him? A second after the second ring, it rang yet again. She put her and on the phone, took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, let it out slowly and picked the phone up on the fourth ring, hoping her voice wouldn't crack when she introduced herself.
Too many time tags doesn't work and, specifically in this paragraph, they aren't necessary. How long it takes her to get to the office or how much time passes between the events taking place aren't important to the story--most of these instances are implied time, meaning we subconsciously know how long something takes.
Other scenes, however, require our reader to know what kind of time is passing. This can be cued by actual time; "It was almost 8:30, where was he?" or in the time stretched between two events "She waited for over half an hour before accepting that he wasn't coming and heading back to her car."
Your reader needs to know what day it is, how much time has passed between scenes, and "When" they are in the story, but it needs to be done is a subtle way--like smoke--rather than a forest fire that distracts from the overall story. AND it needs to be correct. Don't say they kissed for several minutes unless they really did, which might make sense if they're on the couch, but won't work if they're at the airport. Don't say she held her breath for a moment, because that's not really holding her breath (try it, hold your breath for a moment, which is a portion of a second), it's more like catching your breath.
Did he really run for hours? Is he capable of that (most people aren't unless they are in fear for their life or training for a marathon)? Are you reminding us of the time that's passed between chapters? It's obnoxious when you get two pages into a new chapter and realized months have passed, not hours like you assumed.
Ask yourself if you're using the right amounts of time. A moment is a partial second; quick, fast--unless its in regard to a "Moment of silence" which is usually closer to thirty seconds. A second is a count of one-hippopotamus. Sixty hippopotamuses makes a minute. If you have the phone ring for a minute--count that out. Do phones really ring that long before they go to voice mail? If you have people experiencing an awkward silence, determine what makes it awkward. Five seconds? Fifteen? Fifty? How about a staring contest, or holding your breath--how long does that physically possible?
As you do your final revision be sure to question your time cues and ensure they make sense--count them out if necessary, use a timer to figure out how long something really takes, but make sure that you don't put in cues that might pull your reader out of the story; great fiction feels real.
Here's some basic trivia that might come in handy when determining time:
The average cigarette takes seven minutes to smoke.
A red light is between five and sixty seconds, depending on the busy-ness of the intersection.
The average commute to work is 25 minutes in the US.
The average yawn is six seconds
It takes 3-5 minutes to toast a piece of bread, depending on the level of carbon you prefer.
The average goodnight kiss (not making out) lasts 10-15 seconds.
A person of average fitness levels can run a mile in 10-12 minutes.
The average woman spends 45 minutes getting ready in the morning.
And last but not least, most bloggers spend between 45 minutes and 2 hours to write one blog post (I'm at forty-seven, even though I thought it would take me ten), which means I need to get back to writing.