Characters in Cars Thinking, or, How to Deal with the Passage of Time

From Writers Helping Writers:

I have been seeing a lot of issues around the passage of time in the fiction I have been coaching. It isn’t the content that’s the problem. The problem has to do with the way time loops around on itself in an illogical way.

Before I explain, let me say that time looping around on itself is a completely and totally different thing than a character going back in time to draw on an incident or memory from their past to make sense of their present. That’s backstory, or flashback, and you want that in your story.

In real life, our minds are constantly pinging around in time as we work to figure things out – pinging back to second grade, back to tenth grade, back to when we were twenty, that time in Denver with our Dad. In other words, the way we experience time in real life is not strictly chronological. Our brains are all over the place as we recall things and remember things, all in service of making sense of what is happening.

. . . .

Those little time loops tend to look like this:

  • We are going along with X action.
  • Then suddenly we loop back to a A FEW MOMENTS BEFORE X action to learn some small nugget of information.
  • Then we jump forward and proceed with X action where we left off.

The reason this is a problem is that it’s very hard on the reader. When time loops like that, we feel like we are being yanked around, and we are forced to think too hard – and not about the things we WANT to think about, like what’s going to happen or why people are doing what they are doing. We are forced, instead, to think about where characters are in time and space – to figure out the logistics. And it’s frustrating.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

3 thoughts on “Characters in Cars Thinking, or, How to Deal with the Passage of Time”

  1. I’m sorry, but I saw the headline and all I could think of was Umberto Eco’s essay about how to tell if an Italian movie was pr-n or not based on the amount of time the PoV character spent driving to an assignation or event. 🙂

    (At the time, the Italian film censors based their decisions on the proportion of time in the film spent on Adult Activities vs. other things, so Adult Film producers added lots of wasted time into the move to keep the proportions of Adult Activities below the X-rating threshold.)

  2. Fiction is smoother than reality (and MUCH shorter), and this is one more of those points which the writer needs to pre-process for the reader. The reader is constructing a story reality in the mind, and needs quick and dirty, but self-consistent marks.

    Another is dialogue. Real dialogue is incredibly boring. And full of ums and such. Redundant, hopping around… Dialogue that does that in a book is the mark of an amateur – or, possibly, for a very short bit, of a good writer doing it deliberately.

    • Dialogue that does that in a book is the mark of an amateur – or, possibly, for a very short bit, of a good writer doing it deliberately.

      The sole exception being P. G. Wodehouse, who could make Bertie Wooster um and er and hop and redund (that’s totally a word!) for the length of a novel, and make it work brilliantly. But it took him more than thirty years to learn how, and he was a prodigy to begin with.

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