Is a novel that takes place in one day long, or short?

Is a 200,000-word novel long, or short?

What if you’re James Joyce, and Odysseus, your 265,000-word novel, takes place over one day?

There are different kinds of time in fiction. I call them book time and reader time. First, there’s book time: the hours, days, weeks, months, and years in your story world. Book time is rigid. A day is always twenty-four hours long, and days always happen in order, with January 2 following January 1.

Second, there’s reader time: the way time is experienced by the reader. A split-second in the story might take several pages to describe, and a reader might spend several real-world minutes reading about that moment. Conversely, hundreds of chronological years could be skimmed over in a single sentence.

Unlike book time, reader time is not limited to a certain order. An author might arrange chapters so that chapter one describes January 2, and chapter two describes January 1.

Authors rarely make mistakes with book time. When they do, it’s an objective problem that can be clearly pointed out. But I often see authors miss the mark with reader time—and the imperfections are subtle enough that many authors can’t recognize the signs.

In this post, I will offer three examples of timing errors to help you understand the principle . . .

1. Order of Phrasing

It’s very easy to write a sentence that is chronologically correct but is imagined in the wrong order. For instance:

Everyone looked at Jim as he tightened his parachute. He screamed as he jumped off the plane.

Notice how the first sentence uses “as” to describe two simultaneous events. This use of “as” feels natural. The camera of the story shows everyone looking at Jim, then zooms in on Jim nervously tightening his parachute straps. But what about the next sentence?

First, we’re told Jim screamed—so we imagine Jim screaming. This seems awkward, especially since everyone is looking at him. But then, we continue reading and see “. . . as he jumped off the plane.” Oh, that makes sense, we think. He was screaming because he was falling.

A reader reading quickly might not take the time to think all this through. They’ll simply note that Jim screamed and Jim is free-falling out of the plane. But notice how the second sentence, unlike the first, can’t be clearly followed by the camera? This is because the reader timing of the story does not match the chronology of the book timing of the story.

In the book time, Jim jumps, then screams because of the falling sensation. In the reader time, Jim screams before he jumps because Jim’s scream is what is read first by the reader.

This is a very subtle timing problem, and your reader might not immediately notice how it impacts them, but it will make the story harder for them to visualize. As an author, take care to give your readers a smooth journey!

One way you might rewrite this second sentence is like this:

He jumped, screaming as he fell.

It’s subtle—but now the reader might imagine Jim’s feet leaving the floor of the plane, Jim suspended in mid-air for a moment as he screams, then Jim’s scream fading as he falls. The reader timing cues the reader’s imagination more naturally!

2. Action Scenes

Many authors struggle with action and combat scenes. Two of the biggest reasons for this are clarity and sense of pacing—both factors that proper timing can improve.

We’ve already talked about how order affects the clarity of an action. But let’s explore how timing can set the pace for an action scene. To start, let’s contrast some sample paragraphs:

All of a sudden, the masked man quickly lunged with the jagged and rusty knife, slashing it across Jim’s side. Jim screamed and clutched at his wound, stumbling backward to escape the next attack, but he wasn’t fast enough. The man charged and with unnatural speed, he kicked Jim in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him and sending him to the cold concrete. Jim gasped for breath and struggled to stand, grasping at his wound. He felt something wet and warm seeping through his fingers. He was bleeding.

There are some nice descriptive word choices here, and the action is easy to follow. However, the scene doesn’t feel sudden, and the point-of-view feels distant, almost as though we’re watching Jim from a distance rather than experiencing the scene through Jim himself. Why is that?

This paragraph is mismanaging reader time. Most of the sentences are of similar length and fairly long. Phrases such as “all of a sudden,” “he wasn’t fast enough,” “and with unnatural speed” ironically make the paragraph take longer to read. Descriptions such as “jagged and rusty,” which would normally be helpful, actually bog down the pacing of the scene. The attack feels slower because Jim has time to process such small details.

Here’s a contrasting interpretation of the scene:

The masked man lunged. A knife flashed. 

Pain tore Jim’s side and he cried, stumbling. A boot kicked his gut—he crumpled.

Jim gasped short breaths, empty breaths; why couldn’t he breathe? He tried to stand, but pain made him clutch his side instead. Something wet and warm seeped through his fingers.

Blood. So much blood.

These paragraphs are a little harder to follow—but they’re short. Sudden. Sometimes even incomplete. We feel deep in Jim’s point of view. Jim’s life is in danger, and he doesn’t have time to consider all the details. Thus, the jagged and rusty knife and the cold concrete are left unspecified for now. These short sentences are in short paragraphs, giving the readers space to process the swift but sparse details. The extra space means fewer words on the page, and the reader feels like they’re reading faster.

Short sentences. Short paragraphs. That’s a helpful generalization for writing action scenes that feel fast. Still, even in action scenes of this kind, not every sentence must be short.

Think of your action scenes like an action movie. Action scenes are shot in many different ways. Sometimes action is abrupt, maybe even choppy or blurred. Other times it’s smooth but fast. Still other times the camera will slow so you can process all the little details of a dramatic moment. It’s like that pause at the top of a roller coaster right before the plunge.

Too much choppiness can grate on a reader. Too much detail can make a scene lose its sense of action and immediacy. Most well-written action scenes intentionally use different pacings at different moments.

In our second example, Jim’s mind, caught up in the action of the moment, slows for just a bit to re-gather its thoughts. Jim takes the time to feel his bleeding wound, and that’s when Jim (and the reader) realizes how much danger he is in.

There is no “one right way” to write action scenes. However, every action scene’s reader-time pace is affected by your level of detail and your sentence length. Be intentional!

3. Emotions and Character Arcs

The final example we’re going to discuss is character arcs. Sometimes, a character arc has all the right pieces in place, but it lacks the right timing. Because of that, the character’s emotions and the reader’s emotions feel out of sync. Here’s one example . . .

Suppose a beloved character has just died, and Jim, the protagonist is processing their grief. Over the span of a few paragraphs, we’re told that several months have passed, and that Jim has resolved to care for his loved ones who are still living. That’s a fairly realistic portrayal of grief recovery—but the reader will not be feeling the same as Jim.

While Jim has had several book-time months to process his grief, your reader has had about a minute of reader time. That’s usually not enough time to process grief, even grief for a made-up character.

Typically, an author’s goal is to make their story tighter and their pacing quicker. But this is an exception. If something significant has happened in your story, make sure the reader is able to feel and process that moment. If that requires making your story a little longer, that may well be worth it.

Conclusion

Now that you know how “book time” and “reader time” work, keep them in mind next time you self-edit. These are the little details that take writing to the next level.

Also, please be nice to characters named Jim. They’ve earned it

Once upon a time, Tim Pietz thought editors were gray and joyless people who quenched their thirst with authors’ tears. Now, Tim is the managing editor of InkSword Editing and to his knowledge, he mostly drinks tap water. Tim graduated summa cum laude from Taylor University with a B.S. in Professional Writing and a B.A. in Strategic Communication, and since then, he’s had the privilege of editing for various authors and publishers, including Tyndale House. A teacher and encourager at heart, Tim enjoys collaborating with authors at every stage in their publishing journey. 

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