The Perception of Time

There are some days when every time you look at the clock, it hardly seems to have moved at all. The day drags and just takes forever to get over with. And yet, there are other days when you’re so incredibly busy that the entire day is gone in the blink of an eye and you have to pause and wonder where all that time went. And how often have you reached the end of the day on Friday and could barely remember Monday because it was so very long ago—or the opposite, the week went so fast you’re certain you must have missed something?

Our perception of time is, to say the least, skewed. Depending on what we’re doing and how much we have to do, it can either go so slowly it seems as if every minute takes an hour or, conversely, that every hour lasted only a second.

The same is true in a novel.

There are some books where there are so many scenes one right after another, a day can last for two or three chapters. Other times the author starts a new scene with the words, “The following week…” The time in between the previous scene and this one—well, it’s gone. Disappeared in a blink of an eye and presumably nothing of import has happened in the intervening time.

I have read books where all 350 pages span a day, and others that span years, if not decades. One of my clients’ books spends four chapters showing the key highlights as his main character grows from seven years-old to fourteen, and then suddenly each day takes many chapters to get through they are so packed with action.

In a romance novel, two people can take a moment to fall in love or a month—rarely do they take years. And yet, no matter how quickly the feelings emerge, it will almost always still take the entire book for the couple to decide to commit to one another. Does the book span a day or a month? And does it matter?

Well, it does for only one reason—logic.

While we are asked to suspend our disbelief while reading a novel—it is fiction, after all—we still expect the world within the story to adhere to basic logic. Can two people fall in love just looking at each other across a crowded ballroom? Yep, they can. And it’s even happened in real life. But can there be so many events that happen to one character in one day that you’re certain the day had to have lasted at least thirty-six hours? It happens sometimes and then the reader is left sitting there scratching their head, wondering if they missed some brief comment that the last five events occurred the following day.

Some books get away with this by never mentioning how much time has passed or even that night has fallen and a new day has begun. That’s fine… so long as your reader isn’t left confused by what happened when. But most of the time, we do delineate days or weeks in our novels. When that happens we need to make sure that things are happening within an expected period of time and days only last twenty-four hours (unless your characters are not on Earth, in which case, you can decide how long a day is).

If your book only spans one day, is it really feasible that the character has had the time to grow, change, and possibly learn a major life lesson all within that one day? In the real world, that would a lot more time—we need to experience the lesson and then have time to let it sink in so that we can internalize it and understand it and then make the major change. Think about that all happening in one day. Two? Is it possible? Perhaps… in the world of a novel, but it will take a great deal of that suspension of disbelief.

So, today I’d like you think about how much time passes in your story. Think about how feasible it is that so many events can happen all in one day. Would it be so bad or difficult to add those few words “the next day…” or “the following week…”?

Merry
 

Meredith Bond is an award-winning author of a series of traditionally published Regency romances and indie-published paranormal romances. Known for her characters “who slip readily into one’s heart,” Meredith’s heart belongs to her husband and two children. Meredith’s second favorite pastime is teaching others to write.

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