Narrative Techniques: How Can an Author Manipulate Time?

Time in novels has been used as both a significant theme central to the story and also as a narrative technique to construct the story plot. It is one of the most essential items that the author can control.  But how can an author manipulate time?

Time can be manipulated using various techniques such as flashbacks, parallel timelines, flashforwards and foreshadowing. Unlike real life, time in a novel can be used to tell the story events in a different order, shorten boring bits or fill in the background in interesting pieces, for example.

We are going to cover lots of different techniques that you can use, but to get us started, let’s define what time manipulation means.

Clock on Pink Background With Hand Changing Time

What is Time Manipulation?

Time Manipulation is when an author uses different techniques to control the flow of events in a story. You can make what happened in the past or future have a bearing on the present, you can make events appear to pass more quickly than they normally would or more slowly.

For example, instead of describing your character going through childhood and the teenage years before reaching the actual start of the storyline, you can jump right into the action to get the story started. Then you insert a small relevant piece of the childhood story, using one of the techniques we will cover, at an appropriate break in the action.

Used carefully, you can move essential but sometimes tedious background information to later in the story where adds interest rather than drags the story down.

Why Manipulate Time?

This control over the flow of time in a story allows you to move the reader’s focus from one place to the other and one time to another. It will enable them to experience different times in the world of your novel. It also allows you to delay or speed up events that are happening, making some events happen before others.

If time is not used as a central theme, it allows you to improve the flow of the story.

It would be very dull if all stories required time to pass in the same way. Use these techniques to let your imagination run free and improve your story.

Techniques to Manipulate Time

There are plenty of ways to control the flow of time so let’s look at some of them.

Linear time in a story

The most basic use of time is to show events in sequence. For example, in a novel, it is possible to have the character born, growing up and then reaching adulthood. The most basic method of using time in a narrative is to show events in the linear order of when they happen.

Some books are written entirely in this fashion, but most tend to have most of the story told in the order of events, thus written using linear time with minor usage of other techniques now and then.

Non-Linear time in a story

Non-Linear time allows the author to change the focus and order of events in a story. For example, it is common to have backstory inserted into the narrative. Although the main events may be linear, some parts showing the past to show context for why a character acted a certain way or details showing the future revealing the results of actions can be inserted.

Speeding Up the Action

Another very often used technique is to speed up the passing of time using an accelerated timeline. For example, if a character is on a long journey on foot, it can be accelerated to allow the story to focus on more exciting events.

You can have a jump cut to just move to a later time, maybe having a chapter break. One chapter ends getting on the bus, and the next chapter starts immediately with the character getting off the bus at their destination.

These timeslots can also be used to insert other pieces of action that bridge the time gap you want to remove. For example, you can use a flashback.

Flashbacks and flashforwards

A flashback is when a character remembers something that happened in the past. This is good to add context to the story. For example, your lead character can visit an old school and tell the reader via a flashback that he wasn’t so cool when he was younger. Revealing an embarrassing story about the first time he met his love interest in school would give an unfamiliar perspective on your now cool and successful modern hero.

A flashforward is when they see something that will happen in the future. This can be used to foreshadow events or just make the reader curious about what will happen next. For example, you could suddenly jump forward to reveal that the hero’s rival has won a prize for inventing an exciting new technology. Back in the current timeline, we can follow to see how the events unfold toward this potential future.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing gives the reader a hint of some future event and creates suspense and drama or unease. It can give subtle clues to the reader about good or bad events that will be coming, and as an author, you can use it to keep the reader turning the pages late into the night.

It can also be blunt such as a character discussing a future meeting or a deadline that gets referred to more subtly before occurring so the reader will wonder about the significance.

Pacing

Pacing in a story is how fast or slow an author writes a part of a story. The pacing in a story can build tension or cause the reader to become bored, depending on the effect the author is trying to achieve.

For example, you could write a very long section with lots of details about the small town and farm the family has just moved into to clearly message the reader that this is a slow-moving story. Or you could write this description quickly using short sentences with a sparse level of detail enough to convey the traumatic experience of the family’s need for a last-minute move. Using this technique brings an uncomfortable feeling to the reader.

Different genres typically use pretty different styles of pacing. A fast-paced detective novel will typically be more action-packed and have fewer descriptions of the surroundings and more on the characters and events.

Parallel or Multiple Timelines

Parallel or multiple timelines can show different timelines that affect each other. The grandfather died failing to break a speed record in the past timeline. In the second modern timeline, the grandson is determined to achieve what his grandfather was unable to do. The story can dramatically switch between them to show the relationship of the two efforts and build tension with the reader as we see the grandson unknowingly repeating some of the same mistakes that lead to his grandfather’s death.

Reverse Timelines

The reverse timeline is the opposite of the linear storytelling technique. A story is told beginning at the end and moving backward through time. A lot of flashbacks are commonly used in this style of story. It can be tricky to do, but if done well, it can be almost as compelling as a story told chronologically (though with its own kind of dramatic tension).

Failing Memory

Having a character with a failing memory can open all sorts of possibilities for writing. Sometimes a character will have no memory of parts of their life, sometimes they will have only fragments, and sometimes they will have no memory.

Authors can use this to build a mystery or mystery sub-plot. For example, a love story of a wife trying to stay connected to her husband who has a failing memory by capturing and preserving their life together as he remembers less and less.

Chapter and Section length

Another very common technique used by authors to control the reader’s perception of how time passes within a story is to vary the length of sections and chapters.

In one chapter, you can have several pages cover the activities of the detective, while in the next, you can describe far more briefly what the murderer is doing at the same time. The much longer descriptive section for the detective helps the reader perceive that the detective has to do a lot to catch the murderer. In the murderer’s chapter, using shorter sections and faster-paced language will help show the reader that the murderer is moving quickly and staying one step ahead of the detective.

Groundhog Day or Time Loops

The time loop plot, well known as the groundhog day trope, has been done in every media format many times over and yet still remains immensely popular.

Carefully done, you can build a tale of mystery and intrigue that relies on the idea of repeating the same day over and over again.

Yes, it is very well covered, but it can still be an exciting basis for a story, so do not rule it out if you have an idea.

By far the most popular episode of Star Gate is the groundhog day style episode Window of Opportunity.

As you see, you have many time control options available to you to use in your story. Make sure to take advantage of them all and use them in combinations to create an engaging narrative that will keep your reader up well after they should be asleep.

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