Subjectivity and Time in Prose

I want to talk about the way time functions inside a story–specifically within prose fiction. It’s all about subjectivity.

This may be the crucial difference between books and movies, actually. Time is a director’s medium–in a movie time can be measured in footage, in actual minutes of runtime. You know how long it will take a viewer to watch a movie, and you can build your scenes around exactly how many seconds they’ll last. Writers of prose don’t have these tools at their fingertips. A reader might take six hours to read a book or six months. Their experience of time passing in a story is therefore much more subjective, and that’s where the real difference lies, in that very subjectivity.

Movies are typically objective in their scope–they are a relating of events that happened in the world; prose stories are far more subjective, exploring the psychological state of a character, how they feel and react to the events of plot. Think of the difference between a third-person and a first-person video game. The latter is all about What Happened. The latter is about what Someone Saw.

This subjectivity allows time in prose to be much more fluid than it is in the movies. It’s true movies can jump around in time, or contain subjective flashbacks, but film isn’t nearly as nimble as prose can be in this regard. A writer of prose fiction can jump back and forth in time within the space of a single sentence–recall the memories of a character or delve into their subjective experience of an event, spending pages exploring a single second of real time.

Subjective time affects every element of a story.

Time is always an element of setting–you can write a story that takes place over the events of one special summer, or the life of a character who lives to old age, or you can tell a story that happens all in one hour. Subjective time makes it possible to stretch a single moment to fill an entire book, as in Nicholson Baker’s wonderful Mezzanine, which takes place entirely over the time it takes a character to ride an escalator between two floors of a building.

Subjective time is crucial to the tone of a piece. A slow, languid story full of reminiscence and regret will feel very different from an action-packed plot full of cliffhangers and sudden reversals.

It has a major effect on characters. The more subjective time that passes during a story, the deeper the characters become, the more they will be changed by their experiences. If time is sped up and breathlessly hurtles forward, characters won’t have a chance to reflect on their own actions–which may be what you want for your story.

The structure of a story can be radically remolded by subjective time. You can put gaps in time into your story that allow us to see a character at different points in their life. You can go back and revisit events that happened long before the beginning of the story, or start in media res, or even tell a story backwards, showing us how the climax of your tale developed inescapably from prior events. Iain M. Banks uses this to brutal and undeniable effect in Use of Weapons, one of his best books, which contains two parallel narratives flowing in opposite directions through time (if that makes no sense, just read the book–it’s well worth your, ahem, time).

And of course time is the fundamental element of plot. You should always have a clear idea of the timeline of your story (even if you don’t share this timeline with your readers). The strict rationing of time can kick your story into a higher gear. Giving your characters deadlines to meet forces them to take action, forces them to make decisions. Strict rationing of time keeps events from getting bogged down–it’s absolutely one of the best ways to create dramatic tension.