Friday, February 15, 2013

Story Time versus Real Time

Although we have objective ways of measuring time with clocks, the human experience of time is very subjective. We’ve all had days where the minutes drag on endlessly, and we’ve had the experience of getting home on Friday and thinking of the great weekend ahead of us and then suddenly realizing it’s somehow gotten to be Sunday night and we have to go to work again.

I’ve been thinking that, in fiction, all time is subjective. I’ve been thinking that the passage of time in written work is indicated by the amount of prose assigned to an event. A battle scene is not fought in “real” time; it’s fought in story time. And story time is relative to the length of the tale. In a short story of 1000 words, a 200 word battle scene is a longgg time.  In a novel of a 100,000 words, a 2000 word battle is pretty short.

Writers dedicate story time to those things they find interesting, or at least to those things they think readers will find interesting. I personally enjoy reading battle and action scenes, and I tend to lavish a pretty fair amount of prose on those in my tales. On the other hand, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a character go shopping for clothes. I’ve seen works where story time has been spent on that activity.

In thinking about books I’ve read recently, mostly noir/crime novels, I can tell you that most story time has been dedicated to violence and sex. The violence often involved some kind of criminal behavior, of course, but mostly the writers dwelt on violence in defense of self or of innocents. The sex time was primarily spent in people trying to get it, and much less in actually having it.

Two other things that writers spent story time on were eating/drinking, and driving. The eating and drinking generally involved rich, delicious foods and fine wines or liquors. There was a clear sense of pleasure about these acts of consumption, and some of the descriptions were tied into sexual aspects of the story. The driving was often associated with the violent aspects, but there was at least some time spent on the aesthetic qualities of automobiles. I found that interesting and I don’t believe I’ve ever spent much time on this topic in my stories either, although somewhat more than with shopping.

One thing that almost no story time was spent on was bathroom activities, other than a character or two throwing up. No time was spent urinating or defecating. I’d have to say that most of my stories follow suite.

What about you? If you write, what do you spend most of your story time on?  And as a reader, what do the authors you read spend their story time on?  I’m curious.
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33 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Battles and discussions of problems and events. Some mealtimes. Outside of that, I'd have to go look in my own books to remember!

Ty Johnston said...

While violence is often a major part of my fiction, I try to take more of a Sergio Leone (and to some extent Tarantino) approach. For me, I'm more interested in the relationships of the characters and the tension that builds up to the violence than the actual violence itself, so I tend to make the violence in my scenes relatively short, though I'm not above a long action sequence where one fight leads to another, or a chase scene.

ivan said...

Characters buying clothes.

The story is probably apochryphal, but there is a printed story of old Ernest Heminway buying an overcoat, told in his own laconic style.

Hemingway to salesperson:

"Want coat."

(Tries on coat).

Hemingway:

"Got other coat?"

And so goes the try-on.

Angie said...

Huh, I never thought about it from this angle. [ponder]

A lot of my story time is people talking, about problems and possible solutions, and if it's a romance then about themselves and/or the other person, which in a romance is the problem/solution.

I don't spend a lot of time on eating and drinking; if I show it at all, it's usually as a backdrop to a conversation, and when the conversation ends, I move away from the food/drink.

Some driving. I don't drive myself so I have to remind myself to put this in. :/

Fighting -- megalomanic elves, ticked-off elementals, pissy mages, and random human jerkwads.

Casting magic, either with a magical artifact or by hand.

I don't think I've ever shown anyone shopping for clothes. Rory had to buy a new jacket in Emerging Magic, but he did it off screen. I know women are supposed to be into shopping, for clothes or whatever else, but I loathe clothes shopping and only tolerate other types, so I rarely put it in my fiction.

One exception that comes to mind is when Paul and Rory go Christmas shopping -- that's characterization on both their parts, relationship development between the two of them, and shows a bit about their relationships with the friends they buy gifts for. There's some discussion of the wisdom of fighting trolls in a utilikilt which I hope is at least mildly humorous. [cough]

Angie

Randy Johnson said...

I won't mention the late author's name, but he once wrote a series set in a future that had regressed to the days of knights and sword battles, or axe, on horseback. He got in a rut for a few books where such battles went on and on for fifteen, twenty pages. I fell to skimming through those sections. Fortunately he got out of that style of writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, I don't use dialogue as much or as well as I probably should. Part of it is the characters I create, which tend toward the laconic side. But part of it just my discomfort with dialogue. It took me a long time to learn to do it adequately.

Ty, I like the process of seguing one action scene into another, like a fight scene into a chase. I like that kind of orchestration. I have been accused of dwelling too long on violent scenes, but I do have reasons when I do it.

Ivan, that's about how I buy coats, although there may be no salesperson involved except to take my money.

Angie, I want to write a flash fiction story at some point where the entire tale takes place during an eating/drinking binge. Partly that's because I don't feature it much. As I mentioned to Alex, I'm not terribly good with dialogue and find it difficult to write so I probably don't do it as much as I should.

Randy, yeah, even I can get tired of never ending battle scenes. There are some relatively long ones in the Talera books, but they are interspersed with a lot of interpersonal character conflict and dramas. Anything needs to be broken up with variety for sure.

Deka Black said...

Dialogue is surely the thing i spend less time doing it. mostly because i suck at writing dialogues. But sometimes is necessary.

Action is the most for me, Be fight or another kind of action. The point is make things hapen and not boring.

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka, that is my philosophy exactly.

G. B. Miller said...

Interesting question. With my book, I say I got hung up most on the descriptive and the dialogue.

The descriptive is one of my few strong suits, and with my current novel, it was pretty much a no-brainer that my scenes and characters needed to be that strong.

With my dialogue, I've learned almost from day one to think out of the box (when you predominately write female MC's, it's pretty much a given). I have a tendency to draw on the people that I know the best in order to find the voice that I need for my dialogue.

I love writing dialogue, but it took me a long time to make it gel without turning a reader (like myself) off.

laughingwolf said...

i tend to make my tale similar to ty's method... as short as possible... but still try to have some ongoing action most of the way through... not all violent

Cloudia said...

My story is a narrated stream of consciousness that is of course very interior. Time markers and time passage are alluded to with a very light touch. Like 'real' life, time surprises us! Suggesting sex, passage of time is in my opinion the real art of good writing. Any fool can diagram a boring plot or situation. Effective writing makes time pass amazingly. Most interesting post!

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The Golden Eagle said...

I spend most of my time on internal monologue (usually character observations), action, and dialogue.

sage said...

What little fiction I've played with, eating is big. I remember a piece where I wrote about a drive, and then there are hikes... If a book spent too much time in the bathroom, I'd quit reading it

Riot Kitty said...

Mmm, interesting. All of the fiction I write is for kids, so most of it is dialogue and description.

As for this: The sex time was primarily spent in people trying to get it, and much less in actually having it.

Art imitates life? :)

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

I like action and character interaction in both my reading and writing. No bathroom activities however... :)

Rachel V. Olivier said...

It depends on the story I'm working on. The current WIP I'm putting all my energy in, believe it or not, the protagonist seems to spend an equal amount of time either fighting the bad guys or getting gussied up in designer clothes and shoes. It's been so fun to write. SO much fun.

Travis Cody said...

I've never actually thought of this aspect of story crafting. Now that you point it out, it makes a lot of sense to be aware of how much time a writer assigns to certain activities in a story.

I guess my answer would be, it depends. It depends on what my story is and who my characters are. What's important to the characters often dictates to me what I spend time on in my story telling.

Although I can safely say that I don't spend any time describing trips to the bathroom.

Charles Gramlich said...

G. B., Dialogue seems the hardest element of writing to get just right. Not sure why. I guess because it has to do so much work.

Golden Eagle, I'll have to think about internal monologue. I do some of that but I don't think a lot. I have been reading some of it in the crime stories, though.

Laughingwolf, I should put more nonviolent action in my stories as well. I'm gonna have to check out a few of my pieces to see if do that at all.

Cloudia, manipulating time seems to be a big part of storytelling.

Sage, I'm gonna start putting more eating in my stories. Since I eat a lot I should use that aspect of myself. :)

Riot Kitty, yes indeed, art imitates life. :)

Bernard, I'm finding writing character interactions much more fun than I used to.

Rachel, if one of my characters is putting on shoes it's usually boots for stomping someone with. :)

Travis Cody, see, everyone ignores the bathroom. :)

Greg said...

Good post, I've never really thought about that before. I'd have to agree with you -- I don't write many stories, but when I do I tend to spend more time on action/violence than other things.

That's interesting about how much time is spent on driving. I just finished Tom Piccirilli's A Choir of Ill Children (good book) and a decent amount of that book was spent on the main character driving around in his pickup truck. Some of it related to sex, but almost none of it related to violence.

Charles Gramlich said...

Greg, I read Jim Sallis's "Driven," the sequel to "Drive," and that's where most of the driving was.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, your post has got me thinking about how writers spent time on some of the novels I read recently. In a couple of stories I read not too long ago, the writers make their protagonists question their existence and even agonise over its worth or the lack of it. I have found self-inquiry a subtle but recurring theme in fiction.

Oscar said...

I don't spend any time on the beauty of autos, although maybe I should spend a while on writing about the beauty of the wagons used in the late 1800s, admiring their components and structure, utility, etc. Hm-m, that might be fun.

Snowbrush said...

I wouldn't want to read about clothes shopping, but I do like knowing what the hero, at least, is wearing. I like physically descriptive writing, but if it goes on too long, I tend to skip ahead to where something actually happens.

Aimless Writer said...

Dialog. I always have to go back and add more description. When I read I usually skip a lot of the descriptions. Okay, they're in living room. Unless they're going to use the marble vase to bang someone on the head, I don't really care about i.
What I need to find is balance...

Charles Gramlich said...

Prashant, yes, I think you're right. Come to think of it, that is an element of what I'm reading right now. Good catch.

Oscar, since most folks today don't know much about the elements of wagons, they might find it interesting.

Snowbrush, I usually do give brief descriptions of what characters are wearing. I like that too.

Aimless, I think you need more description if your talking about something readers aren't familiar with, like a battle or an alien landscape, and less if your talking about common places like an office or a mall.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh, this is very interesting. I will have to look over my stories and see what I spend time on. Certainly crime but what else?

Vesper said...

Good question, Charles, and one that leaves me kind of baffled... I do not really know the answer. I suppose it's because I'm not planning it, or not very consciously.
I guess I'm trying to spend time on what's important to the story, on what advances the story, and leave out stuff that I'd like to put in if I'd only let myself carried away... :-)
But for an actual list... hmmm, I'll have to take a look at what I've written.

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, it is kind of an interesting exercise.

Vesper, I've got a weird brain. I do things like this all the time.

Ron Scheer said...

My fiction writing is limited, so I can't really answer that part of the question. In what I read, I'm a most aware of time when I wish things would move along a lot faster. Writers who write long, verbatim conversations between characters make me especially impatient.

Merisi said...


I am not a writer, but as a reader your question made me immediately think of Richard Ford's short story collection "A Multitude of Sins". I would dare say that what makes those stories so fascinating is that the passage of time has nothing to do with the "amount of prose assigned to an event".

I find James Salter's "Lightyears" intriguing because the events described effectively stop the passage of time. At least for me, a simple reader.

I find descriptions of meals generally rather annoying. As if having to listen to details of the meals Richard III consumed, "My kingdom for a pepper mill!".

Then again, what do I know? ;-)

Merisi said...

P.S.: Thinking of Richard III, have you watched the movie Freaks?

jodi said...

Charles, the entire 'Seinfeld' show was based on nothing. Or just one single event. When I tell or read a story I like main details with some things left to the imagination. Not enough detail won't tell the story and too much is boring!

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron, it doesn't take a lot for me to find dialogue boring. I think it's pretty easy to write bad dialogue and hard to write good stuff. I love the dialogue in Parker's western stories, like Appaloosa.

Merisi, I have seen Freaks, though quite a long time ago. I also like if the description ties more than one thing together. If a meal is a prelude to love, for example, or to violence even. But just to read the description of the meal is not my cup of tea either.

Jodi, you know, I was just never able to watch Seinfeld. I know people who really liked it. I could never make it through a single episode. I only tried a couple of times.