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Time in Bird and Timo

November 11, 2010

As I revise the first half of my novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about time. I’m working within two of the categories of fictional time that Joan Silber defines in her book, The Art of Time in Fiction.  One of the two main character’s stories (Bird’s story)  fits into the category of “slowed time” in that his portion of the novel takes place mainly over a few short weeks. The other main character’s story (Timo’s) fits into “long time” since his story takes place over the course of several years and ends in his death. Since the two stories, told in alternating fashion, are operating under contrasting time frames, the reader will, I think, have a heightened awareness of how time passes, and passes differently, in each.

One thing that has become clear is that I don’t want readers to experience confusion or even difficulty, at least not in the beginning of the novel, with where they are, which time frame they’re in. To help readers immediately recognize which time they’re in, I recently added, at each chapter break and POV switch, a “title” that tells the place and time. For Bird, this consists of the date (day, month, year and time of day) in the morning of each day, and then, in the subsequent chapters that take place on the same day, only the day and time of day (Saturday afternoon, for example).

For Timo, each chapter is titled with the place, the year, and the season. I have not yet written the part of the novel when Timo kills himself, but I might want to introduce some sense of slowed time at this point. I also haven’t written the third portion of the novel, which takes place at the memorial for Timo, where the whole family comes together. This will, I’m guessing, read more like classical time as Silber defines it, not because much actual time will pass, but because there will be no other time that contrasts with it so it won’t feel especially slowed.

The last chapter of Silber’s book is called “Time as Subject,” and in it, she discusses stories and novels where time is not only incidental to the structure of the story being told, but also part of the content. In her introduction to the chapter, she writes, “As I’ve thought about time in fiction…, it’s struck me that storytelling, in ancient and modern practice, is always a contemplation of the experience of time passing. A story depends on things not standing still, on the built-in condition of impermanence… So by now it seems to me that narrative–because it shows events unfolding–always has time itself as an element of its subject matter” (83).  In constructing a piece of fiction, whether a short story or a novel, every author has to think about time as content, even if it is only to the extent of choosing a time frame.

How much is made of time–is it in the background, middle ground or foreground–is, I believe, the real issue. In the case of my novel, the two contrasting time frames are currently in a sort of middle ground. The choice of structure calls some attention to the difference, but because of the style I’ve chosen to write in, most of the questions about time will be ones that arise from the characters’ questions about life and illness and death, what it all means and how this relates to time, rather than a post-modern, meta-narrative that would raise the question of time’s representation in fiction.

In my next post, I’ll consider another aspect of time in the novel: the question of backstory.

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