Friday 15 September 2017

Doing the Time Warp

By Nick Cross

Time Warp choreography animation by Luca Alberton, DensityDesign Research Lab

We talk a lot about certain aspects of writing a great novel - craft, voice, plot, characterisation etc. But one authorial choice that gets a lot less focus is that of time. The timeframe a novel is set within has a huge impact on the style and structure of the finished work. James Joyce’s Ulysses famously takes place on a single day, zooming in with microscopic precision to the individual thoughts and actions of its characters. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels couldn’t be more different, spanning the thousand year interregnum between the fall of one galactic empire and the rise of the next. Such a massive scope means the storytelling is much more fragmented, with the narrative sometimes leaping fifty years between chapters.

1976 editions of the first 3 Foundation novels with amazing Chris Foss wraparound artwork

Time is an endlessly malleable resource for storytellers. Consider the movie Groundhog Day or the recent children’s book The Never-Ending Birthday by Katie Dale - both present a narrative where the characters must relive the same day again and again. Or what about the novel One Day by David Nicholls, which takes place on the 15th July every year for twenty years?

Each of the Harry Potter novels is structured across a school year, which gives the series a very particular feel. Although there are lots of pulse-pounding set pieces that occur in a short time period, these are set against the wider boredoms of school life. The Harry Potter books are full of regular events: potions lessons, mealtimes, holidays, quidditch matches, detentions, end-of-year exams. JK Rowling’s genius is that she uses this repetitious structure both to show how attending school (even a magical one) can quickly become over-familiar, and to subvert our expectations when something unexpected happens within the predictable cycle.

My wife dislikes books that take place over a highly-compressed time period, because it seems that the characters never get a moment to rest, being pulled from one crisis to the next. When do they eat? Or sleep? It feels for her (like the characters) that she is never able to catch her breath, which can make for an exhausting reading experience. This was a criticism that was regularly levied at the TV show 24, whose lead character seemed to have a constitution (and bladder) of solid iron.

I’ve become acutely aware of time as I work on my current YA novel. As you might remember if you read my earlier blog post Living in the Past, I’m writing a story that parallels past events. My initial plan was to structure the book as a series of publications, each published a couple of months apart. At this point, the timeline of the book was going to span 3 years, which meant I could frame most of the incidents in the plot as a reaction to real-world happenings. The problem with this structure became very clear when I got a critique on the first 12 pages - although I was presenting the book as a first-person commentary, the fragmented nature of the plot meant I was unable to properly explore my protagonist’s rich inner life.

After a bit of head scratching, I switched to a diary format, which meant pretty much starting the book again. And with this narrative change, the timeline of the novel contracted massively. Instead of 3 years, my whole book will now happen in less than 10 months. On the plus side, this has left room for a sequel, on the minus I quickly realised that there were simply not enough real incidents to steer every plot event. Organically, I’ve compensated for this with more fictional characters and plot of my own, but tying these into the real-life political and cultural environment.

As well as compressing the narrative, the use of a diary format has also intensified it. Instead of scenes set months apart, I now have a scene or two per calendar day. The scenes themselves have also got shorter and leaner - which is the way I like it. I hope this all helps to communicate the rollercoaster rhythm of teenage experience, where every day is simultaneously the best and worst of your life.

Altogether, the changes have meant that the book has moved much closer to a highly-illustrated YA novel than the experimental graphic novel format of the prototype. I don’t have a big problem with that - it’s what's right for the book, and a familiar structure gives new readers a pre-existing reference point.

Photo by Sebastien Wiertz

Finally, there’s another aspect of time that strongly affects the writing process, which is how long it takes you to finish the book. Some authors like to produce a whole book over a very short time period, writing furiously. Others can take ten years or more to come up with the finished article. I’m somewhere in the middle, and regularly curse my slow progress. Taking the decision to illustrate as well as write this book has compounded the problem, since I’m now doing the work of writer, illustrator and designer. Additionally, my preference for regularly reviewing the process and resetting the book hasn’t helped me so far get to THE END, although I feel the format is now nearly right. Would I be more productive if I rushed out a full but imperfect draft, then revised it? Perhaps, but my mind seems to be best suited to my current way of working, as frustrating as that sometimes is.

In a recent Guardian Q&A, novelist Siri Hustvedt was asked what her greatest fear was. She replied:
“I’m afraid I will die before I finish whatever book I am working on.”
I totally get that, the feeling of time conspiring against our creative endeavours, and the race to the finish that might be required to outsmart it.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.


  1. I think this may also be to do with our age - URGENT URGENT, waste not a second...

  2. Hey Nick, I realised that I had missed reading this piece. Very interesting thoughts about time as a setting ... I always start with the intention of my story taking place over a long span and then ending up with a much more compressed period, my story arcs shrinking as urgencies in the plot become more acute. Also there seems to be a more acute plot progression by virtue of the protagonists' youth. I wonder if the adult reader's ability to have hindsight and experience makes him more interested in a longer sweep of character development than the younger reader, whose undeveloped lives are still lived in the moment.


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