(The sixth post in a series that summarizes an entire semester of Journalism 101.)
Authors are told to “show, don’t tell.” That’s good advice that distinguishes professional from amateur. One of the best ways to “show” is via a crafted depiction of time.
I like pretty prose, although I don’t like getting bogged down in it. By evoking the element of time, I can share something lovely, stay within the “show-but-don’t-tell” rubric, and create a fulfilling experience that keeps readers in my story. Here are two examples—one external to characters, the other internal—of how to use time to “show.”
Seasons. Note seasonal changes in your settings. I’m a big fan of only writing about places I’ve visited extensively, studied, and preferably, lived. I realize that’s impossible if your story is on a space station or in a future world. But if you’re writing contemporary or historical fiction, in my opinion, there’s no replacement for the experinece of being on location. I can tell you how London smells in the autumn. How the air feels (and actually, looks) at the edge of the Dead Sea. I remember how light changes at the mouth of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul as day ends. And I know signs of changing seasons on the Amazon in Peru, Petrohue in Chile, and Snake in America. These small parts, from deisel-laden air to violet light to dismanteling a stilt hut to prepare for the rising of arguably the world’s longest river, convey the passage of time—beautifully.
Characters. My herione, a middle-aged woman, ends the story looking slightly different from when the story began. More wrinkles, grayer, slower—although still fiesty! Her evolution signifies the toll adventure takes on her body, and I convey time by noting small changes. The same tactic can be used with maturing children, death, or a coming-of-age ritual, such as tatooos. (No. A better ritual is law-school graduation with honors.) But characters wear time’s passage in effective ways. And if your reader has bonded with your characters, he or she will relate personally to the passage of time.
How do you handle time within your plot? Do you use tools I’ve missed? I’d love to hear from you.