Thursday, March 5, 2009

Considering Time

Think about how ruled we are, as a society, by time. When we get bored, we look at the clock to see how much time until the lecture/meeting/workday ends. We look at the time to make sure we get to where we are going at the time we need to be there. Most of us are ruled by schedules and spend time coordinating our schedules with spouses, children and grand children. As a parent, you have to make sure there is enough time for everyone to get ready for school/work and that everyone gets where they are going. Does Jimmy have a ride home from soccer or football practice? How will Sally get to dance class this week? When do I have time to get to the gym?

Many of us have so many things going on that it's next to impossible to remember everything, so we use planners, calendars and PDAs to help us remember things like doctor appointments, meetings, birthdays and anniversaries. Even blogs give us the ability to program when we want a blog topic displayed. We have developed conveniences for our PDA/Blackberry/iPhone/laptop that save time by allowing email to be checked and written while having a telephone conversation.

Police even go to great lengths to recreate a missing person's schedule for the days prior to their disappearance.

With this in mind, ask yourself: How strongly does time matter when considering a story?

Well, in truth, that depends upon the story, doesn't it?

Or does it?

For most stories, time means everything. What I mean is that if you're writing a historical or regency, a lot of things need to be straight and correct to properly submerge the reader in the time frame in which you are writing. Sure, you know enough not to have anyone drink a soda or eat a Twinkie, but do you know enough to be able to name what brand of tea your character would drink or the prices of houses and such in that era? Well, if you're a history buff or a fan of those periods, you would. If you're a novice, like me, you wouldn't necessarily know all of those things, but you'd know how to find them. However, you don't have to be a history buff or a fan of the era to appreciate the effort an author takes to get things just right. An avid reader of historical novels can tell when something doesn't seem right or is out of place. Therefore, time means everything. To make a person truly believe that the story they are reading takes place in the past, the details need to be as right and true as possible.

How much does time really matter in science fiction or space themed stories?

This answer is a bit trickier. Why?

Well, it depends upon how long you want your books to be read and make sense. When most people write a futuristic tale, whether it takes place on or off earth, they try to pick a date far enough in the future so that the plot, storyline and futuristic creations make sense. The farther into the future a space travel story is set, the more comfortable we are with accepting what may or may not happen. Of course, there are other elements that go into building a world than just time, but for this post, time is all we are considering.

Back in the late 1800's and early 1900's and even into the 1950's, it was acceptable to use dates such as the 1980's, 1990's and 2000's as time settings for futuristic tales because no one had any clue as to what kinds of things could be made possible. In one such black and white movie from the 1920's or the 1930's, can't remember the name or exact date (I just know it was old), I saw a brief clip of planes flying through tall skyscrapers, reminiscent of a Ratchet and Clank video game. However, if you didn't take into consideration the date in which it was created, it would lose it's futuristic appeal. However, it was funny to think that people of that time thought that the popular mode of transportation of the future would be the airplane. What's even funnier, when you think about it, is that we are still trying to make cars fly.

Because much of the younger generations tend to have difficulty accepting or appreciating well crafted movies and books of the past, they end up being remade and "modernized." Dukes of Hazzard, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Batman, Superman and Star Trek are some titles that come to mind.

Because of the way generations change in what they want/expect from books and movies, when choosing a futuristic time setting, it is just as important to consider how long you want your futuristic story to be considered "futuristic." Meaning, how many generations do you want to be able to appreciate your characters and storyline. Obviously, it's easier to write for the current generation and ignore future generations. Before you decide, please remember that those texts we consider to be classics are ones that anyone from any generation can enjoy. So you need to ask yourself this: Do you want to be among the ranks of Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, writers like H.P. Lovecraft or Ray Bradbury, or if you just want to be one of those authors that fades away with time and not remembered after you die? In other words, what is your target audience and how long do you want your work remembered?

Note, words like "bling," might be neat to use, but they will inevitably date your piece with a time stamp and can lose their appeal over time, so if you want to have some sort of, "pop culture lingo," in your piece, make it up according to what works best with your characters and storyline and make it easy for the reader to understand its meaning.

Time is more than just years in the past or future and in relation to what audience you focus your stories to, but it also helps to have a believable chronology of events. In other words, a timetable that makes sense.

Overwhelmed yet?

Hopefully, I can provide some clarity and relief.

The timetable/chronology must follow the logical time frame in terms of characters and technological advances. No matter what you choose to do with your characters in terms of aging, acquiring strength and having children, it must make logical sense or follow a pre-determined set of rules defined on the world you create, such as how many hours are in a day/night, days in a year, growth rate, etc. If characters on your world live longer lives, whether 100 or 1000 years longer than the average earth human, the way they handle their day-to-day lives needs to correspond appropriately as well as how they adjust to acquiring abilities. A person who lives to be over 1000 years probably won't view time the same way as someone who only lives to be 80 or 100 and may be more laid back or in less of a hurry than earth humans.

Time effects technology and technological advances as well. A reader may become disengaged if the existing technology, the way it's used and the rate at which it's developed seems unrealistic or unbelievable. The rate at which technological advances occur depends upon how much knowledge a group of people have to start with. If a group of people leave earth to colonize another planet, the time it takes to travel through space as well as how much knowledge (types of scientists and equipment, etc.) is brought with them must be considered.

When you bring in technology, you have to determine if the existing technology continues to work or not. If the technology fails, you need to determine how long it takes to fail and if the scientists have the abilities to determine why it fails and stop or prevent it. The timetable for experiencing any problem must be as believable as the time it takes for the characters to find a solution to the problem, if there is one. If there isn't a solution, reaction time comes into play. Reaction time depends upon character type, intelligence and availability of materials.

Time, something many of us take for granted, can be one of the most complex issues to deal with when writing. I hope I have managed to demystify some of it.

What methods do you use to deal with time issues?

Is there any aspect that still puzzles you or hasn't been covered enough?


Margay said...

Wow, this is quite the intricate post! Who knew there was so much to consider with time? And you're right, time is a consideration in any form of writing, even in the actual process of writing. I can't tell you how many times (ha-ha) I have been asked how long it took me to write my book. What is our fascination with time, I wonder?

Carrie said...

I think our fascination with it is because it is the one thing we can't control. No matter what we do, it will always control us.

Of course, it would be fun if we could learn how to go backwards in time while retaining the knowledge we have.....

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