It’s Time: Prose and the Ticking Clock

Once again, we’ve reached the season for setting our clocks forward an hour and entering daylight saving time. Just like that, we jump ahead with that hour of our lives to be recovered in the autumn when we go back to standard time. This jump ahead, which brings us longer light, isn’t without its challenges. Our bodies often struggle to make the adjustment. The good news for writers, though, is the lesson the changing of the clocks brings to us. Time speeds up, and as it does, it reminds us of how to use time to put pressure on our characters. The forced motion of the clock’s hands can also alert writers to the fact that time is ticking and requires us to answer the question, “How do we want to spend our days?”

Let’s take the second question first. If you’re like me, you’ve long ago decided that writing isn’t just something you do; it’s also who you are. The way I spend my days is trying to make sense of the complicated people we are by putting characters, either real or invented, into motion in fiction or creative nonfiction. We write to give shape to the lived life, and in the process, we attempt to better understand what Faulkner called “the verities and truths of the heart.” I’ve always thought I’m better equipped for that task if I keep the pressures of advancing time out of my writing room—if I, in other words, stop worrying about how much I’m getting done, or how far ahead another writer may seem, or what it may take to finish a project. If I can make time disappear, I can keep my focus on the creative process and let the results take care of themselves. I’ve always believed the journey will take us where we’re meant to go, and disregarding time helps me stay true to the faith I have in moving words about on the page.

When I think about the worlds of my stories, or novels, or memoirs, though, the pressures of time can be my friend. I feel it’s my job in any narrative I write to exert pressures on my main characters until something significant that’s been submerged rises to the top. Sometimes, though, we forget the role time can play in that pressure. For the purpose of illustration, let’s say you’re  on a shopping trip with a family member. It’s a beautiful spring day, you have no pressing obligations, you’ve got all the time in the world. That doesn’t  make for a very interesting story because there’s no tension and there’s no pressure on the characters. For the purpose of contrast, let’s say you’re on this same shopping trip, but this time it’s late in the day and you have to be home by six o’clock because if you’re not, you’ll miss a very important phone call. Now the clock is ticking, and you’re feeling the pressure of time, and what might have been your husband’s good-natured attempt at a joke becomes irritating and you realize you’ve always disliked that part of him. Or let’s say the shopping trip is because a family wedding is coming up soon, and it’s important to you that you make the right impression because an estranged family member will be in attendance and you want everything to go well. A time constraint will always add pressure to your characters.

As a writing exercise, you might look at a piece you’ve written or one you’re thinking about writing and consider how time might be a way of adding tension. I remember a cartoon character from my childhood, Dudley Do-Right. Dudley, a well-intentioned yet dimwitted Canadian Mountie, was always trying to save the fair Nell Fenwick from the villainous Snidely Whiplash. Often, poor Nell would be tied to a railroad track or bound on a log and moving ever closer to a buzz saw. Of course, no harm ever came to her, but as a kid, knowing the train was coming or Nell was getting closer to the saw blade, made me worry about  her. I felt the pressure of time passing. The future lay just beyond my realm of knowing, and I was breathless as I waited to see what would happen.

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