The Passage of Time

Sometimes, when I’m writing, I forget that I’m allowed to skip time. I’ve often found myself writing the most boring minutiae in a scene, realizing that it’s boring, then thinking, “Wait… that does nothing for the plot…I can skip over this month, can’t I?”

But sometimes I can’t remember the timeline exactly–I know it’s 1800, for example, and it is summertime, but is it late June or is it July already? I tend to write it into the text just so I know. I may or may not take out the indications in a later draft.

When I wrote my soul-swapping story, Last Request, I had a fairly tight timeline–two weeks, I believe–on one storyline. My protagonist, Eva, was in a coma and through research, I’d learned that two weeks is about the time someone can stay in a coma and still wake up with all their brain functions intact. To widen the scope of the story, there were a lot of flashbacks, ranging about fourteen years. I wrote in clear indications about what Eva was doing or how old she was in those chapters.

But oddly, it was a more recent flashback that confused my two readers. Eva recalls a memory from the previous month. I received comments saying, “August. Last August? I mean, the August the year before?”

So, even comparatively clear indications of passing time can be confusing.

I watch Downton Abbey and though I am enthralled with this second series so far, I admit to being puzzled by the timeline. It’s not quite on a Lost level of confusion–flash sideways, anyone?–but it seems odd to have the same characters in the same positions emotionally for two years. The timeline is lurching forward into 1918 (which we know because it says “1918” at the beginning of episode 4), but the plots are continuing on from the previous episode, which was 1917.

So, really, shouldn’t Mary have long decided on Carlisle already? As much as I love them, why do Sybil and Branson keep having the same conversation? A year is enough time for one of them to flirt with a solider or a nurse. Why is Bates’ matter with Mrs. Bates taking so long? Still love the show–obsessed, actually–but it’s an awkward time jump where time might change, but nothing in the story indicates that it’s gone on by much.

That’s the other thing about passing time in fiction. It’s not enough to say or show that the seasons have changed, but your characters must change appropriately.

What I’m doing in my current Mess-in-Progress is that, as the summer rolls on and we get closer to harvest time, Miles’s tenants inform him that their crops are failing because there is too much rain. This actually happened in 1800, the harvest was terrible. His daughters are friends with the local children they were being introduced to a few chapters ago. Letters have been written and answered. Visitors come and mention the duration of their stay and then leave.

But the prejudice the daughters face hasn’t changed. Miles isn’t exactly integrated into good English country society yet.

I think I’m finally getting the difference between the long plots–a book length–and the smaller plots that fit into that long plot.

Also, not to get too fanfiction, but I would’ve started Downton 2 in 1915, when German zeppelins were bombing London and other parts of southern England. Then perhaps I would have moved on to spring 1916, when the Easter Rising was happening in Dublin. To paraphrase Chekhov, if you’re going have an Irish chauffeur in act one, then you ought to use the major Irish event of the time period in act two–at least enough to see said chauffeur assimilate the information he’s getting and his position and his own beliefs and create angst.

Because otherwise, we get the Irish guy’s reactions to said event a year later and it seems odd.

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