Compressing time

A post by Patricia Wrede: Skipping Through the Story

The only difference between skipping two hours of sword-sharpening and skipping two months of traveling the Silk Road is the scale. The technique is the same. “Amelia spent the next two hours sharpening her sword” is, technically speaking, the same kind of transition as “Amelia spent the next three weeks studying advanced spellcasting” or “The caravan took another month to reach the first oasis.” … If there are multiple somewhat-important-but-still-not-worth-showing things, the author can list the high spots: “Maria spent the next three months rebuilding the burned-out shed and listening to George complain about Jenny.”

I’m smiling because of that last sentence and I bet you are too. That sentence is funny, and smooth, and it illustrates the obvious truth that it matters what you stick into a sentence when you’re compressing time. “Maria spent the next three months rebuilding the burned-out shed” would not be NEARLY as appealing. It’s all very well to say that the author can list the high spots; it’s a whole different thing for an author to do that cleverly and with a bit of humor.

Wrede continues to illustrate how to smoothly indicate passing time, including whole seasons, in just a sentence or two. Then this:

I find it really helpful to keep a calendar or time-line of when key events happen (or are supposed to happen, if I’ve not written them yet), relative to key time-markers: the last farmer’s market is in the fall, the enemy scout is captured two weeks later, Harvest Feast is mid-fall, the defector arrives with warnings and they start planning, the first new catapult is ready by Solstice, and so on.

This reminds me of revising Winter of Ice and Iron after my editor suggested putting a time marker at the beginning of every chapter. This was when I named the months (Month of Bright Rains, Apple Blossom Month, etc). There is a reminder about when we are at the top of every chapter, worked in smoothly enough that perhaps the reader doesn’t notice the reminder is there.

Counting off months in the Tasmakat required some concentration, starting with deciding what month it was when Aras and the others returned to the summer country and then estimating how long it should take for each leg of their travels thereafter and what month it should be at each stage. I do find it necessary to make notes about that. In a lot of ways, it’s just easier to write a story that takes place in one whoosh of events in less than a week, like Tano. You might pass lightly over a few hours here and there, and you might find yourself squinting as you try to figure out whether it’s been two days or three since something happened, but even so, that’s just easier. The WORST was trying to keep track of the phase of the moon in White Road of the Moon. If my copy editor hadn’t worked through the phases herself and corrected my mistakes with that, then I wouldn’t have gotten it right all the way through.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but in the first chapter of The Sorceress and the Cygnet, Corleu grows up from a child to a young man. Less than a chapter, just a few pages. That’s always what I think of when I think of compressing time. It’s definitely a trick to encapsulate someone’s whole childhood in five pages. McKillip does it by using that section to do a bit of worldbuilding and establish the feel of the story.

Techniques used to compress time, from hours to a decade or more, are certainly something to pay attention to when learning to write.

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1 thought on “Compressing time”

  1. I’m growing up a boy in the course of a chapter. It’s — interesting. Especially since it’s a massive multi-POV novel.

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