Monday, September 28, 2009


Most of us do not live lives crowded with incident. The majority of our days are filled with the same events, most weeks pass by fairly innocuously. But mysteries are altogether another kettle of fish with a great deal occurring in usually a very short length of time. How do we handle this? Do we call attention to the ticking clock or do we let the passage of time slide quietly by?

Dan Brown (and many others) have enjoyed large successes employing the ticking clock technique. The result of which is these books having tremendous pace as the reader is being continously reminded at beginning of each chapter that time is running out. In my opinion this technique is really only effective when the plot unfolds and resolves with a very short period of time.

There are also the mysteries where time passes much less obtrusively. The plot takes place over several weeks or even months. Time isn't what is the focus of the plot, but rather the unraveling of the mystery. These mysteries need many plot lines and complex characters to keep the reader eagerly turning the page.

My current manuscript happens over 4 days but there isn't a ticking clock. I have found that a short time period helps to keep the plot organized in my own brain, but I don't think the reader will be aware of it. My focus is on the characters and the untwisting of all their motivations and secrets rather than the all-encompassing idea that time is running out.

What role does time play in your writing? Is it vital or do you pay it little attention?


  1. time is VERY important in my books. Both in period/setting, etc., and in timeline plot elements. One thing I like to do is start a story in present day in the midst of a major conflict and then go back ... tell the story of how it got to this point, then resume present day and take the story home to the resolution.

    The Old Silly

  2. I use a sleepy town for one series, and life moves slower there. The case takes time to solve--the sleuth needs to gossip a bit with different people in the town.

    I'm starting to use time lines more now, after running into time problems with a couple of my revisions.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Time plays a small role. I don't write mysteries, but I also would like my novel to be only a year in length.

  4. I keep a timeline for a book, so I'm always aware of time passing. Sometimes I know the length of the time period for the book. Sometimes I don't know at the outset.

    Straight From Hel

  5. In one of my early manuscripts, somehow I lost a day. It was terrible getting back on track. Most of mine take place over just a few days. The current one, however, will take place over 4 weeks. Or at least that's the plan. It's been different from the get-go. I'm inserting pages as I write denoting Day One, etc., so I can keep the days straight in my head as well as when I go looking back for something. I'll remove them on the next round, but may insert Week One, etc., instead. We'll see.

  6. Marvin; There's a formula that lends itself to being a page-turner!

    Elizabeth; The setting does affect the timeline, doesn't it? There are places where things happen at a slower pace.

    Carolyn; Sometimes time doesn't need to play a role at all - it's the character's journey that counts.

    Helen; So do I. Helps avoid confusion.

    Carol; The opposite happened to me when I was writing a short story. I discovered that I wrote the same afternoon twice; with different things happening! That was fun to fix. *groan*

  7. Time is a big deal in my writing. The timeline in my novels typically span at least a year or more. To keep myself and the writer on track, I include the month with the chapter as it changes. For example:
    Chapter 1

    If the next couple of chapters take place w/in days, I don't repeat the heading but make sure the reader knows how much time has passed (does that make sense?).

    Right now my writing partner and I are struggling w/ the timeline since we decided that we want the novel to end exactly one year after the beginning. Changes a few things.

  8. Elisa; Don't you hate it when that happens? Best of luck to both of you, I feel confident you'll meet the challenge!

  9. Book one had a time element to it. Lovers needed to sort out their issues by a certain time, or else. WIP, has no time element at all, except a 100 year flash back. But, that doesn’t count.

    Best Regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  10. Interesting question, Elspeth! In my writing, I do make mention of the passing of time. That is, I may mention what day it is or what time it is, and I try to be realistic about how much time something takes. However, at the same time, I don't do the time-pressure clock-is-ticking sort of thing. I sometimes think the slow buildup of tension can be just as powerful.

  11. I think timelines are important in mystery fiction. Tick tock keeps me interested. As a reader, I get frustrated (in mysteries or other genres) when the next chapter begins "Several month had passed..."

    As a writer, I find a (sort of) short timeframe from beginning to end helps me keep things straight in my head...

    Cheers, Jill

  12. This is an issue in non-mystery fiction as well. I often debate between compressing my book into a week or two or dragging it out over months. It just depends on the story. I've always dreamed of writing an entire novel set in one night. Like American Graffiti...or all the ripoffs they did in the 80s. WAY too challenging, though!

  13. Galen; How interesting that you wrote one with a specific time frame and one without! I need a timeframe to keep me sane. Hat is off to you, sir!

    Margot; I agree about the slow build-up of tension. A subtle raising of the stakes can be very effective.

    Jill; That drives me crazy too.

    Stephanie; I would think it is an issue for all types of fiction; but in mysteries you really can't spread it out over a year - or if you can, I'm certainly not talented enough to do it.

  14. Great question, Elspeth. My current ms takes place in a little more than 2 weeks. After I'd written and revised twice, I realized I wasn't starting in the best spot. I needed to rewrite the entire first half of the novel in order to make it stronger. It took me months because the timeline for the initiating event changed. Thankfully, I had a timeline to work from. It made the process slightly less painful. :)

  15. Jemi; Good for you! That must have been a great deal of work. I'm impressed.

  16. I often have some variation of a ticking clock but as Carol has pointed out changing things when the clock is in place is a problem especially keeping time in sequence. Like Helen, I write my calendar down, or by the hour if that is needed so that when edits are made I can see easily where I am.

  17. I am more of a reader than a writer, and I prefer books where the time element is not paramount. But the one thing I hate is an author who gets time wrong.

  18. Lauri; I would think a calendar would be essential. Good planning will save a great deal of headaches.

    Rayna; Time wrong? That would drive me nuts as well!


Please leave a comment as I love to hear from you!