Suddenly, a Pause
by James Thayer
“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once,” Albert Einstein said. New writers often feel they have to fiddle with time in their fiction. So they hurry time, and pause it, and explain it, rather than let time reel out naturally. As a result, the story ends up having a herky-jerky quality, as if the action were seen under a strobe light.
Time unfolds in a story just like in life. There’s usually no need to tinker with time.
A scene should be written moment-by-moment, “presented onstage in the story ‘now,’” according to Jack Bickham. Writers want readers to suspend disbelief, to accept the story as presented. Having the action play out as if live in front of the reader, moment-by-moment—without weird time manipulations—is a key to reader enjoyment of the story.
How do writers mess with time? Plenty of ways.
A chief howler is the word suddenly. Suddenly the deer leaped over the fence. The sheriff suddenly pulled his pistol from the holster. She suddenly opened the window.
All things are sudden, in that one instant they aren’t there, and the next instant they are. One instant something isn’t happening, and the next instant it is. There’s no need forsuddenly.
Here’s an experiment:
John suddenly opened the tool drawer. He suddenly lifted out the hatchet. He suddenly walked to the door, where the car suddenly backed out of the driveway. Suddenly holding the hatchet over his head, he suddenly ran back into the house.
Each suddenly is meant to indicate the action was initiated right now. But of course it is happening right now, because it wasn’t happening before we read about it. Here’s another version:
John opened the tool drawer. He lifted out the hatchet and walked to the door, where the car backed out of the driveway. Holding the hatchet over his head, he ran back into the house.
There isn’t a whit of difference between the first and second versions, except that the suddenly version reads like a twitchy movie from a hundred years ago.
And suddenly often is an awkward redundancy. Suddenly the dog died. Well, yes, because alive is alive and dead is dead, and there’s no in between, so it’s sudden. Suddenly he thought about the girl. As opposed to what? The thought slowly leaking into his head? The apple suddenly fell from the tree. As opposed to the apple detaching from the stem, then hanging there mid-air an inch from the stem, then two inches from the stem, then suddenly plummeting to earth. The cannon fired suddenly. Cannons that don’t fire suddenly aren’t worth much.
Suddenly is a redundant time expediter. (How about a double redundancy: very suddenly?) The author thinks suddenly moves the action along, when the action is always moving along.
Sometimes writers pause the action, and the scene stops and starts, stops and starts, stops and starts. Pause is often the word used:
Danny paused, then reached for the bottle.
The cougar looked up at the tree, paused, then leaped onto the first branch.
Most often, telling the reader that something has paused is unnecessary because the reader infers pauses. Life is a series of pauses, and there’s no need to document them in fiction. Here’s another experiment:
The kitten ran after the ball of wool, then paused. It jumped down from the couch, and paused. It swatted Ron’s shoelaces, then paused. It arced its back and hissed when the dog came into the room, then paused. The kitten leaped at the dog’s tail, batted it again and again, then paused.
Other than being laughable, how is the first version different from this second version?
The kitten ran after the ball of wool. It jumped down from the couch and swatted Ron’s shoelaces. It arced its back and hissed when the dog came into the room. The kitten leaped at the dog’s tail, and batted it again and again.
A pause always exists between two actions. Sometimes it’s short, sometimes longer. But the reader usually knows how fast the story is progressing without prompts from the writer. The reader infers pauses, and so the writer telling the reader to pause is redundant. The story’s action becomes fitful in the reader’s mind.
The same is true with hesitated. Stan hesitated for a moment, then pressed the accelerator. And waited: Stan waited a moment, then pressed the accelerator.
Later is another word to watch out for:
Kristin wrapped the old man in a blanket and helped him lift the soupspoon to his mouth. She buttered a slice of bread for him. Later, she telephoned the police.
When the writer says something happened later, the story jumps forward in time, from now to later. Minutes or hours have been skipped, and so the reader shoots forward as if by magic.
Time lurching can happen with a lot of word constructions:
They held hands, and after a while he put his arm around her.
They held hands, and a couple minutes later he put his arm around her.
They held hands, and after he thought it over he put his arm around her.
They held hands for five minutes, then he put his arm around her.
They held hands and stared at the night sky for a while, and then he put his arm around her.
They held hands, and after the moon had sunk below the horizon, he put his arm around her.
They held hands, and when he was finally comfortable he put his arm around her.
In all of these sentences, minutes have been plucked out of the scene, right out of the middle of a sentence. The reader is booted forward in time. Such a thing cannot happen in our real lives, and when it happens in fiction the credibility of the scene is lessened.
Another common time foolery occurs when the author chronically points out that now is now in the story:
Allison placed the wrench on the floor, and now Dennis opened the hood.
The bullies chased Eddie. He ran frantically, his arms pumping. Now he turned down Front Street.
The sun came from behind a cloud, and now the rose opened its petals.
When a reader reads a sentence, she presumes the action is happening now, in front of her, when she is reading it. It isn’t necessary—and is redundant—to point out that now is now.
Now on to then. The word then is often superfluous:
She lifted the Petri dish from the counter, then reached for the microscope.
He caught the ball, then ran downfield.
The goldfish rose to the surface, then began feeding on the blood worms.
Things don’t happen all at once in real life, as Einstein pointed out. Nor do they happen all at the same time in fiction. Readers know events occur sequentially. If we read that she lifted the Petri dish, and read that she reached for the microscope, we assume that one action followed the other. Saying then becomes redundant. It indicates that time is moving forward, when the reader well knows that moving ahead is how time works.
There are dozens more of these usages that interfere with the flow of time in a story. Exceptions exist, of course. Sometimes pause or later is necessary to make the story clear. Most often, though, these time references are redundant and give the story a convulsive quality: stop, go, hurry, wait, freeze, unfreeze.
Readers know how time works. Trust them to pace your story.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).