Changing Time Scales In Fiction

When writing fiction, we can describe things of various durations, depending on the scalarity of our descriptions.  That is, we can say:

“I walked to my car, got in, turned left to get onto the highway….”


“I drove to work…”


“Every day that week, while I was taking my drive into work…”


“Over that next year, when I drove to work…”

See?  When doing exposition or third person description, we can do even larger time scales, such as:

“The highway was first built in 1939…”

One problem that I seem to have is in changing scales–particularly changing from finer to coarser time scales.  If I have a sequence, like a fight scene or an intense conversation, where I am writing it close to one to one, describing in detail each thing that happens, I have real problems trying to break out into describing a bigger stretch of time in lesser detail.

After spending several paragraphs writing an action sequence it’s really hard for me to switch back to saying, “For the rest of the day…”

There doesn’t seem to ever be a natural break for shifting the reader’s perspective, if that makes any sense.

Does anyone else have this problem?  Does anyone else even understand the problem? Maybe it’s just my need to cram every detail I possibly can into the flow of my narrative.

I’m bringing this up because I realized that the first nine chapters of my new book take place in one day–granted, it’s a fairly busy day, but still…

My God, I’m turning into Marcel Proust.  HELP!



About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in On Writing, Worms Of Heaven and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Changing Time Scales In Fiction

  1. I don’t mention time that often in fight scenes, but I do notice some stumbling when I switch from a scene that works in seconds to one that works in longer chunks. Not sure if that’s what you’re talking about. With me, I think it’s that I feel the urgency and suspense of the fight scene where every second and inch counts. That one second delay of a character can be the life or death of him/her. So, it’s a little sticky on the mental gear change when moving to a scene where it’s slower and more relaxed.

  2. KJ Charles says:

    Oh, interesting. I actually love switching timescales. I prefer to do it at a chapter break if I can but I don’t think readers struggle if it’s a line break. In my view it’s a great way to transition scenes – the change in timescale underscores the change in scene/focus – and also to get over authorial sticky points (you know, when the scene seems to be stretching out like the line of Banquo’s children and you feel like you’re narrating every inhalation and eyebrow twitch). At these points I think a brisk, ‘Several hours later, leaving the burning house behind them…’ does wonders for everyone.

  3. I know where you’re coming from. There comes a time where it’s like “Well…this sequence is done. On to the next!” and that never feels quite right. I’m not sure what the answer is yet.

  4. sknicholls says:

    I have always wanted to write a book that happens over the course of one to three days. Instead, all of my writing seems to occur over years and it sometimes becomes a challenge to knit them together, There is a lot going on year by year, and it is not at all boring, but troubling to switch to a new time period without telling the date…then it reads like a history book.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Catskinner’s Book starts on a Thursday about noon and ends early afternoon on Sunday–about eighty hours all told. Cannibal Hearts takes place over six days, plus an epilogue that is about four months later. So far Worms Of Heaven takes place in less than twenty-four hours, and I just started chapter 11.

      • sknicholls says:

        That’s fascinating. Mine covered decades…a really tough thing to do keeping action and not losing continuity.

        My crime novel is much more rapid than the historical fiction…it seems like things will be resolved in a matter of days. Maybe that’s why my husband likes crime fiction so much. He has a very short attention span. He is reading your first book BTW…got to it before me.

  5. Myas says:

    As a rule, you don’t skimp on detail. Why is that a problem?

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