Writing a Sense of Time

Writing a Sense of TimeTick… tick… tick…

We all know how the scene goes. The heroine, crawling beneath a school bus, spies a sinister-looking collection of wires and circuitry attached to a slab of plastic explosive. A timer counts down, luminous digits blinking.

0:58… 0:57… 0:56…

Cut to the exterior of the bus. The doors are locked, no driver to be seen. Inside, children panic. Tiny hands beat against the window glass. Muffled voices cry out. At the back of the bus a little girl in a red dress holds a ginger kitten in her arms. Tears spill over her rosy cheeks. We know what’s at stake.

0:55… 0:54…

The heroine  examines the bomb. Sweat beads on her forehead. She can hear the children inside the bus, desperate to escape. Insulated wire-cutters shake in her trembling hand. Which wire should she cut? The red one? The black one? Close-up of the wire-cutters as they move from one coloured wire to the other and back again.

0:53… 0:52…

“The way our brains perceive time can be as fluid as they way time is manipulated on screen.”

By this point we’ve seen maybe thirty seconds of footage, but only eight seconds have ticked by on the countdown clock. Our hearts are pounding, and time seems to be moving in syrupy slow-motion, even though individual actions are portrayed at normal speed. It’s a trick film-makers use to build suspense, to draw out the moment we all know is coming when the heroine cuts the right wire as the clock flashes 0:01.

The trick is to focus on individual details as the timer counts down. The beads of sweat. The trembling hands. The scared little girl with her kitten. (It’s always worse when there’s a kitten.) The editor is manipulating time in the story world by packing in more detail between glimpses of the clock. Time is actually passing more slowly in the cinema than it is for the characters on screen.

“When we experience something new or exhilarating, we take in a lot of detail and lay down rich new memories.”

It’s something writers do as well when they want to control the forward momentum of a story. Adding descriptive passages slows the pace, while stripping description from your prose until it is almost bare quickens the pace. It makes sense in a simplistic way. More description means more words to read, which means it takes longer to cover the same amount of story.

But there may be more to it than that.

neuroscience research and time perceptionIt turns out the way our brains perceive time can be as fluid as they way time is manipulated on screen. According to recent articles on the neuroscience of time perception, when we experience something new or exhilarating, we take in a lot of detail and lay down rich new memories. We also perceive time as moving more slowly than it actually is. Conversely, when we are doing something routine — like driving home from work along the route we’ve taken hundreds of times before — we don’t make many new memories and we perceive time as moving much more quickly.

What can we learn from this as writers?

One thing is that we take in more detail in crisis situations. As a kid I remember people talking about where they were and what they were doing at the exact moment they heard the news about JFK. Striking recollections, crystal clear. A more recent example would be the fall of the twin towers. (Do you remember where you were when you heard?)

“Adding this kind of detail does slow the pace of the story — but in a way that mimics the naturally elastic perception of time in our brains.”

When writing a critical scene or pivotal moment, it is completely natural for a character to notice more detail in their surroundings. The blinds, half-way down the kitchen window. Early morning sun glinting off the stainless steel sink, last night’s dishes still in the rack. The tiny black and white television screen showing footage of the unthinkable on a seemingly endless loop.

Another thing we can learn is that adding this kind of detail does slow the pace of the story — but in a way that mimics the naturally elastic perception of time in our brains. Used sparingly, this snap-focus on a series of telling details may actually enhance the reader’s experience of time slowing down in a crisis.

The combined effect is a climactic scene that seems at once frenetic and yet drawn out, a deliciously suspenseful and ultimately memorable experience for the reader.