Can you control the flow of time? I'm not talking about managing your own time in order to be productive (though that would be a worthy topic for another article). I'm referring to managing the flow of time in your stories.
Authors of paranormal or speculative fiction, where time travel is a common element, might answer in the affirmative. Historical writers also need an acute appreciation of time. Those of you who write in other genres, though, might not have thought much about the question. You might be more focused on building compelling characters, producing vivid descriptions, or writing realistic dialogue. If you don't consciously control the passage of time in your books, however, you run the risk of confusing or annoying your readers.
In most fiction, time provides the sub-structure for the story. The events that comprise the plot are associated with different temporal "locations", strung out from the past to the present like beads on a string. A close author friend of mine uses the metaphor of a clothesline. He writes scenes as they occur to him and then "hangs" them on the line in temporal order. (You can see an example, and read about his method, at the Oh Get A Grip blog.)
Aristotle advised dramatists that all the action in a play should occur within a single day. That approach might work for a short story, but novels usually stretch over a longer duration - anything from days to centuries. This expanded span introduces a variety of risks for the author.
The risk of confusing the reader. Your reader needs to understand when things are happening in order to make sense of the story. Thus, you need to clearly communicate the temporal "setting" of each scene (including flashbacks or scenes from the past that are described by your characters).
The risk of "losing" periods of time. If your story jumps from point A in time (e.g. Monday) to point B (e.g. Saturday of the same week), what happened during the intervening days? This might not be relevant to the story, and you don't necessarily need to fill in the blank period in detail, but both you and your characters need to be aware that the gap exists. As a reader, I find it really irritating when a new chapter begins a month later than the previous one, without the author telling me anything about what occurred during that period. In general, as time progresses, things change. Longer time periods result in more significant alterations of people, situations, and environments. Keep this in mind as you write.
The risk of repeating periods of time. This is the flip side of (2). Make sure you don't end up with two Saturdays in a row!
The risk of factual or celestial gaffes. Authors frequently use natural phenomena to anchor a story. Phases of the moon are a particular favorite of mine. If the moon is full during one scene, I need to actively consider what phase it will display a week later. Certainly it won't still be full! Seasonal variations are another example. My novel Necessary Madness begins in late November, in New England, and continues through December until Christmas. I describe the weather as progressively colder and more inclement - as it usually is in Massachusetts during this period.
The risk of logical gaffes. Humans expect a logical sequence of phenomena, from cause to effect. A hitch in your fictional time line can create a situation where an effect is described before its causal event has occurred. For example, a character might mention another individual in the story, before the two have met or learned of each other's existence. A reader might or might not notice this sort of error. In the latter case, she'll be confused. In the former case, she'll be critical of your skills as a story teller.
So how can you avoid these sorts of problems, especially in a longer work like a novel? One common technique is to create a time line for your story. The line should start at the earliest event you describe (even if that is in the past when your story begins) and should extend to the tale's conclusion. As an example, here's a time line for my current work in progress, a M/M speculative fiction book entitled Quarantine. (Click on the images to see enlarged versions.)
Historical Events Timeline
Character Events Timeline
Because this story takes place in the future, but is influenced by history, I've broken my time line into two parts. The first has a larger granularity (years) and shows historical events leading up to the beginning of the book, both personal to the characters (above the line) and public (below the line). I've included the public events because they are mentioned by the characters.
The second, more detailed time line shows the course of the story events themselves. Its units are days. The book takes about two months to unfold. As we get toward the climax, the days of the week become important because the "Freedom Crossroads Rally" event must occur on a Saturday.
The second half of the detailed time line reflects chapters I haven't written yet. I'm not completely sure about how the end of the book will play out and that uncertainty shows.
I've used diagrams for my time line, but a spreadsheet might work as well. One problem with using graphics is that there's no obvious way to record details (like the phase of the moon or the timing of the tides) that might be ancillary to the tale but still important from a consistency perspective. With a spread sheet, each row would represent one point in time (one triangle, in my graphical representation). Then you could define columns for date, day of the week, scenes or events related to characters, external events, phase of the moon, or whatever, expanding the definition as necessary to capture the information you need.
Quarantine has a relatively simple, linear plot, and thus can be handled by a single time line. Some books, especially those with multiple point-of-view characters, may have multiple parallel time lines. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by Gordon Dahlquist (one the best books I've read in the past decade!), features three main characters, each of which has independent adventures. Their individual time lines merge in certain scenes, then diverge again. I don't know if Dahlquist used time lines (if he didn't, I'd like to know how he kept track of such an incredibly intricate tale!), but I'd imagine if one tried to do so, one would need separate time-tagged event sequences for Miss Temple, Cardinal Chang, and Doctor Svenson, braided together like the multiple channels of an ancient river.
Handling time in Quarantine is relatively simple for another reason. The book is narrated using "standard" third-person limited, past tense. I've written two novels using first person, present tense, a tricky combination but one that I like for erotica because of its immediacy. Here's a bit from my erotic thriller Exposure narrated by exotic dancer and (it turns out) amateur sleuth Stella Xanathakeos:
It's early, and it's Monday, slow. He's the only one sitting close enough for me to use my stare, and it isn't working. He's good-looking in a clean-cut, straight-laced sort of way. Blond crew cut, blue-eyed, muscles that show even under his expensive suit. At least it looks expensive to me.
He has not taken his eyes off me since I strutted onto the stage, but his face is without expression. It's like he has walls behind his eyes. I can't see into him at all. Now it's me that's getting frustrated and hot under the collar. I've already stripped down to my pasties, boots and thong. I peel one of the tassels off my nipple and dangle it in front of him. He looks only at my eyes. He's measuring me, sizing me up for something.
I prance around on my stiletto heels. I shake my hips, do a slow, sensuous shimmy, cup my tits in my palms and offer them to him. No reaction. I take off the other tassel and attach it behind, where my butt cheeks meet, a lewd little tail. There's a whistle from a table in the back, but Mr. Clean just continues to study me.
First person present narration complicates the control of time because you can't allow significant gaps. It feels odd if the narrator's voice simply disappears for a day or two, then pops in again. The events in Exposure (except for the final chapter, which is something of an epilogue) take place over the course of a single week. Every moment of Stella's time needs to be accounted for. Furthermore, she needs to give the reader clues when the time line advances without her providing a blow-by-blow description.
Three quarters of the way through writing Exposure, I discovered that I'd lost a day. I was tracking the days of the week because the plot required it. I realized that I'd skipped from Thursday to Saturday without Friday ever happening. This necessitated some temporal repair work on my part!
Pretty much every author who writes longer work needs to become a mistress (or master) of time. Actually, I consider myself just an apprentice. But I'm working on my skills!