The weight of time (in your book)

Here’s something I do in my first drafts a lot, and always have to trim out in my revisions. I bet I’m not alone.

I often find myself writing out the mundane actions of how to sleep or get out of bed. Why? I don’t know. It’s not like my readers don’t know how to get out of bed. First you sit up, then you whine about the sunlight, then you swing your feet over the edge, then you whine more. . . . See?

So, unless it’s actually important to show the character getting out of bed (like, if she uses a wheelchair and this is the first time the reader sees her morning routine), then it’s probably something you can skip. Just “She got out of bed” and we move right on.

Here’s the deal: what we spend time on in prose has weight. The more time we spend describing how to get out of bed, the more important it becomes. Also, the more potentially confusing, what with all the tiny motions and trying to figure out how fast something is happening. . . . It gets complicated. More complicated than it needs to be.

That said, giving weight to something mundane can be useful if you do it the right way.

Let’s take INTERSTELLAR for example. (If you haven’t seen this movie, pause now for three hours and watch it. Thanks.)

Early in the movie, we see one of the rangers docking to the Endurance. This is a fairly mundane procedure in most SF movies. Things dock. No problem. In reality (and in the movie), it’s a hold-your-breath move because if it goes wrong, there will be consequences. The music is very tense. (The music in this movie is incredible.) We get to hear the characters talk about lining things up and they tell the guy in charge of that good job when it all goes well. Everyone visibly relaxes once it’s done.

There’s a lot of weight given to something that turns out to be a success. They lead you into thinking something will go wrong, but nope.

The point, though, is to show you the difficulty of docking. So that you know later, when everything has gone horribly, horribly wrong, what a feat it is to do it under good circumstances. And how impossible it is when things have just exploded. All the tension you recall from the first docking scene is dialed up to eleven because now something has exploded, the Endurance is spinning, and everything is falling toward the surface of the planet they were orbiting.

Suddenly, what was a typically uninteresting procedure in most science fiction films because a life-and-death situation. Yay! One wrong move will kill everyone. Yay!

So! You can lend weight and importance to otherwise insignificant acts, as long as you do it in a measured and careful way. But if it doesn’t deserve that kind of weight, don’t give it. Or you’ll just have to cut it later.

Do you have any examples of this kind of thing working really well?


9 Responses to The weight of time (in your book)

  1. Deb Atwood Jan 20 2017 at 12:47 pm #

    Good points (though I’m usually guilty of the opposite with too few setting details). A movie I love is Regarding Henry. There’s such dramatic tension when he tries to tie his shoe–the contrast between the once powerful, insensitive lawyer reduced to a man who must learn to tie his shoe and return to a home he doesn’t remember. This is also such a pivotal moment since his young daughter teaches him to tie the shoe, and this produces a flash of memory for Henry.

    I don’t think this movie was very popular, but it always touches me when I watch it.

    • Jodi Jan 20 2017 at 12:59 pm #

      Oh wow, yes, that sounds like an incredible moment!!

  2. Stacey Campbell Jan 20 2017 at 1:38 pm #

    Great post! How good is the music! (Hans Zimmer is a genius, a legend, god-like. Saw him live last year, hands down the best concert I’ve been too. EPIC)

    • Jodi Jan 20 2017 at 1:41 pm #

      The whole bit from Coward through Imperfect Lock to No Time For Caution is just….*weeps with the glory of it*

      I’m so jealous you got to see him in concert!

      • Stacey Campbell Jan 20 2017 at 1:57 pm #

        I just. I can’t. The way his music can be both so incredibly epic and subtle is just the coolest thing. I love the inception soundtrack for that. And Gladiator is just ethereal. *swoons*

        I know he’s touring Europe again this year, surely he’ll do an American tour soon. Hopefully!

  3. Marc Thomas Jan 20 2017 at 3:02 pm #

    A sniper lining up his shot comes to mind and all the seemingly mundane actions that lead up to his preparations.

    • doozy donegal Jan 20 2017 at 3:26 pm #

      Yes sir Marc. Sometime the mundane is important to the young or the intensely focused, and that moment needs to be shared. Occasionally it is needed for cheap filler. And sometimes it requires tremendous fortitude to weave your path from a toasty 6 warm bed.

  4. Ellen Mulholland Jan 20 2017 at 8:43 pm #

    I like your example from Interstellar. Providing tedious details at the start of your story to set up its significance later on is great foreshadowing. Our minds store small bits of info. When we see its use later, we feel a victory.

    Thanks for helping me consider when and when not to give weight to time in my story!

  5. Marc Thomas Feb 24 2017 at 7:01 am #

    I’m currently writing about my experiences when thrown into a boarding/prep school at the age of five where actually, the devil is certainly in the detail.
    The smell of the new school uniform, the way I need to move my head and look up at everyone, the way the stiff collar of my new shirt rubs against my neck and the deafening silence outside the headmaster’s study, interrupted only by the tick of a grandfather clock.

    Seemingly insignificant details, noticed by a child, are usually very significant..

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.