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From Seconds to Eternity - Part One: Time and Space in Fictional Writing

Contributing author: T.K. Millin

“'When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity.'” -Albert Einstein

Literature, in its own right, is tied to time like no other art form I know of. For example, a photograph or a painting is an image of a moment in time and last only as long as it takes to look at it. Same could be said about music. A song lasting 2.5 minutes represents the 2.5 minutes it takes to listen to it.

A book takes time to read as well; however, the reader can be transported through time whether they spend five minutes reading or several hours. For example, it’s possible to write a story that takes thirty minutes to read and covers thirty minutes of action, or the time covered could be stretched out over a lifetime. There are no requirements when it comes to fictional writing.

As a writer, the possibilities to capture time and space in a story are infinite; but just like a scientist developing a time machine, there are methods to the madness and I’m not talking about something as complex as a flux capacitor!

Let’s explore:

Summary and Scene

Summary covers a relatively long period of time in a short amount of distance. It’s a useful method to help reveal information, explain a character’s background, change the pace or to advance forward or backwards in time.

Scene is to fiction what the five senses are to living. In other words, they allow your readers to experience the elements of your characters’ lives through sight, sound, scent, taste and touch.

It’s possible to write a short story in a single scene, without any summary at all, but it’s not possible to write a successful story completely in summary. By summarizing events rather than having them realized as moments of time in your character’s life, disconnects the reader from putting themselves in your character’s shoes.

To put it simply, summary allows you to speed up time in your story and fill in the gap of missing information, scene allows you to slow the pace and fill in the gap of missing details; smells, colors, sensations, etc. You get the picture.

Eventually, a story requires a trigger or a crisis to occur that is crucial to a turning point in your protagonist’s life and cannot be summarized, therefore, all stories require scenes.

One simple formula I’ve used to help keep on track to bring balance between summary and scene is the following:

Scene elements Summary elements

Goal Emotion

Conflict Thought

Disaster Decision


Basically, in a Scene, a character has a goal (maybe to fix a cup of coffee, thus allowing smell and taste to be interjected) then a conflict arises (they knock the mug over, spilling hot coffee on their lap, in could come sight and touch) and next a disaster (the phone rings, Aunt Ruby just died, time for sound).

Moving from scene to summary will now allow the pace to quicken. The character reacts to the news (they remember when growing up they were the only one Aunt Ruby never sent a birthday or Christmas present to (a long period of time in a short distance)) then they think about what just happened (Aunt Ruby became filthy rich when her husband died) now they make a decision (they will go to the funeral and put on a show of sorrow) then the character takes action based upon their decision (they take their best suit to the cleaners).

So as we can see, by using the method of summary and scene we are able to transport our readers through time in a matter of a few sentences or several pages.

In Part II, we will explore the third method for transporting our readers through time: flashback.

Keep on thriving, keep on striving and keep on writing!

T.K. Millin

I'd love for you to share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Breaking free of fear
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