A common saying in the world of sales is, “Time kills all deals”, and we can paraphrase this by saying, “Time kills all plots!”
When writing a novel, one dimension which is often ignored by writers is Time. Writers often focus on the Big Three – setting, characters, and plot – but neglect the fact that time, i.e the time-frame, is just as essential to the momentum and overall effect of their story.
We have talked about plot-driven and character-driven novels before. Today, iUniverse would like to inform readers that in plot-driven novels, time is a critical factor. Plot-driven stories that take place over too great a period of time usually lose their steam and become tedious.
Many writers make the mistake of wanting to tell a vast, sweeping tale, while not realizing that, for psychological reasons, readers can only handle a tale that encompasses more than a few years if those readers are engrossed by the characters. In other words, people don’t have patience for a chronologically long plot.
Examining the field of successful novels, one sees that a period of a few years is relatively long. Even War and Peace, the longest novel ever written (by most accounts), takes place over a period of seven years.
Stretching a story beyond the duration of a few years just doesn’t seem to work. Look at present-day thrillers, such as those best-sellers by Grisham and James Patterson: most of the action takes place over a few days or weeks.
Below, we’ve put some books from classical literature along with the duration of time that their stories involve:
The Pickwick Papers: one year
Pride and Prejudice: one year
Emma: one year
Great Expectations: 10-20 years (character-driven). We must also keep in mind that these novels were serialized.
Ivanhoe: less than one year
1984: several months
The Narrow Corner (by Somerset Maugham): approximately 2 weeks
PG Wodehouse’s novels: a few weeks at most
Lord of the Rings: several months
Harry Potter novels: one year each
The Iliad: one year (the ninth year of the Trojan War)
The Odyssey: three years of actual story action
James Bond novels: a few weeks or occasionally months
Ulysses (James Joyce): one day
Tom Jones: the majority takes place across approximately one year
Some books, especially those focusing on one character’s development and journey, include a few chapters of build-up, though the story itself takes place within a tight time-frame. Please note that such stories are character-driven.
So, when writing your novel, confine it to a relatively short period of time. If you do wish to write a story that takes place over several decades, make sure that the story revolves around the characters, and that the characters are engaging. A plot that goes on for more than a few years becomes too thinned out and weak. In contrast, a tight time-frame adds strength and force to a plot.
What are the time-frames of some of your favorite books? Let us know!