Time Kills All Plots!

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A common saying in the world of sales is, “Time kills all deals”, and we can paraphrase this by saying, “Time kills all plots!”

timeWhen 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.

timeExamining 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!

Make sure to check out the iUniverse site for more advice and blogs, as well as iUniverse Facebook and iUniverse Twitter.


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