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clockNational Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO) is just around the corner—a yearly event in which writers commit to completing a 50,000 word (or more) novel during the month of November. One month. One book. Not a lot of time. So, time as a story element seems like an appropriate blog topic.

Stories unfold over a set interval of time. That’s a given. What I want to discuss is how different types of time can be used as story elements to set mood, further plot, and deepen character. [pc: morguefile.com]

Types of Time

There are four types of time that can be used to add atmosphere, set tone, and increase urgency in a story:

  • Clock time:  Sets mood and creates suspense.
  • Calendar time: Creates a context for events, such as prom, homecoming, and graduation.
  • Seasonal time: Creates atmosphere, as well as providing a backdrop and reason for cultural events and activities.
  • Historical time: Establishes a context for social ideas, behaviors, and attitudes.

These elements can be combined, as you’ll see in the following examples.

Seasonal Atmosphere

Calendar and seasonal time are a natural combination. A season is technicallyCover for A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck three months long, allowing the story to unfold during time. Seasonal time can be used to set atmosphere and integrate events particular to the season to further the story. One great example is A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck. The story begins in the fall, with a Halloween outhouse scene that is laugh-out-loud hilarious, while also adding depth to the characters.

Home Alone movie posterSeasonal events can also introduce urgency that influence characters’ actions. The movie Home Alone is a perfect example.

When a young boy is accidentally left behind at Christmas–while the family travels to Paris–he is forced to defend their house against burglars, with side-splittingly funny results.

Ticking-Clock ~ Urgency and/or Advocate

You don’t really know a person until you see how they react under extreme pressure. DieHardWhich is why a ticking clock—a figurative pressure cooker—is a great way to reveal character strengths and flaws.

The ticking-clock can be combined with seasonal time. The Christmas party setting in the movie Die Hard is the perfect excuse for the entire company to be at the office headquarters at night with minimal security. It also provides a reason for NYC cop John McClane (Bruce Willis)–the estranged husband of a corporate VP, Holly McClane–to be visiting, so he can then take down the bad guys in badass style.

In the movie Back to the Future, time is both an advocate and adversary. Time is the vehicle (no pun intended) by which teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels back into the past to alter the developmental paths of his parents to create a better future for the family. The ticking-clock is BackToTheFuturethe electrical storm required for Marty to escape the past and get back to the future.

As the electrical storm gathers, Marty arrives at the clock tower as a falling branch disconnects the wire from the tower to the street. As Marty races the DeLorean toward the clock tower, Doc climbs across the clock to reconnect the cable. The lightning strikes, sending Marty back to 1985, but not before he sees Doc killed. Marty soon discovers Doc actually survived because of the bullet-proof vest he was wearing. Doc takes Marty home to 1985, then sets off for October 21, 2015 (Back to the Future Day!).

Historical Time

Sent coverHistorical time can define setting, social interactions, attitudes, laws, and mores. There are any number of terrific novels that transport the reader to a different historic time to experience life in another era. What I like about Margaret Haddix‘s Missing series, is the unique spin on historical fiction with a time travel twist.

In Found, the first book in the series, Haddix establishes the plausibility of time travel and the anticipation that the main characters are not who they think they are.  In the second book, Sent, Chip, Alex, Jonah, and Katherine land in 1483 in the Tower of London where the imprisoned Edward and Richard fearfully await their fates. Chip and Alex soon realize that they are princes Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York–come back from the future. They watch history unfold, trying to save the princes without altering time in a way that would kill them anyway. This book is rich with accurate historical details that bring the setting and characters to life. It also poses a unique possibility regarding the actual fates of Edward and Richard.