The Fundamentals of Timing in a Story

Timing is everything. It is simple and yet complex.

When you write, if you use poetic elements, there is a rhythm and therefore a pace. When you have a pace in a story, there is an element of timing. 

What is timing? How are you supposed to keep an eye on it and make sure it runs smoothly? Here is a brief scene I wrote specifically for this post. Notice the purposely delayed introduction of a character as well as the deliberate diversion of the conversation:

Janet waited in her darkened kitchen sitting at the island with her hands around her now-lukewarm coffee mug. She heard her husband’s car pull into the drive, and then he slammed the car door as he got out. Though she couldn’t hear his footsteps, she counted the seconds until the side door creaked open, and he stepped in—still wearing his gray business suit with his coat draped over his arm, and he carried his briefcase.

He looked at her—surprised to see her. “Sorry I’m late. Meeting ran long and traffic was a pain.” He closed the door with his foot. “Why are you still up? You never wait for me.”

He was right. She usually went to bed at nine o’clock whether or not he was home. Her daily headaches hindered her staying up later than that, but this evening was different. Her headache still split her skull, but a more important matter kept her awake—the man sitting in the chair in the shadows behind her husband. He came for answers—of a life her husband knew nothing about. She had intended to tell him one day—today even, but she saw the exhaustion in his face. He faced his daily battles at work, and he didn’t need to come home and stress some more. Home was to be his haven, and if she could give him one more night of peace, she would.

I was just worried about you.” She smiled as she rose to her feet and went to him, kissing his cheek. “But of course there’s nothing to worry about. Why don’t you go upstairs and freshen up? I’ll be up there soon.”

Yeah—sure.” He bobbed his head as he headed for the stairs. When he moved passed her, Janet locked eyes with the silent man in their living room. She would give him the answers he wanted, but just one more night of peace in the comfort of their routine.

The man nodded but remained seated. He had time—he always had time.

In real life there might be a time when you have to tell someone something important, but you wait for the right time to tell them. This can be applied to stories. Just like Janet knew of the silent man’s presence in the house and the importance of her husband knowing, she also knew her husband didn’t need to know at that specific time. It’s okay for characters to keep information to themselves so long as they know why. This tactic builds tension and adds another dimension to the scene as well as depth to the characters.

Another element of timing is literally the passage of time. As writers, we can fast-forward and rewind time at will. We can travel hundreds of years to the past or to the future. Due to this ability, we might forget how important it is to simply let time move naturally in the story. For instance, I was revising a historical fiction novel of mine and realized one chapter took place in December and the next chapter occurred in June. I had compacted the scenes so tightly together, I couldn’t pull it apart without causing havoc. However, the passage of time was a complete wreck. In order to give the feeling of time passing, I took the opportunity to weave into the story a new important subplot between the two chapters. This slowed down the pace, gave the reader a chance to breath and reevaluate the status of the story, and it gave me the chance to add another element to the entire overarching story. This isn’t recommended, but sometimes you have no choice, and you have to be careful when you apply this tactic.

Another way to keep time moving naturally in a story is to take advantage of multiple subplots and use a circuit from plot to plot before circling back to the original plot. This strategy is best used when writing third person, but it can be employed when writing multiple POV-first person. Let me give you an example. Here are the players: Leo, Vivienne, Anna, Todd, Liam, Irene and Isabella.

  • Leo and Vivienne go into an operating room.
  • Anna goes to find Irene and Isabella and take them where they need to go.
  • Todd and Liam go to find Richard.
  • Vivienne leaves Leo to join Anna, Irene, and Isabella.
  • When Vivienne arrives, Anna goes to join Todd and Liam.
  • Richard isn’t responding well to Todd and Liam, so when Anna arrives, Liam asks her to take Todd aside.
  • While being operated upon, Leo uses his magic to discover all isn’t what it seems.
  • Vivienne, Irene, and Isabella are the distraction and pick a fight with Sebastian and Abraham to get the Guardians’ attention.
  • Liam talks with Richard, trying to figure out his angle. Something isn’t adding up.
  • Todd and Anna finally have a meaningful conversation in which a lot is revealed.
  • Leo makes a startling revelation.
  • The Guardians finally get involved in the fight, and Vivienne manages to unmask one of them—and in doing so, she’s surprised by her discovery of the origin of the Guardians.
  • Anna is upset with what Todd has told her, and they argue, but then she storms away.
  • Liam has learned Richard’s real motive, and it is disturbing. Just as he leaves from talking with the man, Anna storms pass him, and Todd is close behind. Liam knows the conversation did not go well.
  • They all come back together, and the game has definitely changed.

Now, take a closer look at how these scenes worked. First it was Leo (with Vivienne), then Anna (with Irene and Isabella), then Todd and Liam. Then Vivienne joined Anna, Irene, and Isabella, and Anna left and joined Todd and Liam, and eventually Todd leaves with Anna. We have a circuit of scenes: Leo, then Vivienne (with Irene and Isabella), then Liam with Richard, then Anna with Todd, and then it circles back to Leo, Vivienne, Liam, and Anna, and so forth.

Leo is first, and by the time we get back to him after going through all those other scenes, he’s had enough time to discover something else. This applies to all the other characters as well when you have this kind of circuit working for you. This technique is often fast-paced, but it allows to time to pass realistically through the scenes.

Timing is important for the pace and development of a story. It allows you to slip a major but not-yet-introduced character into a scene, so when he is introduced, you already have a lot you can work with regarding the character. It also gives you the ability to create misunderstandings and miscommunications by having a character refrain from saying something at a specific time just because the timing was wrong. You can slow down a scene and bring into focus the little details, or you can speed it up in an organized though somewhat chaotic manner much like a camera in cinema.

Stories have their own sense of timing, and for the most part all you need to do is let it run at its own pace. However, sometimes a story may demand a specific tempo at a certain part, and you need to be ready to change the pace for that scene before reverting back to the normal speed of the story.

Be aware of timing in your story. If you’re writing a medieval story and a character sent a message to a land far away, you’ll have to speed up the time in order to show the other character receiving the message. It’s not like they can send or receive a text message or email. Likewise if you’re writing modern stories or science fiction. The technology is different, so it allows for a different pace.

Don’t rush the story—otherwise you may completely miss a plot of gemstones buried beneath the levels of different scenes. Be aware of time in your story, and go ahead and experiment with it–use different techniques. You may discover an entirely new depth to your writing voice. 

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Describing Your Characters upon Introduction

In a sense, there is a ‘camera’ in your story which sets the pace of how the scene unfolds. Description immediately slows down the pace, and too much description makes it almost slow motion. It’s not important to record every detail in order for the readers to get a clear image of the character in their head. Let them imagine whom they will—just as long as the character’s personality doesn’t change. The personality is what shines through and what should remain consistent regardless of how others imagine their appearance.

Once I let someone read a chapter of a story of mine, and she gave me this feedback:

Character development – I very much enjoyed how you are developing your characters. Nothing annoys me more when a writer says here is my character, this is what they look like, this is their temperament within the first couple of paragraphs without giving their character a chance to develop and grow. I dislike this “in your face” approach and prefer to learn about the character as the book develops, so I like your approach to your characters.

Then she sent me a sample of her story. What amazed me was how this writer was acutely aware of terrible introductions of characters yet could not write without falling into the same problem. After exchanging a few emails, I came to learn that she knew she had been writing the kind of writing she didn’t like to read, but she didn’t know what else to do. So I gave her some advice.

The characters’ looks are not important. It is their personality and behavior that are fundamental to the story. Once I wrote an entire book, and I imagined the actors who would play the characters if it became a movie. However, I didn’t try to describe the actors’ looks. I just went along with the story, developing the character as I went. The most remarkable feedback I got from a reader was, “Have you ever watched the TV series Merlin? Your character reminds me of Morgana.” I had to laugh because that was exactly whom I imagined when I wrote that character though there were some differences.

The problem is that the brain is much quicker than the eye, but when reading our eyes must first read the words in order for our brains to comprehend them. If the pace has slowed down, then our brain doesn’t see the story unfold as quickly. The only way to prevent this is to use motion description, which I’ve already discussed in a previous post, here: Movement in Description. 

This is an example of what dragged-out description feels like to a reader. Once I was in the kitchen baking when my mom came in and started reading to me a section out of a Sherlock Holmes story. In it, Sherlock and Watson walk down a corridor at a brisk pace, and suddenly they turn a corner, and someone is standing in the middle of the hall waiting for them. The whole story stops to describe the character entirely! To me, I imagined it as a movie. They’re walking down a hallway at a swift pace, turn the corner, and then S-L-O-W motion as they take in the sight of this new character from head to toe. It was like a L’Oreal commercial where the women have their hair flying in the wind in slow motion…except, this new character was a guy—a tough, hardened man. As you can imagine, because the pace slowed down to take the time to describe him, my mental image of him was completely ruined. I had to laugh because I couldn’t get the Sherlock Holmes L’Oreal commercial I envisioned out of my head. This is one example of how films and television have influenced our imagination.

There are a lot of Sherlock films and TV shows, and we know Sherlock doesn’t take THAT much time to observe a character. He’s very quick about it. Just as Sherlock used deductive reasoning, we must use deductive writing in our stories when introducing characters and setting. Always keep the story moving.

“So if we’re not supposed to give a described snapshot of our character upon introduction, what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to show our characters?” Imagine your character and the first thing you’d notice about them in person. Is this character tall? Perhaps he has striking eye color  you’ve never seen before. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with the character’s look, but rather the aura he presents is regal and noble or flamboyant and careless. Whichever way he is will be evident in the way he carries himself, and this has a lot to do with body language and can be shown over a course of time instead of a pause in the story to describe the character. Here are examples of both styles of writing:

Example 1: Standing at 6’2, Skelton wore a black trench coat, black clothes, and black boots. His hair was a shocking blonde, and his eyes were stunning blue while he smiled with mischief. High cheek bones, sharp nose, and square jaw made him all the more striking to look at, but there was something fun and roguish about him.

Example 2: Skelton flung the doors open and smirked when everyone flinched at the sound of the door slamming against the wall, but he sauntered in with confidence. “Well, well, well! Looks like you’re having a party! And no one thought to invite me?” He pressed a hand to his chest as he pursed his lips into a pout then clicked his tongue and wagged his head–dropping his hand and the pout as he smirked again. “Not to worry! I’ll just make myself at home!” Marching around the length of the table, he came to the head of it and plopped himself down in the chair then kicked his boots up onto the table as he leaned back in the chair and intertwined his hands over his chest. “So, peoples, where are we? What’s on the agenda?” Everyone glared at him.

In one version, we are merely told what he looks like and hinted at how he behaves. In the second version, we don’t need to be told anything. We get his personality right away. Yes, we don’t know the color of his hair or his eye color or the exact shape of his face, but is more important? Always keep in mind what is most important to your story.

“Are there ever any exceptions?” Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. It merely takes an exceptionally good writer to know when and how and why exactly to break the rules.