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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Elements of Poetry

Go ahead—groan. As soon as I say the word ‘poetry’, almost everyone closes up because they’re thinking of the common,

Roses are red

Violets are blue

Sugar is sweet

And so are you!”

And that is not what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is rhyme and rhythm—subtlety done. Putting poetic skills into play with poise. For some people, this comes naturally. For others, it will take practice.

Poetry offers a very important and ancient element to writing. In the days of old when stories were told orally, poetry was the most common form because it was easier to remember, and who doesn’t like a good story?

When you’re sitting around a camp fire at night and someone is telling a story, would you rather listen to a monotone story of how a group of people once went into these woods only to disappear, or would you rather hear the rise and fall of the voice, the suspenseful pauses, the use of the environment (such as throwing a firecracker into the fire the moment a gunshot goes off in the story), and the speed, then slowness of the voice? Which would you prefer to hear? Which one would you remember for the rest of your life?

Poetry is the only key to ancient storytelling that translates into modern day writing. Sure it gets complicated—look at Shakespeare if you want a reminder, but it doesn’t have to be. The primary use of poetics in prose is to paint a picture.

Here is something I had written, but we’re going to dissect it, so you can identify the poetic elements:

Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around, then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

Knowing the wolves were of no threat to him, he tugged the edges of his hood closer to his face and hugged his cloak around him as he ducked his head and pressed on through the skin-biting wind, step by step through the snow, ice, and rock. Even in these night hours, he knew this path well―having worn it well during the years of his childhood. If he lifted his head, he knew he would see the impressive sight of Nirrorm’s castle jutting out of the mountain at the end of the valley―its sharp towers a contrast in the night and an imposing, frightening sight to the unfamiliar, but he kept walking―one step at a time.

At last he came to the castle walls, and the honorable watchmen saw him before he saw them. “Halt! Who goes there?”

He stood at the foot of the wall staring at the structured stone. His journey had drained him, and he did not wish to speak above a whisper, for he had little strength. He knew he could conjure a magical orb that would answer the watchmen’s question, but he was familiar with the laws of Nirrorm.

Magic was forbidden here.

Sighing, he lifted his chin and looked up, up, up to the top of the wall where the watchman leaned over to see him―and aim their arrows at him. As if that would harm him. A small smirk touched the corner of his pale lips, but he swallowed and forced his voice to be heard. “I am Prince Lorrek of Cuskelom, and I seek sanctuary.”

All right, so on the surface it looks like a normal intro to a story, but let me take it apart for you, so you can see the elements of poetry at work here. Let’s draw out the sounds of just the first paragraph:

‘A’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘A_E’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face

‘AIN’: he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

‘D’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

EE’: he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

‘H’: A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face…

‘IGHT’: wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘K’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape…

‘L’: A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘O’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘R’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain…

‘S’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf‘s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘T’ & ‘TH’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

This is the poetic element in its basic form. We use alliteration to make the first letters of the words to rhyme such as the ‘T’ and ‘TH’ here: ‘he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain’. Rhyming occurs at the end of the word such as ‘ bright night‘. Assonance also comes into play, and this makes the middle of the words to rhyme, as it did here: ‘…the full moon’s pale face.’

The use of sounds via letters is important, but the use of sounds via repetition is also a tool.

At last he came to the castle walls, and the honorable watchmen saw him before he saw them. “Halt! Who goes there?”

Now, I could have said “the honorable watchmen noticed him before he saw them” or the other way around, and my editors and proofreaders would recommend I change it, but it just sounds right. For an example of one that doesn’t sound right, here:

Even in these night hours, he knew this path well―having worn it well during the years of his childhood.

The use of ‘well’ doesn’t flow easily, and it doesn’t sound right to my ears. I would probably rephrase one or the other so I don’t repeat that word. It can work the way it is, but I don’t like the sound of it.

Here’s another example of the use of repetition to stress a point:

Sighing, he lifted his chin and looked up, up, up to the top of the wall where the watchman leaned over to see him―and aim their arrows at him.

Sure, he lifted his chin, so we automatically know he’s looking up, but I wanted to stress just how close to the wall he was and how high the wall was, so I repeated the word three times. Very rarely do I use a word more than three times when doing this, but it’s not unheard of.

Using repetition creates a sound—a rhythm. Another example of repetition this way is with the use of the word ‘and’. In the text above I don’t have an example, but it’s something like this:

He went up the stairs and down the hall and through the chambers and into the last place her saw her—the hanging gardens.

The use of ‘and’ here is deliberate. It sets a rhythm, stresses a point, and draws out the systematic way he searched for her.

Repeating little words to form a rhythm or set a pace to a story is often frowned upon by editors. In their mind you’re supposed to use the word once in a sentence/paragraph because it’s more professional that way—more proper. However, if you deliberately used those words, don’t back down just because someone disagrees with you. Show them why you did what you did. This is why it is very important to know why you must choose every word that you write with care.

So check your own style. Does it use any elements of poetry that I’ve explained? Does it use sound as I demonstrated? Sure, it might not be your style, but it’s worth experimenting with. Applying these tools properly takes practice. That is why it is important to read and write poetry even though you may never publish it or allow anyone to read it. Study the sounds, observe the structure, and it will slip into your writing, adding an extra depth to your words, sharpening those images, and strengthening those sentences.