The Concept of Time in Writing

TimeAs writers we constantly deal with time, both as a concept and a reference point. We can write a whole novel about an hour in the life of a character, or we can cover billions of years in the same amount of pages. We can stretch a moment into a lifetime, go back in time, or forward; we can travel sideways (as in parallel realities) or into the depth of time (like a dream within a dream within a dream). In fact as writers we utilise and adapt every conceivable theory concerning time.

Truth is stranger than fiction

Time is relative, we are told, and just about everyone knows that; although not everyone understands it. If you ask the question, “What does ‘time being relative’ really mean?” It would of course depend on who you ask, but you are still likely to get a stock answer that may not be easy to understand. A physicist might theorise about the space-time continuum; some may even express concepts regarding the multiverse theory; whereas a philosopher might approach the subject from a totally different angle, postulating from a metaphysical or psychological standpoint.

Personally, I favour the theory put forward by Julian Barbour, a British physicist, author, and major proponent of the idea of timeless physics: ‘There is no such thing as time,’ he says. According to him, and some other leading physicists, it seems that everything that ever was or could have been and everything that ever will or could happen is all happening now! This theory seems to run in line with my personal philosophical beliefs concerning the spacious present.

As writers we have to deal with the way time appears to most readers: linear, fixed and predictable; unless that is we are writing in a sci-fi/fantasy, time-travelling genre. In a general way though, we stick pretty much to the accepted notion of time: a physical object (which could be you or me) has depth, width and height, but it also has forth measurement in order to have its existence in physical reality: time. So it could be said that we live in a four dimensional reality. In that four dimensional reality we use long established, traditional, time related analogies that, as writers and readers, we are familiar with; for instance regarding the different perceptions of the speed of time:

  • Time can drag or even crawl if you are enduring something you do not like
  • Time can fly or simply whizz by if you are doing something you love
  • Time can seemingly stand still in a moment of indecision
  • Time periods can completely disappear for various psychological reasons

In fact the amount of analogies we use seems endless and it is difficult to envision not having time, as a concept, a device, to add dimensions to our narrative:

  • In the nick of time: only just scraping through
  • Out of time: not enough
  • Short of time: running out of it
  • Behind time: running late…
  • Take your time: an abundance of…
  • No time like the present: act now…
  • Time poor: never enough…
  • Time of your life: really enjoying the moment…

Time of course affects authors in many ways and in my next post I will continue the subject of time and touch on how it relates to us in more personal ways; for instance, the way in which we learn and gain knowledge through the course of time, and the way we manage time.

Author: T.D. McKinnon

Scottish author T.D.McKinnon ‘Survived the Battleground of Childhood’ in the coal mining communities of Scotland and England before joining the British Parachute Regiment at fifteen where he remained for five years. He has trained in the martial arts for most of his life and had five Karate schools in Scotland before immigrating to Australia. He writes across several genres and has completed five books that are all available as eBooks. He lives in Tasmania, Australia with his wife. Learn more about T.D.McKinnon at his website and Amazon author page.

15 thoughts on “The Concept of Time in Writing”

    1. I’m happy to provide some light relief in what sometimes seems a very serious endeavour. Writing, for me, was always something I enjoyed without it having to be pragmatic. I mean of course writing can be serious, but for me, mostly, it’s more about the things that flit around the caverns of the mind when it doesn’t have to be focused on practicality.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Elisabeth.

  1. The concept of time is fascinating. I think of barbour’s explanation to ynderstand, for instance, why people think they see ghosts or remember past lives. It seems to me that they are only connecting with “sometime” else the rest of us are not.

    1. Yes, I agree with you about Julian Barbour’s theory of time, Yvonne, it gives so much scope to… well, everything. And much more than is immediately apparent; for instance we – and not just we of course but every portion of consciousness – pick our way through every probable: the cat that lands on the table is not necessarily the cat that started the jump from the floor.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Yvonne.

  2. Nice piece, TD.

    Of course, I’m biased about time as, being a physicist, ih is an interesting, elastic, and full of properties dimensions. And, as a writer, that vision about time gave me moments where I’ve been able to play and with and handle it as a cook a dough.

    1. As a physicist and a science fiction writer, Massimo, I have no doubt that you have a lot of fun playing with the various theories concerning time. As a writer and someone who is more focused on the psyche and, what I term, the flip side of physicality, I have fun playing too, with endless possibilities in those other probable realities.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Massimo.

  3. What’s interesting to me as a writer is how I can agonize over a chapter for days on end, squeezing out a few paragraphs here or there and it seems like the scene in the book just goes on forever. Then, when I’m done with that section and I go back and re-read it, it flies by in just seconds! There’s definitely a huge difference in time between the action of writing and the action of reading.

    1. I certainly agree with you there, Melissa. That’s why I prefer the medium of writing now, as opposed to orating; because, as a writer I have time (there it is again) to work out precisely what message I want to convey in the most economical (in terms of words) way for maximum effect.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Melissa.

    1. I’m glad you found it interesting, Lynne. And there is some mind stretching stuff in that ‘spacious present’, don’t you think?

      Funnily enough almost everyone I talk to, regarding time, has a completely different concept of it. It seems to depend mostly on their beliefs concerning reality (how they view the world and themselves within it). One would think that a particular group, like writers perhaps, would have a similar view of reality; but not so.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, Lynne.

  4. This was a thought-provoking post, TD! I had completely forgotten about Seth Speaks and Jane Roberts. So cool to reconnect with the concepts. I had no idea there was an entire online community dedicated to the philosophy. And thanks for the physics links– I lean toward the concept of daughter universes and/or mathematical universes, although personally I think reality is essentially a construct of the mind.

    As for writing– like you said, unless you’re working in the fantasy/sci-fi genre, ya gotta stay within a linear time frame of you’re gonna lose readers. No problem when I write in first person, but third tends to be a bit trickier for me.

    1. It was 1980 – for ten years I had been consuming any and all philosophical literature, while having slipped quite seamlessly (through my martial arts) into Zen Buddhism as a generally, comfortable position concerning my beliefs about the nature of reality – when I first stumbled upon Seth Speaks. By the time Jane Roberts passed away in 1984 I had devoured everything she had ever published, both the Seth books and her own. After that there was no going back, no constructs of limiting beliefs could hold me… What’s that saying?… It’s crawling around in my head somewhere… Oh yes, I remember… “The Genie was out of the bottle!” and since then I’ve been having the ‘time’ of my life.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, DV.

  5. For those of us who are time challenged, this post has opened a pandora’s box of questions, such as the connundrum of timezones. Today is Monday here in Australia. If I ring someone in the UK or Europe they are probably still in Sunday, yet we are talking /at the same time/. So whose day are we collectively in???

    1. This part of the post has been (from an empirical point of view) a more esoteric look at time as it relates to the writer.

      I have some of the second stage of this post written: what time means to a writer, from a more personal, more pragmatic point of view, but you have just given me more grist for the mill, AC.

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting, AC.

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