effective narration 101: managing the reader’s sense of time

There are tons of fantastic blogs that will tell you how to put together a grammatical sentence or write killer dialogue tags. Here, we’re going to examine the foundational aspects of writing and story creation–the building blocks of fiction. New and inexperienced authors frequently struggle with big picture execution, and I want to use my experience fixing stories to give your story a leg up.

The key to really effective narration, in nine cases out of ten, is making the narrative voice  so tight that it slips into the background. Ultimately, you want your reader to forget there’s a narrator at all. Because good narration is so transparent, it can be difficult to be aware of it as a passive reader, and creating an effective narrator can be a challenge for many beginning authors.

While I could write a book on creating a good narrative voice, what I really want to focus on is just one element of effective narration: the passage of time. Your reader will perceive all text as furthering the passage of time. All of it. Even the part where you describe the blades of grass and the way the light shines through the trees.

When you have a lot of action, this is totally fine. One character punches, another dodges. Someone pulls out a smoke bomb, lights it, and runs away. You want it to feel like time has  passed. In the real world, our actions happen in time and space, and the same is true for fiction. No problem here.

This perception of time goes awry when you fill scenes with a lot of character thought. In real life, you can have pages of thought in the blink of an eye. In text, though, it’s a different story (pun intended). Your reader will read the scene where your main character departs via smoke bomb and the scene where your main character sits by the river and thinks about his girlfriend at the same rate. You can use clever little narrative insertions to speed things up or slow them down to a degree, but the fact is: it takes a character in a novel a long time to think a sentence. 

This seems totally unfair, but unless you want your narrative to read like bad stop motion animation, you need to accommodate this perception. When an author doesn’t manage the reader’s perception of time, the narrative will convey actions that would normally happen consecutively as being broken by periods of non-action. Which is weird. And robotic. And it breaks the narrative flow.

Here’s an example. You have a scene where your character (Fred) falls off of his bike into a snowbank, shakes himself off, and then gets out of the snowbank and back onto his bike. You know that your winter-bike-riding friend fell into the snowbank because he’s thinking about this girl. He just doesn’t notice the shovel in the middle of the sidewalk because he’s so preoccupied, and he ends up in a snowbank. Great.

If you keep to the actions, with a little narrative bit thrown in about the dreamy look in Fred’s eyes, your reader will perceive the scene in real time and be able to infer that Fred is totally smitten; you don’t need to come out and say it (and it’s probably better if you don’t). This is effective narration. Fred is heartsick, sore, and probably cold, but your reader is with you the entire time.

If, however, you succumb to the temptation to tell us exactly what Fred is thinking, his discreet actions are broken up by thoughts, and the reader perceives a scene that plays out like this: Fred is biking. Fred falls off the bike. Fred sits in the snowbank for five minutes, thinking. Fred gets out of the snowbank. Fred stands next to his bike for five minutes, thinking. Fred gets on his bike. This is not effective narration. A casual observer would be very concerned about Fred as he sat motionless in the snowbank.

Here’s the key: your reader will assume the character action immediately prior to the thought continues for the duration of the thought. This is a problem when the action is quick and discrete. This is not a problem if the action is ongoing. So, in our example, Fred gets back on his bike and starts pedaling. You insert some character thought, we assume the time passes while he’s thinking and riding his bike, and no one gets freaked out by Fred’s strange behavior. Win-win-win.

So, if you’re looking to do some self-editing, here are some things to look for:

  • Thought breaks: Scan your book for scenes where you have a discrete action (someone falls down, opens a door, gets their finger stuck, etc.) followed by one or more paragraphs of thought narration, followed by another discrete action. Cull the thinking mercilessly (or relocate it after an ongoing action, like walking, driving, sitting, etc.).
  • Punch-think-punch: Check out your action scenes. Does your character punch, and then think about something, and then punch, and then think about something? This creates a (shoddy) claymation effect at a time where you want the narrative to go, go, go. Punch now, think later (i.e., cut out all the thoughts and have the character process post-fight…or not at all).
  • Stunted dialogue: Have you ever had a conversation with someone who waits thirty seconds to respond to you? It’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Don’t make your characters weird. When they’re talking, let them talk. Keep narrative commentary to a minimum. In passages with lots of dialogue, look for paragraphs of text between statements. If you’re describing the character’s movement or physical response to the dialogue, the text is probably okay. If not…cut!

Have you found instances of this in your own writing or encountered it while reading? I’d love to hear about it!


  1. […] Another advantage is that you, as a writer, can easily incorporate the character’s thoughts into the story. There’s little distance between the reader and the character. If Kent is telling us about what he’s watching through the grate, it’s not weird for him to include his thoughts on the matter. If you’re really interested in getting into your character’s head, this can be a huge benefit for you as a writer. As we’ll see later, incorporating character thoughts into a third person perspective can become unwieldy.  With first person, you simply don’t have that problem. (However, you still have to effectively  accommodate the passage of time.) […]

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