Time as Detail: Exploring James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction
In their books How Fiction Works and The Art of Time in Fiction, Wood and Silber, respectively, analyze various elements and techniques in creative writing. While Wood layers his focus on such things as narration, character, language and dialogue, Silber zeroes in entirely on time. I found both books fascinating and their individual lessons useful on practical and even subconscious levels. While each made some similar points, both taught me a great deal about writing and about myself as a writer. Still, for me, it seems each book is missing a chapter.
In reading both, I found their lessons overlapped and converged on the element of detail. Wood dedicates an entire chapter to the topic of detail and he uses the element of time to make a few points while Silber treats detail as a theme and variable of time. It was as though they both danced around but never quite landed on the idea that time itself is a critical detail.
The age of the characters, the century, decade and year a story takes place, the time of year or even time of day a scene is set, as well as the order and passing of time in a character’s life, from chapter to chapter, or from first to last page… all of this shows the importance of time.
Silber says: “A story can arrange events in any order it finds useful but it does have to move between then and now and later.” So many ways to contend with time passing and, yet, each way changes the overall shape, look and feel of the fiction itself. In other words, time itself changes the details and the story. Silber says: “Where the teller begins and ends a tale decides what its point is. How it gathers meaning.” She goes on to say: “We read anything looking for patterns of events, and through it a meaning—the reason someone is bothering to tell us this.”
Similarly, Wood writes: “We have the sense that the ideal of writing is a procession of strung details, a necklace of noticings, and that this is sometimes an obstruction to seeing, not an aid.” Isn’t that another way of saying focusing on moments allows us to notice or not notice the passing of time? He adds: “Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature.” Once we have an experience in life then it is easier to notice details and feelings of the same or similar experiences elsewhere.
Wood says: “We use detail to focus, to fix an impression, to recall.” Silber says: “Much fiction depends on people who never forget.” It’s the details of these unforgotten memories, experiences and moments in time which drive the stories we love so much, making time and how it and its passing is presented in a work of fiction the greatest detail of all.
Let’s face it. Time is important. The passing of time is a critical detail and perhaps the most challenging to tackle. Of course, with time (and practice) we, as writers, get better at details and more specifically with detailing time. I’m with Wood when he says “But I choke on too much detail.” People feel the same way about too much time (years mostly). It’s so easy to take detail and time too far into the realm of enough already. Silber writes: “A bad storyteller will beg just get to the point, and a good storyteller will make us beg for more.” I want to give my audience enough to get it without drowning them in it. And, yes, I want them to want more.
After reading both books, the play “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Becket sprung to mind. In it, Vladimir and Estragon, the two main characters, wait together on a country road by a tree in vain for the arrival of someone (or something considering the infinite interpretations of the play) named Godot. While no physical descriptions or background information are ever given for these characters, time and the passing of time are exemplified primarily through the tree so much so that the tree itself becomes a major point of focus. As Silber says, “Pointing to nature is key in the handling of fictional time.” As the tree changes, time changes. Here time is the most critical detail. The tree is simply a tool used by the writer to get the reader to see time move. The play lives and breathes in the realization of the passing of time.
While Becket uses nature masterfully to show time in Waiting for Godot, I struggle with it in my writing. To stop and notice nature often feels jarring to me and out of character for my protagonists, who are often far more focused on themselves than the world around them. I want to get better at this. I want my characters to stop and smell the roses in spring and see the snow fall in winter. But I want to do so subtly. I write most comfortably in first person and I’ve tried having my characters notice elements of nature but it almost always feels forced to me. Recently, in my novel Private Mommies Society, I’ve started playing around with infant milestones to show the passing of time—it’s still nature just different than, say, leaves falling from trees. It gives me the freedom to point out the passage of time while my protagonist stays self-absorbed.
Silber discusses various ways writers can go about dealing with the passing of time. She breaks down different methods of presenting and passing time, including classic, long, switchback, slowed and fabulous time. She even discusses time as subject and while this idea is similar to the idea of time as detail I wished for a separate chapter on it altogether.
In the unit four lecture, Professor Cain writes: “Silber states (and shows, I might add, in the example that starts off her book) in the introduction to The Art of Time in Fiction, time itself can help determine what a story or novel will look like, but we as authors are often unconscious of the ways in which we use it, so that it exists as an invisible, yet powerful presence in our work.” Is it simply that time is something we cannot see, touch and taste that poses the challenge? We can’t see love and, yet, writer after writer tackles its description and many quite eloquently. Time may be invisible but it is still very much there. We are all aware of it. In fact, it refuses to be ignored. Even some of the most amazing writers struggle with time. I struggle to capture time and more so with showing its passing between moments. In verbal conversations I speak in tangents and rarely worry about how I transition from one story to the next, but in my writing jumping from one scene to the next doesn’t always come so smoothly.
In life time passes through details or lack of details. In literature and in life time itself is a detail even if it’s one we cannot see with our eyes or touch with our hands. We all worry ourselves over how much longer we have left and how quickly it all flies by. We fret over birthdays but look forward to Fridays. As a writer, I think it is just as important how we describe our settings and characters as how we portray time. After all, aren’t our memories the details and descriptions of how we perceive moments in time? Silber says: “The sequence of any fiction is, by its nature, the path of time evaporating.” Wood writes: “One of the obvious reasons for the rise of significantly insignificant detail is that it is needed to evoke the passage of time, and fiction has a new and unique project in literature—the management of temporality.”
Wood uses the Bible as an example. He writes: “Time lapses between the verses, invisibly, inaudibly, but nowhere in the page. Each new “and” or “then” moves forward the action like those old station clocks, whose big hands suddenly slip forward once a minute.” But the Bible has always seemed to me to be more like a compilation of short stories than a novel. As a novelist when I leave out transitions someone is bound to notice or feel turned off by it.
But even without transitions to describe the passage of time, time still passes. Much like leaving out a key descriptor for a character, it often somehow draws our attention to it that much more. Silver says: “When the past is left out, the focus on the present moment can sometimes lead to the intensity of what (she’d) call slowed time.” Bringing so much attention to a moment in time serves the same purpose as detailing a women’s dress or describing a man’s face: The writer wants us to focus on it for a reason. That said; not describing something can have a similar effect. Circling back to Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s lack of character descriptions allow our imaginations to run wild. Suddenly, Vladimir and Estragon could represent anyone; we decide.
A good writer stops time and focuses a reader’s complete attention on one moment or a string of moments hovering ever so delicately in the universe. But time—even when standing still—still exists. Wood writes: “One needs to know every detail, since one can never be sure which of them is important, and which word shines out from behind things.” As writers we choose the details. We decide what’s important to include and exclude. Much like a magician, we direct the reader’s eye toward what we want them to see and away from what we do not want them to see. Or we choose not to direct them at all, allowing the reader to play a more active role in the story. Silber writes: “Life can be led only in small, manageable chunks of experience, one narrow bit at a time.” Even in her description of flashback or switchback time, we still get the details of the story one frame at a time. Silber says: “A story depends on things not standing still, on the built-in condition of impermanence. All the emotions that attach to the passage of time—regret, impatience, anticipation, mourning, the longing for what’s past, the desire for recurrence, the dread of recurrence—are the fuel of plots.”
When I saw The Art of Time in Fiction I grabbed it and immediately started reading. I wanted to learn all there was to know about time in fiction. The techniques taught by Silber are valuable but it wasn’t until I picked up How Fiction Works and read Wood’s chapter on detail when I started to understand the depth of time’s importance in fiction.
It’s not just about the tricks and techniques of portraying time and the passing of time which are relevant. In writing and in life, there is so much more to time.