The Beginner’s Guide to Creating a Universe Part 2: A Matter of Time

This is a continuation of my multi-part listicle on world building. If you want to read part one, in which I cover my experiences and opinions on language as it pertains to world building, click here.

Referencing Time

I place time in ninth place among my strata of world-building considerations, just above language, because time in fiction is a subject I particularly dread when it comes to writing. Even mentioning the month, day, or hour an event occurs is inviting scrutiny, complication, and the possibility of continuity errors into your story. Most stories, and especially fantasy stories, just ignore it. Robert Jordan—and his successor to the Wheel of Time, Brandon Sanderson–mention the passage of time on only a few occasions, stating through the internal monologues of characters that more than two years pass over the course of the books (not counting flashbacks and flash-forwards.) This is an advantage that fantasy has over plots that take place in the modern world, where we always have such a fixation on time. Sam and Frodo took years to get to Mordor, and we can believe it, because walking is slow, and countries are vast. Stories set in the modern age, however, tend to resolve within a day. Anything longer, and a scrutinizing reader or viewer might wonder what is taking the protagonist so long when they have cars and cellphones to speed them along.

For example, I once tried to write a series of stories where an otherworldly force threatened humanity and the protagonist had to find out what was causing the sudden introduction of monsters into the modern world. The first complication arose when I introduced the villain, and then the protagonist died for five years. The protagonist is resurrected and must confront this villain. This immediately begs the question: What had the villain been doing for five years? Was he even still around? To make matters worse, the character only learns that so much time passed because he saw the date, and being the fool that I am, I displayed the date for the reader. The sidekick had a day job, so I couldn’t just slap any day on it, either. The entirety of my story had to take place on a weekend. I noticed further complications when it came to the second book. The first book ended without a conclusion to the overarching narrative and the hunt for the villain continued. Starting the second book, with knowledge of the exact day and month in which first book took place, a reader might wonder a few things. What day is it now? What has the protagonist been doing between books? How could anything be more important than saving the world? Is that clothing appropriate for the weather around that time of year?

“So what?” you may be saying. “I can keep all that in mind. I can write using specific time.” And if you did say that, good. I like you. You’re plucky. I hope you never grow weary of writing around time. I’m just making a recommendation to you because I’ve been there and done that, and the recommendation is this: Learn something from high fantasy. Don’t reference specific time. I, too, managed to answer those questions the reader may have asked, but boy did I make it hard on myself when I referenced specific times and dates. I’ve since allowed time to be much more nebulous.

So, follow these tips when referring to time in your own stories:

  • Try not to mention the passage of time at all in your stories. The reader’s mind has a tendency to fill in the blanks, and suddenly bringing up the time will probably just surprise and confuse the reader because it contradicts their interpretation of events.
  • Refer to the ages of characters in a vague way as well. Age comes with ramifications, and the less specific you are with a character’s age, the more of those ramifications that can be eschewed.
  • If you’re referencing time in a modern tale, avoid giving exactly what the clock says. I suggest just having a character look at the time and saying something to the effect of, “It’s getting late,” or “we’re running out of time,” or, “I need to be there, soon.” Saying that the protagonist specifically has X amount of time remaining might lead you and your audience to question whether or not it was physically possible for the hero to succeed, even if they did in the story. Did you know that all of the clocks in Pulp Fiction are stuck on 4:20? Might just be a lame marijuana joke, but I think it was because writer/director Quentin Tarantino didn’t want eagle-eyed viewers comparing times and scrutinizing the order of events.

    Or both.

    Probably both.

Making Time

Finally, a word on invented time. Stories that take place on different worlds and in other realities also need to consider time. The people probably measure time somehow, and you will need to address that fact while building your world. Again, I suggest a vague approach. You could just take normal Earth time and swap out the names a la The Elder Scrolls with their Frostfalls and Hearthfires and such, but it would be easier, and less confusing for the reader, if you just refer to the seasons once in a while, or harvest time, or some other poorly defined hatch mark. It’s just not as important as it may initially seem. What does it mean when a denizen of a non-earth realm refers to a year, anyway? A hundred-year-old Mercurian isn’t as impressive as he sounds (disregarding the fact that he somehow lived on Mercury,) and Aragorn’s initially impressive age is just a number when we don’t have a frame of reference.

That being said, when dealing with an alien planet, make sure you account for the movement of the celestial bodies the planet interacts with, and consider time appropriately. How long are the days and nights? IS there even a day/night cycle?

Don’t make life harder on yourself. Hold time at arm’s length.

Thanks for reading. As always, if you consider yourself a writer, or just want to start developing your talent, I hope you’ll consider participating in one of our monthly genre contests for a chance to win cash, a custom digital book cover, and an author spotlight interview.

And I started a Twitter! Follow @proseopiate for announcements about posts and contests. Maybe we can develop our own community. Spread the word so we can have more contestants and greater diversity of submissions.

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