How time compression heightens tension – Katie Rose Guest Pryal

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By Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Have you ever watched the television show 24? The premise is that the hero, Jack Bauer, has twenty-four hours to stop some horrible thing from happening. Each hour of television during a television season — which consists of twenty-four episodes — is shot in (pretty close to) “real time,” meaning the watchers of the show are experiencing the passing of time just as the people in the show are experience the passing of time.♥

Compressing an entire season of television into twenty-four hours is a neat trick. But the trick serves a purpose. It heightens tension to an unbelievable degree. The same trick works in writing.

There are two books I’m thinking of in particular that use time compression to create immense tension. They are two very different books, each excellent in its own way. The first is by Ian McEwan, the British author, and the book is called Saturday. The book does, as you might imagine, take place during the course of one Saturday. The time structure highlights both the banalities of everyday life by contrasting them with the highly tense events of one particular day in a man’s life.

A US author, Kathryn Craft, wrote a novel called The Far End of Happy (winner of an Independent Publisher Book Award). The Far End of Happy takes place over only twelve hours. The book centers on a suicide stand-off, when a husband barricades himself in his home and his wife and other women in his life try to save him. You can tell from that premise that the book is intense. The time compression only makes it more so.

My first novel, Entanglement, took place — very intentionally — over one year. I wanted my second novel, Chasing Chaos, to have a different structure, despite its similar setting and character cast. Chasing Chaos takes place over the course of only five days. In those five days, there’s an engagement, a wedding, a tragedy, a betrayal, and more. Making all of those events seem natural in such a short period of time, and not like a soap opera, was the challenge.

As a writer, you can use time compression in a book even when your book takes place over longer spans of time. When you compress time, you zoom in on a particular scene, tightening tension. You draw your reader’s attention as though with a spotlight. Then, when that scene is finished, you can zoom out again, decompress time, thereby easing the tension.

As a reader, pay attention to how authors compress — and decompress — time. Notice how time compression forces you to pay attention to particular events. Time compression is like old-fashioned cinematic slow-motion, but with words, and much, much better.

Katie Rose Guest Pryal, J.D., Ph.D., is a novelist, freelance journalist, and erstwhile law professor in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Entanglement Series, which includes Entanglement, Love and Entropy, and Chasing Chaos, all from Velvet Morning Press. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. Currently, she is teaching creative writing through Duke University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, working as a writing coach and editor, and writing her next novels.

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