Timeline Perception

Pacing in a novel involves more than just the frequency of events; novel pacing includes structuring the scenes so that the reader maintains an internal timeline of events corresponding to their place in the story and presentation in the text. Events in a story may occur concurrently or consecutively, but may only be presented consecutively. The reader forms an impression of event sequence based on presentation, and the writer controls this impression through scene breaks and chapter structure.


As a kind of “default”, the reader will perceive events in the novel to occur more or less in the order they are presented. Flashbacks and other devices that present scenes out of order in the story should be clearly set apart so that the reader places them properly within the story. The reader perceives time to pass while scenes take place; more importantly the reader perceives that time passes within the larger story while a scene takes place.


Chapters and scenes occasionally end on a cliffhanger or on another dramatic moment. This device uses another scene to interrupt the action and increase the dramatic tension; it is often meant to return the reader exactly to the moment in time from which he departed. This can be effective as long as the reader understands what is happening, and can place the interrupting scene into an appropriate context.


For flashbacks and other events that occur out of sequence with the main story, the reader can be returned to exactly the breaking point without disrupting his perceived timeline of events. Because the interrupting scene takes place in a separate time, the reader can return to the action and resume the correct event context. When the interrupting event occurs in a different place but at or near the same time, the reader will perceive time to pass at the point of the cliffhanger while the new scene takes place. When the writer returns to the action at the same point he left, the reader perceives his timeline of events to be interrupted, leading to a disjointed reading experience.


A common way of dealing with this interruption of the reader’s timeline is to set the interrupting scene so completely in the past or future that the reader makes a perceived break from the current action. Another common way of dealing with timeline perception is to have the interrupting scene return the reader to the present action by having the seqeuence of events lead into the point in time. The two scenes converge into one, and the action resumes at the point fo interruption, taking the new information into account.


Constructing scenes so that action in another location takes place during naturally occuring breaks in the story allows the reader to feel that time is passing in the larger story while events continue to occur in the world around them. This allows the reader to feel like the story hasn’t been constructed solely for his own benefit, that the story has a larger context and feel, and that he is participating in something larger than merely the central characters. Careful attention to the reader’s perceived timeline creates a smooth and desirable reading experience.

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