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Description and Narrative Time

Hello Friends!

Today I’ll talk to you about two things that are important in any story; Description and narrative time.

Narrative time is in short the time it takes the reader to read the narrative. Simple. But you ask yourself as you’re writing how much time do you spend on each narrative event? A realistic narrative lets the readers watch the action unfold. So the duration of the narrative scene is the same time it takes the reader to read. This model accrues a succession of scenes, much like a playwright does.

Most modern fiction is episodic, like in TV and films. This implies a lapse in time, the boring bits are cut out. The reader doesn’t have to see the character take a shower, eat their breakfast and brush their teeth unless it is crucial to the story.

You can also summarise everything to transition between the scenes. Realist novels are usually balanced by scene and then summarising.

But every part of the book can be a scene. It has to be summarised eventually or the reader will get lost in the text. How much story time is summarised will determine the rhythm of the writing.

When you are organising your narrative, you also have to think about how to present your character. Do you give some important life events? This was very popular in Victorian literature. In modern and minimalist literature it is more fashionable to describe mundane events to show character, for example going to the store to buy some milk and how the character becomes annoyed at the old lady taking her time with her change.

I know how annoying it is for a beginning writer to have one great action scene after another but no filler, so the action goes by so fast leaving the reader overwhelmed. So how do you fill in the gaps between the scenes, between the action?

You can take a descriptive pause. The narrator takes some time out of the action to describe the scene or characters. This section doesn’t fit in with the timing of the events. This helps to keep the narrative going and can move the narrative scene further because further information is supplied.

Description can also be used as part of the scene itself, this is common in modern literature. Such as this example from Patricia Cornwell’s  “Cruel and Unusual

“You don’t mind if we talk out here a minute,” he said, his breath turning white. “For privacy reasons.”

Shivering, I tucked my elbows close to my sides as a Medflight helicopter made a terrific noise take off from the helipad on a grassy rise not far from where we stood. The moon was a shaving of ice melting in the slate-grey sky, cars in the parking lots dirty from road salt and frigid winter rains.”

Description is useful to not only set a scene but to make the world the characters live in come to life.

“Jane walked into the restaurant” it setting the scene. Now describe it! Describe the restaurant, is it fancy? A dirty cafe? Is the waiter friendly? Snooty? Is the lighting bright or dim?

Describing a scene involves a series of “close-ups” to create a significant whole. “Jane noticed the over-flowing ashtrays and the sticky carpet.”

Also makes evaluations in your descriptions, metaphor is very important here. “The waiter leered at her, his shark teeth glimmering.”


When using metaphor think about the effect it will have and not the accuracy. The waiter doesn’t literally have teeth that look like shark’s teeth but the reader gets the impression of a predatory man, ready to eat up the character.




About abcicconemysterywriter

International mystery writer. I write page turning mystery e-books.

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