Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Working With Time in Fiction

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 09:09 min

Margaret explains the significance of time in fiction, and offers advice on keeping readers oriented without compromising your story structure.

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Topics include: "Keeping Your Readers Oriented • Make Your Flashbacks Compelling • Using the “Meanwhile” Device • Consider Your Motives"


The novel is about time. You cannot write a novel that does not involve time in some way. So Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James, said, if it's a novel, there's going to be a clock in it. Time passes. In a lyric poem, maybe not. That could be about a timeless moment. But in a novel, time happens. People change. The clock hands move, or least the digital ticks happen. But there are two ways of viewing time. One is circular, and one is linear. So the circular kind of time revolves, and that's where we get analog clocks. That's where we get sundials. That's where we get the idea that there are seasons. They keep moving around. Lunar cycles-- they're circular. The other way of viewing time is that it's linear. It begins at the beginning, garden of Eden. It ends at the end, Book of Revelations. And you go from here to there. And that's where we get people talking about the wrong side of history, et cetera, et cetera. Actually, there is no wrong side of history or right side of history because history is always changing. It's the wheel of fortune. And in the wheel of fortune, characters rise up on one side of it. They may achieve a moment of having a crown at the top. Then they're thrown off the other side, and some of them are crushed underneath. There's nothing about human history that is inevitable. What kind of time, however, are you going to have in your novel? Are you going to have a kind of time in which things come round at the end to something like what they were at the beginning? Is it going to be "The Mayor of Casterbridge"? Is it going to be from rags to riches to rags? That would be a circular motion. Or are you going to take as your model a kind of inevitable progress in which everything is going to get better and better until you reach the city of God, the classless society, whatever that goal may be? You probably have some kind of idea in your head about time, whether time, as Robertson Davies said, wounds all heels, whether time brings a just resolution, whether hidden things come to light, whether a balance is achieved, or whether you're going to have an ironic end in which bad people triumph and good people are crushed. Your choice. [MUSIC PLAYING] How do you indicate to the reader when you're moving from the present to the past and vice versa? Well, there's a number of pretty obvious devices. You can certainly put the time. A lot of people do that. So May, 1940, April, 1977-- you can do that. You can put in some indicators. Clothing is always a pretty good clue. Lulabelle adjusted her bustle. The simplest way if it's a time-sensitive structure is simply to put the date. That's not hard. Just as if you're changing person, put their name. And don't make everybody a redhead. That's very confusing. And don't have them all have names that begin with M or any other letter. Make the names different so we can actually remember who these people are. Thank you very much. And I'm keen on...

About the Instructor

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.

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Margaret Atwood

Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.

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