The concept of time is often used as a source of major tension in stories. We see this especially in suspense or action stories, where the clock on the bomb is ticking, or the first step of the heist has to be completed in time for the second step, etc. Even in genres like romance, there’s often some kind of deadline used to raise the stakes—the vacation she’s on will end, he’s been away too long and worries she won’t remember him, and so on.
Time is also a great source of microtensions. Who hasn’t been frustrated by a long wait in a doctor’s office, or a traffic jam? When our sense of timing is thrown off, it can throw off our entire day and make any other pressures seem greater.
Not everyone views time the same way, however—our views on it are often very based in our culture—and there are endless opportunities for writers to use this to their advantage. So, let’s talk about some of the main ways people view time and how they can be played against each other for tension in our story.
Most of the U.S. and many Western European cultures perceive time as linear. This means we see the past as done, the present as slipping away from us and needing to be wrung for all it’s worth, and the future as something to be planned and scheduled and worried about so we don’t miss out on its possibilities.
These cultures tend to be fast-paced, and they place a lot of emphasis on deadlines, start and end times, and see time as a valuable commodity—people worry about how much they are “worth per hour,” and use phrases like, “I’m out of time,” “I just don’t have time,” and “time is money.”
Another term for this mindset is “clock time,” because the exact time that things start and end is important, as well as how long it takes. This viewpoint is often favored by countries that value individualism and short-term productivity with very measurable results. They see punctuality as a necessary sign of respect.
Many Latin, African, and southern European countries view time as multi-active, and feel most fulfilled when they are focused on many things at once, not just the one thing set on their calendar or agenda, and these multi-purposes are tied to events and people rather than times on a clock.
In places running on event time, things start when everyone who is supposed to be there arrives. Start times are given as general guidelines, but it is expected that life is unpredictable and not everyone will arrive at the same time.
Another aspect of event time is that people from these cultures are generally more concerned with relationships than events or deadlines, and more focused on what is immediately before them than something happening later that day. So, if something comes up with a family member or friend in the morning, they are likely to push back other plans and show up at work later/miss appointment times, and often not see this as a problem, because their personal priorities were met. They are extremely unlikely to cut a conversation short because they “are out of time,” and would likely consider it quite rude if someone did that to them.
In many Asian countries, they believe that events and opportunities often cycle back around, so taking time to deliberate and focusing on people and relationships is a better strategy than trying to hit arbitrary deadlines that can just be reset anyway. Where someone from the U.S. or U.K. might want to have a quick meeting and get back to work, often times their Asian counterparts will want more time to discuss, consider, and evaluate the relationship before committing to anything, and if they feel rushed, they might not want to collaborate.
People and cultures with a cyclical viewpoint on time are also often more concerned with long-term outcomes, and so the time they take to deliberate and set things up feels entirely justified, whereas in the U.S. people are focused on quick results—backers of projects want to see a quick return on their investments, etc.
Using these views of time to add tension in stories
As writers, figuring out our characters’ subconscious views on time can help us see how they either fit or don’t fit within their society’s norms and the people they interact with. If our main girl is chronically late but lives in or visits Switzerland, for example (the prime example of strict “clock time”), there will be a lot of conflict with people around her, and depending on how conscious she is of it, she may feel either that she’s always letting people down, or that people are always mad at her for no reason.
Say we have a character who is used to a society run on clock time. People come when they say they will come and plan in advance for things like extra traffic, etc. But this man gets teamed up on a group project with someone who runs on event time. This teammate is frequently late (according to the clock time-oriented man), and often on his phone taking care of family or friend matters during work hours. How would they learn to work together? How would they get the project done? What might they learn from each other in the process?
Using a personal example, I currently live in the South. My husband frequently complains that people here “live life at the speed of mosey.” Though our country is overall run by clock time, in the South, things do tend to swing toward event time. This leads to things like an A/C repairman who says he’ll be there “by 10:00 a.m.” showing up at 3:00 p.m…. the following day. Or week. If your character is counting on a repair, a delivery, or anything else that is time sensitive, this could add a lot of tension.
Not everyone who lives here in the South, though, was raised with the same perspective on time, and some give different weight to different events—for example, there are some who are always on time for church or business events, but may be very relaxed for social events, because they view their relationship with the person they’re meeting as strong enough to handle whatever came up to make them late.
Understanding our characters’ subconscious views on time can help us know how they make decisions, how they pursue goals, how they organize their days, and how they respond to various kinds of interruptions. It can help us make our characters stand out from each other, and help us understand and write about different cultures more accurately.
If you’d like to read more about the fascinating ways that people view time, including the Malagasy people in Madagascar who view time as flowing forward through the back of their head, so that the past is always before them while the future is an unseeable thing behind them, check out these articles:
Shannon Cooley is a creative–writing is one of her longest-running endeavors, but she is also a ballroom dance instructor, piano teacher, and runs a handcrafted artisan jewelry business with her husband. In her free time she crochets and knits, because she can’t seem to stop this whole creating thing. She has three children (who she created), who are surrounded by jargon and so refer to their stuffed animals as “characters” and their tasks as “projects.” Shannon writes primarily Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, and is represented by Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman agency.