Time in Writing:
Every reader reads at a different speed, so many people underestimate or disregard the impact that the speed of their writing has. It's a common beginning writer's mistake to incorrectly pace their reader's time, resulting in something that the reader has a hard time picturing due to the proportionality of the different parts of their scene or story.
Think about the amount of time it takes to read a line in a book. It varies from reader to reader how long that time is, but when it boils down to it, the speed at which a reader reads doesn't matter too
much, because the amount of time it takes them to read is relative to them. What is
important is how your sentences, and your actions, vary in length (or time read) from one another.
Read the next two passages in your head:
"A screech. A horn blaring. My legs were swept out from under me and I tumbled into the air as I closed my eyes. By the time I opened them, I was lying on my back in the middle of the street, and people were rushing over to me."
"There was a screech as tires skid. Someone honked their horn and I saw my shadow rapidly change in the light cast from the car behind me's headlights. A knot formed in my stomach and I felt sick. I knew it was going to hit me. My legs were swept out from under me, but there wasn't any pain. I was sent tumbling into the air, and it felt as though I was being tossed by a massive wave. The car passed beneath me, a Sedan, and its bumper was dented from where it had hit me. I couldn't make out its color in the dark.
I landed on the pavement. My head whipped back into the concrete, and as if the blow to the back of my head had woken my brain up to what had just happened, all the pain struck me at once. People watching from the street began to rush over to help me."
In my experience, there's two ways to experience something shocking: either you don't see it coming and it's over in a split second, or you do see it coming and your memory of the event, after the fact, is drastically slowed down. The whole, "life flashing before your eyes" thing.
In the first passage, the sentences are short and the events happen quickly. The amount of time it takes to read it is brief, and so many things happen in that brief amount of time that it paints the image in the reader's head that the moment was over in a flash. Notice that the details in it are light because when something happens quickly you have less time to take in detail. This is the effect of rushed time in writing, and if you incorrectly pace your writing too short, then the reader will feel like they are viewing the story on a vcr in fastforward.
In the second passage the sentences are longer, but still relatively short to give them a bit of punch. The amount of time it takes to read it is much longer than an accident like the one described takes, and it feels as though everything that's happening has been slowed down, and you can see all the details of the scene as the pass slowly by. This is what slowed time looks like in writing, and if you incorrectly pace your writing with too long of sentences and too much detail, then the reader will feel like they are watching the whole story in slow motion.
The reader's speed will ultimately vary whether they read your story feels as though it's written in slow motion or fast motion. People who can read 500 pages in a day will more easily accept an author whose prose is long ended and detailed, while people who read at a lower level more easily accept an author who rushes the details and writes simply.
One last thing to keep in mind, the speed at which your sentence are read depends on not only length, but diction as well.
"Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose," the masked man said, "so let me simply add that it's my very good honor to meet you and you may call me V."
The first part of the dialogue in the above example takes longer to read for its length than the second part of the dialogue. Just something to keep in mind with sentences are deceptively short due to having all simple words such as:
"Yes, I've been quite well, though I thought I could use some fresh air."How Time Effects Sentence Length:
You may have noticed that even in the slowed down version of the accident that I used short, punchy sentences. This is because sentence length affects time in a whole different manner than the amount of time you take coverig a single action or subject. If we consider how long the passage is as a representation of how I want the reader to interpret time, then we can interpret a single sentence's length as how I want the reader to interpret literal time. See, the car accident was in slow motion from the character's pov, which is why I made the passage covering the one event so long, while the sentences were short and choppy to indicate action and quickness.
You can also do have the same effect in reverse, have many events covered in one long sentence, giving the effect of long literal time, but fastforwarded from the pov. For example:
"At first Celestia had traveled to the outerlying villages, curing the sick and helping to feed the hungry. As she traveled from village to village, her name spread by carriage across the land: word of the alicorn, a tall and majestic pony who had both horn and wing, whose speed in the air was unrivaled, and whose magic prowess was unmatched. The nobles of the kingdom grew angry with her; roumors spread that she was a princess, destined to bring about a new era of prosperity and peace, and that she would usurp the throne with the ponies support.
The king sat in his study, puzzling over what to do about this new alicorn
. . ."
The sentences are longer and more drawn out. Multiple events are covered in each one, and overall a brief recent history is provided in one fairly short paragraph. You could, alternatively, break the above into more sentences, but that would change how the reader reads the passage. Instead of reading through two long sentences, they'd be reading through 5 or 6 shorter sentences, and it would make that part of the story feel
longer.How Sentence Length Affects Impact:
Earlier I mentioned 'punch'. Simply put, each sentence occupies a single space in the reader's brain. Regardless of length. This is why sentence length can affect our interpretation of time. But also, if we store each single sentence in the same amount of space, which will we remember better?:
"Karen's hand slipped from the ledge."
"Karen's hand slipped from the shalestone ledge, her heart leaping into her throat in that moment and her lips parting open in a silent scream as she fell, down, down into the dark."
"Karen had been a baker for just over three years now, downtown at Stephano's Buns at the corner of Hippy-Hacki-Sack Street and Derelict Corner, where their small italian bakery was robbed, at the minimum, twice a month."
The first is a small amount of information in a short sentence. The second is a small amount of information in a long sentence. The third is a lot of information stored in a long sentence. Their impact is as follows:
Karen's Hand (long) < Karen's a Baker < Karen's Hand (short)
The reason that Karen's Hand (long) is last, is beacuse it uses many words to say very few events, giving it the least impact. Meanwhile Karen's a Baker uses many words, but conveys quite a bit of information, still, a single sentence takes up a limited amount of space in our minds, so it comes in second. The sentence with the most impact is Karen's Hand (short). This is because it takes up a whole sentence's worth of space in our mind to say just one thing, so that one thing hits home hard.
The fact that each sentence occupies roughly the same amount of space in our brain (up to a limit of course) means that we have a completely different interpretation of time based on how many sentences there are than we do based on time required to read something.
The reader's interpretation of time in your writing is based on three things:
A) the length of your writing
B) how much length is between events
C) sentence length
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