Changing Times


How writers make time work for them

I started reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time the other day. I only got to page 3 before I admitted defeat. Now I’ll never know the temporal secrets of the universe.

But I do know that writers can do incredible things with time. They can make it speed up, they can make it slow down. And they can simultaneously exist in several time periods. Ian McEwan, in his 1987 novel The Child in Time is particularly concerned with time’s elastic qualities. When his daughter, Kate, disappears in a supermarket, the novel’s protagonist, Stephen Lewis, imagines her continued existence in time, separated from her family. He himself goes back in time, appearing as a face at a window to his own mother as she contemplates the future of her new pregnancy. He is friends with a government minister who regresses to a childhood state; he experiences a car crash when time speeds up and slows down. McEwan, like Hawking, offers his readers mind-blowing insights into the properties of time, giving the novel’s title so many resonances.

In Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, events are told backwards. The novel starts in 1947 and ends in 1941.  In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, all the events of the novel take place on one day. These three great novelists are clearly masters of time.

When I was studying for my M.A in Creative Writing, my supervisor recommended The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber. This great little book gives so many more examples of how writers can make time work for them – and offers useful advice to new novelists on how to solve the problems of skimming time, summarising time and slowing time down. I would really recommend it.

We may never understand all the temporal secrets of the universe, but if we observe how skilled writers handle time, we can certainly make time work for us.