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Strong Voice and Attention to Time

by William H. Coles

A literary fictional story is:

a magical perception — an engaging illusion — that is an unbroken continuum delivered through prose that — by a meaningful, interesting series of events involving characters that a reader comes to know and care about — creates emotion, and enlightenment or permanent change in the reader’s thinking.

No other story telling medium comes even close to what prose fiction can accomplish for a select group of readers, and no other medium of expression of a fiction story is as hard to master and as hard to use successfully as prose. (Irony1)

For a writer, understanding a time line in story writing is time well spent.  Clear conception of the time line allows: clarity of writing, consistency of voice, and logic and credibility of the story illusion.

Real time/Story time

Real time

Real time is what every human lives.  Time is a human invention, and not necessarily a divine truth.  Humans live and die. Living takes so many minutes and is defined by humanity’s perception of the physical world.  Who knows if outside human meaning, collective consciousness and experience, time has any meaning?  But writers, who create in real time, have to learn to adjust writing and story conceptualization to create a credible story in illusion, where time is compressed compared to real time.

Time, then, is how we orient our existence.  Story time is where we work with constricted real time while structuring and pacing our story to make it seem real.

Story time

The challenge for the writer is to manage the perception of time in a story so the story is acceptable and credible.

Story time is the time a reader spends with the story from beginning to end. (Interruptions in beginning to end reading are not included.)  Story-time can be a few minutes, many hours, or even days.  The difference is we read a story in the illusion of real time — the story time — which is a constricted period of time. This requires seamless transitions, careful attention to narration, and exclusion of opinions, facts, and language not true to story time.  Lack of a writer’s attention to time differences between real time and story time — both in structure and a point on a real time line — can cause confusion for the reader, and eventual rejection of the story.

Importance of adhering to a time line.

It is awkward, for effective storytelling, when we write about real time in constricted story time.  Stories are in the past, and of necessity, they are condensed to read in a minute fraction of what the story would cover if lived in real time.  Writers use various techniques to adhere to, and orient the reader, to a story time line: transitions, flashbacks for back story, writing in scene and moving characters in seconds of story time through action that would take hours or days of real time, and careful adjustment of pacing — that is pacing of action and of the prose.

All this has meaning when it comes to storytelling with the written word.  When we write, we must construct a story, then recreate the story through the abstraction of prose.  If the writer ignores the fact that a story is told in a condensed time and the story or story facts are positioned in real time before the story actually could be written, the reader may perceive it as bad writing.  A story with an accurate time line allows the reader credibility in the telling that engages; provides an in depth immersion in the story, which is denser and more rewarding for the reader; and heightens discovery of significant facts about how a human life can be better lived.

Perfect story presentation in prose doesn’t occur that often, but when it does occur, it is most often associated with clear management of time and unbroken story illusions.  Pacing, transitions and relative consistency in condensation of different story time segments are all dependent on skillful time line transference to a reader from the writer/creator.

Quality Story Illusion

For story writers, the written word is creating an imagined world — and a series of events — in the mind of a reader.  No direct visual or auditory sensations are used. Readers must translate — from abstract letters on a page — images,  feelings and complex thoughts sent to the reader by the writer.  A writer’s skill is dependent entirely on the interpretation of language delivered — the written word.

In the great literary fiction prose story, success is the intact quality illusion of a story as credible.  Credible literary stories are more meaningful, progress smoothly, and seem to be lived (or could be lived).  This means two crucial accomplishments are necessary: the reader understands and accepts the illusion as it is presented (and the story takes on special impact); and the reader subconsciously follows a progressive time line that is delivered in a minute fraction of real time, but is created so the illusion is that characters living the story did so in real time.

Transfer of an illusion of a story being lived — so the reader is engaged — is dependent on these (and other) techniques:

  • *story told mainly in action scenes;
  • *unfailing understanding of the author of real time and story time and how characters (who live stories in story present),narrators (who tell stories in their past and sometimes tell from story present) and authors (who create stories always intheir past) interact;
  • *author always objective, accurate and true to the story;
  • *character and narrators creating ironies (often by contrast between different time perceptions), and moving toward an enlightenment;
  • *total acceptance by author that every element of a story has story purpose, and is not simply a collection of random happenings described from an author’s life.


This is a term often applied in historical context, which means generally the ideas and perspectives from the present are introduced into writing about the past.  For the historian, there is concern about a distortion of truth about the reality of the past.  (See below.2) For the writer of fiction the subject of presentism is more subtle and complicated and contributes to loss of effective story illusion and credibiity.

1. Overview

All stories are written about the past . . . by a few hours to the edge of eternity.  As time progresses, the world changes physically, and a writer’s interpretation of the world changes in perception, opinion, interpretations, cultural characteristics, and especially, linguistics.

Writers — and often narrators — tell stories from a vastly changed world from the story world, and the story weakens when the present world of writer (or, at times,  narrator) seeps into the story world.

Time has a considerable effect on the “voice” in fiction. Voice is everything a character does, thinks (unique to prose), and says in a story.  In any story, many voices may be present: characters, narrator, and rarely, an author.  Each voice is limited to characteristics consistent with the story world; in other words, a voice in a story cannot consist of features from what would be from the story world’s future. 

Presentism is use of information from when the story is created that is applied to story that is always, to various degrees, in the past.  Presentism for the writer can result in loss of credibility and authenticity in voice, and confuse the time line of the story.  Fuzzy time line results in ineffective storytelling.

This may seem to be only important in historical fiction, but for great literary fiction, it is also a crucial consideration. Readers inherently know when “voice” errors disrupt a story, and the readers will not like the writing and will reject the story.  This is often perceived by a reader as a stylistic error when actually the error stems from faulty conceptualization, construction and adherence to the time line.

2. Reader presentism

The future cannot exist and the present becomes past as soon as we live it.  Thus the reader is always reading from a point in the writer’s future, of which the writer knows nothing.  This time that the reader has lived since the time of story creation is filled with change: people, the world and the reader all have changed in perceptions, opinions, morality, linguistics and perception of truth, to name a few.  So the reader’s interpretation of a story inevitably will be subject to some presentism.

For a lasting story, one that will be carried to future generations, effects of presentism must not decrease enjoyment or a significant interpretation.  But reader presentism after a story is written is impossible for a writer to predict.  Can writers write then, to be effective for future readers, by changing their writing habits in the present?  Probably not.  But writers can write with clarity of presentation and meaning that strengthens believable characters — and the lasting quality of the story.  Writers can honor the time line of story, seek effective transitions, minimize ineffective back story, and most of all, create effective voice with absolute clarity for the reader as to whose voice it is — a character, a narrator, or an author.

The challenge for lasting fiction may be to create works of art that don’t lose understanding, meaning, or significance due to the erosion of reader presentism, particularly as it relates to credibility, logic, appropriate morality interpretation, and acceptance and enjoyment of fictional “voices.”

3. Presentism and points-of-view (see illustration).

Think of a real time line as a horizontal line.  To the right, place a vertical line, the reader line: all to the right is future, all to the left is what a reader knows and thinks from his or her past experience.  To the left of the reader line, place a vertical line, the author line.  The space between the reader line and the author line represents passage of time that is past for the reader and future for the author.  The reader brings information to the story from this time, but the author can know nothing about this.  This is the source of reader presentism.

Now, next to the author line, draw a vertical line, the narrator line.  All the lived time to the right of the narrator line is not available to the narrator, only what is to the left.  The narrator tells the story using only information important to the story that can be known from his or her position on the time line.

Note that the narrator (and the story) are imagined, but represented on a real time line.  This can be the source of inappropriate real time information being inserted into imagined story time.

Now, to the left of the narrator, draw a vertical line that represents the story.  This maybe so thin as to be invisible, because story time on a real time line is very short.

Note that characters give story information only within story, and speak with a specific voice, from a time that precedes the position of the story on the real time line.  Often, narrators are chosen to be characters, but note that the presentation requires skillful manipulation of time.  If the narrator has been imagined to deliver the story from a different point in time on the real time line that is different from the author, and not within the story time, careful attention to the source of information and voice is necessary.

In third person point of view, these relationships among author, narrator and characters should be established and be consistent.  This is essential for strong voice and effective character development, and for clear understanding by the reader about who is thinking what and when.

In first person point of view, a writer intuitively collapses the narrator into the author.  This often weakens the characterization and the credibility of the story.  An author who maintains a concept of a narrator telling the story in first person creates a stronger voice and filters information that is not supportive of characterization or story momentum.  Not infrequently, writers make author, narrator and character indistinguishable in the story.  This is easier to write and, at first, there seems to be the advantage of not having to worry about time, because now the author is telling the story as a character in story time.  But there are awkward complications: 1) restriction of what information can be credibly presented from outside story time, 2) more difficult to create valuable ironies unique to fiction, 3) reduced opportunities to vary a voice that may become boring, 4) limitation of thought to primarily one character with danger of repetitive and boring writing style, 5) tendency for subjective description from inside out, rather than objective revelation of motivations and desires of all characters, 6) excessive attention to character “reliability,” which is always in question in first person point of view.

4. Dialogue

The story time-line is an illusion.  It is always condensed when compared to real time. And dialogue is, too. Dialogue is not a transcription from life at the pace of life. Dialogue is best created for effect on reader. Voice must be consistent.  Any hint of exposition, most of which comes through narrative or the narrator, should be removed.  Dialogue should also have unique traits that support the voice being delivered — essential for credibility and voice strength. And probably most importantly, the pace of the dialogue must fit the story illusion of real time; dialogue can never equate real time delivery, which would be perceived by the reader as slow and useless.

Summary of the problem

Writers write from a real world, real time presence.  Characters act in story-time. All stories are illusions created by a writer through the written word.  No story is perceived by a reader as the story would play out in real-time. All stories are condensed.

So every writer is faced with a significant dilemma that must be faced for quality stories and writing.   How, when all you know is real time existence, do you, as a writer, create stories that are condensed, compact, squeezed, compressed . . . when compared to the real-time of the author?

What to do? (It’s not easy)

A writer can only create from his or her perception of a changing reality. Opinions change, how we see objects changes, how we feel about things changes, ideation of imagery and persuasion changes, linguistics is constantly evolving.  Relentlessly, the present becomes history.

The moment of creation of a story illusion on a time line uses different time-related thoughts to create an illusion of story that is always in the past, either by a few minutes or millenniums.  The story is like an illusory soap bubble, vulnerable to the slightest assault to its perfection — the smallest bump or prick destroys it.  For the writer, errors in time, voice, logic, and credibility destroy the illusory bubble that is a story.

Memoir cannot not be created as effective fiction.  Problems evolve when trying to create a condensed story illusion while describing, through the written word, events that played out in real time.  Many readers who enjoy the illusion of a great fiction story are quickly discouraged by the seemingly static (boring) story lines described from reality.

Intuitive writing also places the writer in a position of describing an event that is remembered (imagined) and/or occurred in real time.  Inevitably, adherence to the sanctity of the story time line, always condensed and in need of action, logic and consistency, is lost. Intuition fails writers and leads to mediocrity.


For EXAMPLES of stories with strong voice, see:
Facing Grace with Gloria, The Activist, Reddog, The Stonecutter.


Writers approach writing with the belief that writing skills qualify for success at writing great stories. Propelled by intuition, and blind to the need of a gift of storytelling honed by hard work, they write to be read and admired with self-indulgent styles and self-centered ideas. In contrast, no human thinks because he or she can push piano keys and hear sounds, that he or she can sit down and play a concerto in front of a discriminating audience at Carnegie Hall without years of practice and an orchard full of talent.


“Presentism is a mode of historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. Some modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter.”

“Presentism is also related to the problematic question of history and moral judgments. Among historians, the orthodox view may be that reading modern notions of morality into the past is to commit the error of presentism. To avoid this, some historians restrict themselves to describing what happened, and attempt to refrain from using language that passes judgment.”

Presentism quotes from Wikipedia

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