Time Travel is real. When you’re bored, time moves slowly. When you’re having fun, time moves fast. When you hold your breath for three minutes, time seems slow and painful. When you dance to your favorite song, three minutes passes too quickly. In our minds, time speeds and slows. When you construct your writing, you must consider that type of time travel.
In the real world, in Real Time, each second is the same length. Mechanically and literally, time cannot speed up nor slow down. In this way, writing is not like Real Time. However, when you write, you can create time-travel by using (what I’ve not-so-creatively coined) Word-Time. The ratio is simple: the amount of words used to show the action is inversely proportional to the time that action requires. Or, more words means slower time.
Consider these two descriptions of the same action.
Description #1: After twenty minutes of waiting, Eliot braced his hands on the corner of the table and pushed his chair back. He stood and felt an ache in his knee. His new shoes clicked against the hardwood floor as he walked over to the counter. “I’ll have a refill,” he said, laying his white ceramic mug on the counter. The barista smiled at him, took his mug, refilled it with steaming hot black coffee and set it back on the saucer. Eliot cupped the mug in his hands and felt the warmth. He inhaled its strong scent. He turned and walked back to his table. He set the coffee down before resettling himself in his seat (115 words).
Description #2: After twenty minutes, Eliot got more coffee (7 words).
In description #1, it took a great deal of time to show what is, essentially, a very simple and unimportant task. Because I used so many words, I slowed time. I took the reader through each step. I included details and specifics. Description #2 gave the same action, but, since it used fewer words, the time sped up. Getting coffee is brief, almost instantaneous.
Only context can determine whether #1 or #2 is better (is it important to know his knee aches? Does the barista need inclusion?). Writers must constantly consider Word-Time. They must constantly ask themselves, “Does this action, description or idea need this many words?” If getting a cup of coffee is a majorly important moment for Eliot, then yes, use all those words. But if it’s not important, don’t waste the words.
More is not always better. However, less is not always better either. While the above descriptions show the over-written images of a man refilling coffee, underdoing major events is just as bad. Consider the answer the question, “What’s the movie Cinderella about?”
Answer #1: Cinderella is a wonderful movie about a young girl who, despite the mocking and oppressions of her stepsisters and stepmother, overcomes many obstacles to find love. With the help of her fairy Godmother and her own determination, she attends a royal ball, meets the Prince and charms him. Forced to leave the ball at midnight, she loses a glass slipper. However, the Prince uses this glass slipper to find Cinderella the next day. They fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after (78 words).
Answer #2: Some chick loses her shoe at a dance (9 words).
The degree to which you use Word-Time will always vary, but one constant remains in this equation: importance. If you give any concept, character or image more Word-Time, it becomes more important to the reader. If you spend less Word-Time, the concept is less important. Word-Time also affects other aspects of your writing like tone, point of view and voice (see Answer #2 above for proof).