AWP2018: That Ticking Clock: The Handling of Time in Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction

Panel Participants: Moderated by Cary Holladay, the panel consisted of Gary Fincke, Lorraine Lopez, and Jim Minnick, with a paper by Charlotte Holmes, who was unable to attend the conference.

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A panel of writers in multiple genres discussed the craft of shaping time via literary references, as well as the unique relationship between narrator and reader. In her paper, Charlotte Holmes used examples from literature to demonstrate how time functions as “the story’s invisible engine.” Its essential elements may be delivered in minutes, hours, days, or years. It may be a case of capturing an era, historic times, or shifts in customs, laws, and social hierarchies. Edith Wharton, for example, wrote about her youth and captured an era and the manner in which people of a certain class behaved, in her short story “Roman Fever.” Holmes added several other literary examples, emphasizing that no matter what time the authors capture, characters turn out to be much like us, representations of the universal.

Lorraine Lopez began by referencing her personal experience of time, a precious commodity the older she gets. She aims to be efficient and use it well, and chronically late people do not gain her sympathy. In writing fiction, she partners with time to keep herself focused and her story well-paced and sequenced. Narrative time is an investment worth elaborating. Pacing a story can take pages or a paragraph. In fiction, the author skillfully balances the present time, the scene interactions between characters, and summary, which is everything else. Flashbacks and flashforwards add dimensionality to the story. Narration, interiority, and reflection round off the craft, while building structure acts like nails and mortar of the story. Studying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides the reader with an excellent model of handling time.

Cary Holladay discussed how linear chronology, the straightforward presentation of events, is often the preferred way to bolster the organization of a story. A reader stays with the story in time as long as there is payoff. There has to be something in the here and now to keep suspense in play. She presented the concept of the continuous flashback, where the author invents the story’s own continuous thread. In each return to the narrative, the story picks up moments after the last flashback with memory becoming the connective tissue. Thus, the flashback story carries its own suspense. Revisiting it enlarges the character and memory, and serves as a reflection that yields revelation. Considering that characters hold a private, a public, and a secret life, the continuous flashback can serve to reveal a person’s secret life.

Jim Minnick zeroed in on the relationship between author and reader in real time, the moment of reading the story. He guided the audience in an exercise of imagining the reader breathe, pause, sigh, tear up, and respond to the story line. He further discussed the role punctuation, sentence length, and verb tense play in skillfully written stories and poetry, and read an excerpt of his work.

This was a well-orchestrated panel that successfully presented the panelists’ insights, sharing ways to elaborate and manage the concept of time.


Sophia Kouidou-Giles, born in Greece, resides in the USA. She has published in “Voices,” “Persimmon Tree,” “Assay,” and in an anthology entitled The Time Collection. “Transitions and Passages” is her poetry chapbook. She is currently working on a memoir.


Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

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