Handling distance and time in a fictitious world

I’m trying to distract myself from paying attention to my first beta reader feedback.  I only have one back so far and I want to wait until I have two or three before I take any action, but it’s really, really hard to do.  And it’s really, really hard to remember the positives in the review like where my beta said she really enjoyed bits or that it was a great book.  I just want to zero in on the negatives like the ending was too picture perfect and I want to FIX THEM NOW.

Must wait.

So, in the meantime, I am doing what I meant to do on the last draft and going through the novel and writing down all the character descriptions and quirks to check for consistency and make sure I don’t have two primary characters who seem the same on the page.  And to make sure that, for example, a character who prays regularly for half the book doesn’t suddenly turn into an atheist for the second half.

And that got me to thinking about how distance and time are portrayed in a fictitious world.  As a writer, I ask myself, “Do I really think my world uses hours and minutes or meters or feet or any of that?”  Probably not.  And chances are days aren’t called Monday or Tuesday and months aren’t called April or May.

So what to do?  I can get all fancy schmancy and make up a whole new time system and measurements and days of the month.  A perfectly valid response.  And I’ve definitely seen it done on many an occasion.  The trick is that not every reader pays enough attention to a system like that to learn it properly.

Which means that you can make up a new time system or date system or measurements, but if you rely on it too heavily you risk losing some of your readers.  Think about it. “He waited for a bajubuju, but Sally never showed.”  (That was a deliberately ridiculous word, btw, to make the point.)

How long is a bajubuju?  Is it a minute?  An hour?  A day?  A year?  That matters to the story.  (And will your reader even remember that a bajubuju is a measure of time?  If you use a word that silly, they likely will.  But don’t.  You’ll throw a reader out of the story every single time you use that word.)

I think that’s why a lot of times you see authors use “cheats.”  It’s a new time or date system, but it’s very similar to what we’re used to.  Or it uses words that trigger similar thoughts.  (Like “X years A.Z.” where Z is some event that we don’t really care about but A.Z. is similar enough to A.D. that we just go with it.)  Or they translate it back to Earth terms (when dealing with sci-fi) – “Jimmy blew out the seven candles on his cake, thinking about how there would have been twenty-one candles if he were still on Earth.”

(Note: I am not trying for good writing here…)

Or it’s very basic.  (My current solution.  Then again, that fits with the society I created, too.  They stripped out historical or religious meaning from everything.)  “The first day of autumn.”  Still a bit of a cheat, but day here is used as a generic measure as opposed to a twenty-four hour cycle.

The other option is to never really refer to units of measurement.  This is another solution I took.  So, instead of “the forest was fifty meters ahead of them” you use how many paces away it was.  Or you say that a tree was as tall as a large man.  Or that the bright orange fruit fit comfortably into the palm of the character’s hand.

In conclusion, it’s definitely something to think about if you’re making up a world.  As a reader, I’ve seen it taken too far, though, so whatever you do make sure you keep your readers with you.  Ultimately, it’s about telling a story and the choices you make need to support that goal before anything else.

AND, once you make that decision, stick to it.  Don’t get three-fourths of the way through and suddenly start talking about minutes and hours if you’ve been using bajubujus up to that point.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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2 Responses to Handling distance and time in a fictitious world

  1. You bring up such a great point! I’ve never really thought about it, but I’m betting that I did exactly what you warned against and used a mix of “paces” and “feet” measurements. I’ll have to remember to watch measurements as I casually edit. Thanks!

    • mhleewriter says:

      Christopher – Glad you like the post!

      Personally, I’d be less worried about if you’re using paces and feet than if you made up a measurement system and then fell back to one we already know. Especially if you had multiple viewpoints and it was consistently used for different characters – Character A uses feet, Character B uses paces, for example. But I definitely think it is worth watching out for in edits.

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