A few years ago, I went to see the film Victoria with a friend. It was his pick and I knew nothing about the film beforehand apart from that it was shot in one continuous take over two hours at dawn. What begins as a story about new friendship devolves suddenly into a crime story in ways I didn’t see coming. The story accelerates in sudden, shocking ways after the real-time pacing lulls you into a sense of safety. This film burrowed its way into my subconscious and I dreamed about it for weeks afterward, dreams that were so real I’d wake up gasping. It’s something I hadn’t experienced since watching The Blair Witch Project at a sleepover when I was twelve. (Interestingly, that one also takes place over a short timeframe.)
In the words of Agatha Christie, “Time is the best killer”. There is nothing better than restricting time to really get the heart beating. It instantly raises the stakes and makes everything feel so much more real. When I started writing my audio novella, This is Really Happening, I knew it needed to take place over just one night. My protagonist, Margot, was meeting her ex for dinner, not realizing that he had a sinister motive for the unexpected date.
Listening to an audio story is an intimate experience. I wanted to heighten this, and as we listen in on the dinner date we also hear Margot’s thoughts. As she’s assuring Sam that he’s a good guy, she whispers in our ear what she really thinks of him. As she’s trying to behave like everything is completely fine, we hear how terrified she is becoming. We are inside Margot’s head, in real time, as this night spins out of control in ways she would never have expected.
Constricting and extending time is an important tool for an author. We can make an instant achingly slow. A moment of choice can seem endless, an act of violence can be played out in slow motion. On the other hand, a year can be summed up in a sentence, a decade in a paragraph. We can use time for our own devices, zeroing in on the parts of our character’s lives that we decide are worth including. When writing about a short time frame, we don’t allow ourselves this luxury. The tighter the time, the more every moment needs to have stakes, every decision — no matter how small — has meaning. It’s a challenge, but if pulled off, it can make your story riveting.
I read a lot of thrillers with constricted time-frames while I was writing This Isn’t Happening. Here are some of the best: stories with pacing so rapid and relentless the fate of their protagonists seem to hang by the thinnest of threads.
Leave the World Behind by Ramaan Alam
This brilliant short novel reads like a fever dream. A couple and their two children book an AirBnB in rural Long Island for a holiday. They go to the supermarket, the beach, make food, make love. Unexpectedly, one night the owners of the AirBnb show up asking for refuge. Something is happening to the world, the city is no longer safe, and the isolated house is a haven. I loved the way Alam grounded the terror of this story by mixing it with the mundane. Etiquette between the two couples is given a lot of weight, as well as cooking and cleaning. Its tight timeframe makes every moment important as the two families reckon with a new reality they don’t yet fully comprehend.
Her Dark Lies by JT Ellison
A long weekend
This one has some real Rebecca vibes, which makes it right up my alley! Her Dark Lies is part of the trend we’re seeing of re-emergence of locked-room style stories in interesting locations, this one being set on the small Italian island Isle Isola. Nashville artist Claire is there for her wedding to uber-wealthy Jack. But this long weekend is, of course, far from idyllic with skeletal remains discovered on day one and the mysterious sailing-accident death of Jack’s first wife called into question. Adding to the break-neck pacing is the use of multiple POVs, all characters with secrets who are put to the test over this long weekend.
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
“We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.” This is how this hypnotic novella begins. It’s an unnerving proclamation from a woman taking her two young sons away on holiday, and her distorted perspective only unravels further as the weekend goes on. It paints a very bleak picture of the dark rainy seaside, the grimy hotel and the disintegrating fun fair. But it’s an incredible piece of writing that gives an intense account of a short window of time where one of the worst crimes imaginable is committed. Powerful, but very messed up! Only read this book if you’re in the strongest of headspaces.
The 25th Hour by David Benioff
In twenty-five hours Monty is going to jail for seven years, so what’s he going to do with his last night of freedom? Set predominately in downtown Manhattan, Monty goes out clubbing with his two oldest friends. As they reminisce about the past, it is slowly revealed that Monty has a plan for the evening that we haven’t seen coming and is going to shock the two men who think they know him best. This one was made into a great film in 2002 by Spike Lee with Ed Norton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and, Mr. Logan Roy himself, Brian Cox.
Amnesty by Aravind Adiga
Danny is a cleaner in suburban Sydney, Australia. On a day that begins like any other, he discovers that one of his clients has been murdered. He finds evidence at her apartment, and knows enough about her life through his cleaning to believe he knows who the killer is. However Danny, formerly Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, is an undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka. Taking place over just twenty-four hours, the stakes are high as Danny juggles the threat of deportation if he comes forward over doing what is right. This is not a traditional thriller, but the tight time frame and Adiga’s propulsive writing make this novel incredibly suspenseful.
Hostage by Clare Mackintosh
What’s more claustrophobic than a long haul international flight? It’s a time when many people already feel anxious, even without the threat of the plane not reaching its destination. This novel takes place over the first non-stop flight from London to Sydney. It’s a long flight, twenty hours, enough time for some heady drama to take place. Rather than the celebrities or businessmen on board, the novel follows one of the flight attendants. Mina is distracted by domestic issues back home: her troubled 5-year-old daughter and her unraveling marriage. After the flight takes off she finds a chilling anonymous note, offering her an unimaginable choice: down the plane or lose her child.
Eleven Hours by Paullina Simmons
Didi Wood is going shopping at the mall. She’s nine months pregnant and is trying to slow down and take it easy. But this is a thriller, so poor Didi doesn’t get her wish. Instead, she’s abducted in the mall parking lot. Her kidnapper drives her across Texas and Didi tries to reason with him during the hair raising ride. This is a split perspective novel, contrasted with her husband and the FBI trying to track down the car. If this sounds stressful, it’s because it is! The whole novel takes place over just eleven hours (hence the title), not allowing the reader respite from the moment-by-moment tension of the situation.
This Isn’t Happening by Anna Snoekstra (me!)
Scholarship law student Margot’s fling with her classmate Sam almost cost her everything. Now, she’s going out to dinner with him to a luxurious French restaurant with a plan to even the score. But Sam arrives late and is acting increasingly strangely. His hands are shaking, he’s nervous and jumpy; he’s behaving nothing like the privileged charmer she knows. As the night unfolds, Margot realizes Sam has a terrifying plan of his own. What starts in a fancy restaurant, ends in a way you (hopefully) will never see coming. I wrote this cat-and-mouse thriller in barely constricted time. So don’t do the dishes while you listen! Every second is important.