As a writer, you must decide if you would rather make your writing timeless or timely. Is it more effective for your story to sink its nails in the here-and-now or to remain relevant decades, even centuries, from today?
Chances are, you’re reading this blog post because you want to make your writing timeless. The good news is that timelessness isn’t an accident at all but the intentional result of a well-crafted story.
So, how does a writer have their story withstand the hands of time, especially when time can play such a pivotal role in storytelling?
Perhaps, the timelessness of well-loved stories has nothing to do with time.
Timeliness vs Timelessness
The idea of timelessness came to me as I was reading The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington. This American novel is rigidly set in the early 20th century as rapid industrialization leads to the decline of old-money aristocracy. And while I can never fully relate to the rise of the automobile in society, the story transcends the novel’s fixed setting.
Why? Because no matter the year, readers can relate to the emotional experience of times changing.
On the flip side, there’s nothing wrong with being timely. In fact, one of my all-time favorite novels is Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley. This biting political satire simply cannot occur outside of the ’90s. Nick Naylor’s journey as chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies wouldn’t have the same impact if the novel took place in 1938 or 2038 or in no given year.
Will this novel be read fifty years from now? Likely not, given the page-by-page topical references. Still, because the 1990s resonates strongly with me, I will continue to enjoy the story fifty years from now—that is, if my memory keeps up with my graceful aging.
The decision to make your writing timeless or timely isn’t a choice between good or evil. One isn’t better than the other. If you’ve written a solid story, a firm or vague time period will both matter and not matter at the same time.
Does a Lack of Time Make Your Writing Timeless?
You can remove all references to years, trends and brands to make your writing timeless. You can drop all modern slang from your dialogue, exclude shout-outs to present-day fads and pretend that all forms of technology never existed.
That’s a start. But it’s not the end-game solution.
A story that lacks time can also lack elsewhere. Your story can still lack character development, plot structure and conflict progression. And a story that lacks any story elements isn’t destined to be timeless.
The truth is, your story can happen within a fixed year and still remain timeless. Because it’s not about time at all.
Here’s How to Make Your Writing Timeless
Timelessness is all about relatability. If your readers can’t relate to your story, then it doesn’t matter how vague you are about dates. Your story instantly dates itself when you build a wall instead of a bridge between your characters and your readers.
So, how does a writer achieve relatability within a story?
A good story checks the boxes for the presence of all story elements. A great story—one destined to be timeless—nurtures all elements of a story so well that readers cannot stop thinking it, even rereading the story just to experience it all over again.
As a writer, you already recognize these elements of a story. And you may feel mild annoyance that I’m covering what seems like the basics. However, it’s not good enough just to have these story elements make a cameo appearance within your writing—you have to advance your execution of these elements from novice to legend.
Here’s how you can evolve the story elements within your narrative so that you captivate your readers from beginning to end.
Simply put, the premise sets the stage for your story: the who, what and where. These three factors should be both clearly defined within Act I of your story as well as synopsis-able for book jacket and marketing purposes.
Think of the premise as your story’s elevator pitch. If you only had 20 seconds to tell a friend about your story, can you quickly summarize your story’s location, characters and circumstances?
A solid premise means that you have a big-picture understanding of what your characters want, where the action happens and how the main actions of the plot that must unfold.
Struggling to summarize your story into 1–2 sentences? Spend more time flushing out the overarching goals of your story and building a basic foundation where your details can flourish. Your story may be trying to tackle too much, hence why you’re finding it hard to get it off the ground.
Plot = the sequence of events that make up the action of your story. Your story’s plot should showcase a series of decisive actions that progress your narrative chronologically forward, from inciting incident and rising action to climax and resolution.
To make your writing timeless, your plot must be solid. A strong plot:
- captures your audience’s attention
- takes your reader on a relatable journey
- comprises of only believable actions
Relatability is key within your plot. If your protagonist makes unrealistic choices or takes unbelievable action, your readers simply won’t connect. Your readers don’t have to agree with the actions within the plot—instead, they have to believe that the choices are plausible for the characters and circumstances at hand.
Plot stumps both novice and established writers. Take the time to understand plot progression and refine the step-by-step actions of your story from start to finish.
Your story’s characters—in short, the people or animals who carry out the actions within your narrative—drive the adventure. An exciting plot can quickly fall flat if your characters are unrelatable, two-dimensional and boring.
A timeless story has:
- Protagonist: the main character of the story who takes readers on a journey
- Antagonist: the protagonist’s adversary
- Supporting characters: people or animals who further the plot along, be it for or against the protagonist
Even though your story only has one protagonist (be it a singular being or collective group), every character in your narrative believes themselves to be the protagonist. Develop every character within your story then as you would your protagonist by understanding their personality, their backstory, their decision-making skills and their motivational factors.
Making your writing timeless means being true to your characters. Remember that your characters (the people ones, at least) are human and are prone to flaws, despite their role within the story. Your characters can’t be relatable, including your “evil” characters, if each character can be strictly defined as solely good or bad. The most relevant characters in timeless literature hold conflicting beliefs, an experience that so many of us can identify with.
How you write your story is just as impactful as what elements your story contains. If your readers stumble over long sentences, incoherent phrases and over-the-head vernacular, consider your story dead on arrival.
No need to panic. You can make your writing timeless by refining your prose with this two-step approach.
Step 1: Decide your POV – This should be decided after you develop your characters and plot yet before you start righting the words of your story. A first-person narrator vs a third-person point of view can drastically alter how you formulate your sentences and express dialogue.
Step 2: Edit for the eyes and ears – This is where the editing process comes in. Your sentence structure and vocabulary should be easy to read both silently and out loud.
First, edit your story for readability. Then, edit your story for audibility. Timeless stories are ones that can be enjoyed alone and in groups, so make sure the word journey of your narrative is as seamless as the other elements of your story.