Real life moves fast. Faster than you can blink. In the two minutes it takes you to read this, somewhere out there a heart will have stopped beating. A child will have taken their first step. A secret will have been whispered that can never be unheard. Real life is a non-stop barrage of moments that vanish as quickly as they appear. Fiction struggles to keep up. Novels sprawl over weeks, months, years - diluting life's urgency and leaving us detached.
The real-time novel grabs life by the throat. It holds a mirror up to existence and demands we watch, unblinking, as time races by. Page by page, minute by minute, the story moves in tandem with the seconds ticking by in the real world. There are no chapter breaks or time jumps to let you catch your breath. You are trapped in the literary equivalent of a runaway train, hurtling through a dark tunnel with no brakes. The ending could come crashing into view at any moment.
Real-time novels create intimacy through that shared experience of time passing, of life unfolding beat by beat. They remind us what it means to be powerless in the face of the clock. How the moments we cling to so desperately are as fleeting as the lives we lead. By chaining the story to the rhythms of real life, these intimate tales of urgency and immediacy offer a glimpse into the raw, unvarnished truth of existence: time always runs out. The question is, can we keep up?
The real-time novel, as defined earlier, is a work of fiction that unfolds over a discrete period of time at the same pace as real life. The narrative moves forward without ellipses or flashbacks, forcing readers to experience events in real-time. Saturday by Ian McEwan is a prime example.
In Saturday, McEwan traces a single day - February 15, 2003 - in the life of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. We wake with Perowne at 6:30 am and follow him through a series of quotidian events - playing squash, visiting his mother, preparing dinner. However, this ordinary day is set against the backdrop of a looming protest against the Iraq war. Tensions build throughout the day until a climactic confrontation occurs late that night. By locking us into Perowne's point of view for 24 hours, McEwan creates a sense of urgency and intimacy. We come to know this character through the accumulation of small details and insights over the course of a single day.
Other examples include:
- Ulysses by James Joyce, which follows Leopold Bloom through the streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904
- Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which chronicles socialite Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares to host a party in London on a single day in June 1923.
- One Day by David Nicholls, which revisits Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew on the same day - July 15th - every year for 20 years.
The power of these real-time novels is their ability to make us feel as if we are living through a vividly recreated slice of life at the same breakneck speed as the characters. We are strapped in for the ride, hurtling forward through time without a chance to catch our breath. The result is a rare sense of urgency and intimacy that lingers long after the final page is turned.
As writers, we are in a constant battle against time. The enemy is impatience - that little voice telling readers they have better things to do than sit with our stories. In an age of infinitesimal attention spans and constant distraction, how do we craft tales that command focus? Stories that burrow deep into our audience's psyche before the ticks of the clock pry them away?
The answer is a literary adrenaline shot to the heart: write in real-time.
Real-time novels are a deliberate provocation, forcing readers into a heightened state of alertness. No skimming or speed reading allowed. Every minute that passes in the story must be experienced at the same pace by the reader, creating a sense of urgency that can't be ignored. Two hours may elapse over a dozen pages, but you'll feel every second.
Real-time also means no escape. There are no narrative crutches like flashbacks or subplots for readers to hide behind. Nowhere to avert your gaze from the slow-motion car crash of the ending barreling closer with each turned page. The effect is a rare intimacy between story and reader. A confession in a darkened room, secrets whispered between intertwined bodies in the dead of night.
For writers, real-time is a chance to flex creative muscles in new ways. How do you keep tension thrumming through mundane events? What details matter most when time is scarce? Real-time forces you into deep POV and lean, muscular prose. To stick with the hard truths of how life is really lived, moment to messy moment.
The constraints of real-time are what make the form so powerful. Time may be finite, but that's what gives it such narrative potency. Real life moves fast, so stories should too. As writers, we have the chance to replicate that speed, to bottle life's urgency and immediacy. Real-time novels are a way to trap lightning in a bottle - if we have the courage to whisk readers away at breakneck speed into a single perfect day, hurtling together towards the end.
Finding Inspiration for a Real-Time Novel
Inspiration is everywhere in real-time. You just have to open your eyes to life's urgency.
Consider your daily routine. What small details could become meaningful under pressure? The commute to work is a sequence of mundane events - until the clock is ticking and obstacles loom. Even ordinary encounters take on new significance when time is scarce. Listen for dramatic questions in casual conversations.
Look for hard truths in headlines. Real news is messy, complex, and contradictory. There are no easy answers to political tensions, social issues, or natural disasters. But a 24-hour period in the midst of an unfolding crisis could reveal ambiguities and complications to explore. Real-time thrives on chaos.
Notice life's pivotal moments. While small in the grand scheme, events like waiting for medical test results or preparing for a difficult conversation can feel like everything in that moment. Tap into those memories of anticipation, heightened emotions, and uncertainty. How could you recreate a similarly pivotal day for your characters?
Pay attention to cycles and patterns. The rotation of day into night, the relentless march of weeks into years and birth into death. The stages of grief or recovery. The human rituals that mark beginnings and endings. Real-time is a chance to compress life's cycles into a single rotation, revelation following revelation.
Eavesdrop in crowded places. Listen for snippets of conversation - a first date at a coffee shop, friends gossiping over drinks, strangers commiserating on a long bus ride. These glimpses into ongoing interactions and relationships offer inspiration for complex characters with intricate histories, even in a short span of hours.
Carry a notebook and jot down moments of conflict, details that spark questions, and glimpses of connection amid chaos. Inspiration for real-time surrounds you - in headlines, rituals, pivotal moments, and mundane encounters imbued with new significance. Open yourself to life's urgency, messiness and hard truths. The stories are already out there, simply waiting to be told in real-time. All you have to do is pay attention to the clock.
Key Elements of a Real-Time Novel
A real-time novel is a high-wire act without a safety net. To pull it off, you need:
- A discrete time period. Contain your story within a limited timeframe - 24 hours, 12 hours, even just one hour. The shorter the better. Capture life in a pressure cooker.
- A lean timeline. Keep events moving in a straight line. No flashbacks or foreshadowing. What you lose in exposition, you gain in immediacy. The future is unknown and the past is gone. All we have is now.
- Mundane details. The beauty of real-time is transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Savor small moments and routines. Find meaning in the meaningless.
- Deep POV. Put readers directly into the mind of your protagonist. Share their thoughts, senses, and physicality. Give over control of the narrative. The story belongs to them, at this moment in time.
- Tension on every page. Real-time lives and dies by momentum. Escalate urgency through high stakes, unanswered questions, and a constant sense of life spinning out of control. Forget chapter breaks. Drive through to the ending without stopping.
- An unvarnished reality. The messiness of life is what gives real-time its power. Don't beautify. Look for hard truths in ambiguities and uncertainties. The climax should be messy and complex, not tied up with a bow.
- A climactic ending. As time runs out, tensions must peak. Have subplots, threads and questions collide at once. Leave characters and readers breathless, while signaling the cycle beginning anew. The days keep coming, ready or not.
- A reason for real-time. Employ the form deliberately, not just for novelty's sake. Consider how contained time deepens your story's themes. Why this particular timeframe? Real-time is a literary high-wire act, but also a powerful narrative tool when handled with purpose. Use it wisely.
The clock never stops in real-time novels. Every second matters. Real life is breathless, chaotic, and messy. This is your chance to bottle that lightning. To make each tick of the clock count. The ultimate race against time with no way out but straight through to the end.
Best Practices for Writing a Real-Time Novel
To write real-time without warning labels, follow these rules:
- Start late, end early. Contain your story within a tight timeframe. Less is more. A single day, night or hour. Race the clock.
- Map the timeline. Know exactly what happens when. Account for every minute to keep events in sequence. No loopholes allowed.
- Choose a compelling voice. Put readers behind the eyes of your protagonist. Share their thoughts in close first-person or tight third-person. Present tense is a natural fit. The story is happening now.
- Raise the stakes. Keep tension thrumming by making everything go wrong at once. Ask dramatic questions that demand an immediate answer. Survival must be at stake, whether actual or metaphorical. Life and death or now or never.
- Focus on crucial details. When time is scarce, only vital particulars matter. Pare down. Keep description short, punchy and revelatory of character or theme. Every word must earn its place.
- Reveal hard truths. The messiness of life gives real-time its power. Look for ambiguities and complexities, not easy answers. Resolution, if any, should be bittersweet. The ending just another beginning.
Mistakes to Avoid
- The clockwork plot. Don't force events into an unnaturally neat timeline or sequence. Real life has curves, jumps and switchbacks. Your story must too.
- Padding the prose. Real-time leaves no room for excess. Cut filler, fluff and needless subplots that pad length or stall momentum. Keep it lean.
- Idyllic escapism. Don't prettify life or tie everything up neatly. The real world is messy, chaotic and complicated. Your ending should reflect that truth.
- One-dimensional characters. Even in a tight timeframe, compelling characters should be complex and contradictory. Share layers through vivid details, backstory breadcrumbs and hard choices in the now.
- Gratuitous drama. High stakes are crucial but must not feel contrived or melodramatic. Make seemingly small moments matter through emotional resonance and connection to theme. Don't manufacture urgency where there is none.
- The hasty ending. While fast-paced, the conclusion should feel unrushed. Take time to do justice to complexity. The resolution may be imperfect, uncertain - but should satisfy, move and provoke.
Real-time novels are a thrill ride precisely because of their constraints. Follow these rules, avoid the mistakes, and learn the reasons for breaking them. The clock is always ticking. How will you beat the countdown?
Life moves fast and fiction struggles to keep up. But the real-time novel grabs life by the throat, holding on for dear life as the seconds tick by. It is a high-wire act without a safety net, a thrill ride with no escape from start to finish.
Real-time novels require courage, for both author and reader. The courage to face hard truths without flinching, to find meaning in life's messiness rather than tidying it away. But for those brave enough to try, what rewards it can offer. A rare urgency and intimacy, trapped in a bottle for more than a fleeting moment.
The clock is always running out, in reality and on the page. Real-time novels remind us that time is all we have, so we must make each second count. Race against the clock. Hurtling together towards the ending without pause, because the ending is coming—for stories as for lives—whether we choose to notice or not.
The question is, can we keep up? The real-time novel moves fast. Blink and you'll miss it. So don't look away. The present is always passing. Life won't wait and these stories won't either.