Day’s In: Novels With Very Short Time Spans

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post about novels with long time spans. Today’s column will cover novels with short time spans — in most cases, no more than a day. Yet a lot of drama can be crammed into that brief period, often with the help of some back story interspersed among the day’s depiction.

Two of the more famous examples of novels limited to a 24-hour time period are James Joyce’s Ulysses and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Unfortunately, I’ve read neither (though I did see the latter’s movie version), so there’s not much I can say about them.

I have read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and that compelling novel packs a lot in one day. Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party, muses about her past and her life’s choices, and then holds the party — whose attendees include some people from that referenced past. Meanwhile, the novel also focuses on the doings of shell-shocked World War I veteran Septimus Smith. Obviously, Mrs. Dalloway covers a number of years within a day’s framework. (Virginia Woolf is pictured atop this blog post.)

It’s not a coincidence that the title of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day reflects how that novel is another less-than-24-hour-time-span book. But, again, we learn a lot about the life of the title character — in this case, Wilhelm Adler, a failed 40-something actor separated from his wife and estranged from his children and father.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a very famous novel, but readers don’t always remember that the book unspools during a very short period — from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. Enough time for miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge to be transformed with the help of some ghostly visits.

Then we have Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, which is set in Tokyo over the course of a single night. It stars 19-year-old student Mari Asai (who we first see reading in a restaurant) and other characters she meets.

And Lee Child’s 61 Hours takes place over (surprise, surprise) a bit more than two-and-a-half days — with lots of intrigue and mayhem during Jack Reacher’s brief stay in snowy and bitterly cold South Dakota.

Short stories of course often focus on a relatively brief period. One particularly memorable one is Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” in which Louise Mallard feels liberated when her husband dies, happily envisions life without him, and then…

What are your favorite fictional works with short time spans?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — partly about my town’s high school students joining the global walkout to draw attention to climate change — is here.

53 thoughts on “Day’s In: Novels With Very Short Time Spans

  1. I liked Virginia Woolf a Bloomsbury Group—or Bloomsbury Set member. Woolf famous quote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I enjoyed reading Orlando. She died too young at the age of fifty-nine. She had mental illness brought on by fathers, mother death and sexual abuse by Gerald Duckworth, her half brother. Sadly Virginia Woolf is recognised by a feminist for her writings; however, not revered for surviving a tough childhood. Ultimately no accolades for integrity, toughness and a powerful voice. Victorian era writing is fascinating because you envision a rivalry between sects from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England. The Welsh writer such as David Thomas, Glyn Jones and James Haney. The Scottish writers Walter Scot, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir R. Stevenson. The Irish writers Oscar Wilde, Maria Edgeworth, CS Lewis, Bram Stoker, and Augusta Lady Gregory. The English writers Lord Tennyson, ” “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”, so many more writers but lest just phrase the Glastonbury club members. The golden age of writing and things pure and good about writing. Its unfortunate the period was not so free for all because of slavery, women’s lack of rights and Imperialism. This summer I will write more and read more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, ccc3, for all those interesting thoughts about Virginia Woolf and more! I agree that Woolf had a tough life in various ways — due both to her personal circumstances and to being a woman in a society even more patriarchal then than it is now.

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  2. All I could think of is 61 Hours by Lee Child, of course it was longer that that and of course A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. There were several versions of the movie.
    For future Jack Reacher movies with they find a better and taller actor.
    I wonder what happened to the promise of a series ?

    I know Dave you are not much of a TV watcher. There is a series in CBS access…called ” Good Fight”, third season going on but I don`t pay for that.

    BUT, season one and two are available in DVD`s at all the public libraries.
    Anyone why is anti-trump it is a perfect antidote for them. The producers follow the real shenanigans and act of those.
    Started with the shock trump winning..some are hilarious.

    The one I watched last night ended with a nekked portrait of Melania, part of it..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mostly what comes to mind in works covering a short period of time are nonfiction books, such as ones about the “day” Christ or Lincoln or someone else died. But in some of those I’ve read I suspect there was some fiction slipped in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bill! That nonfiction sub-genre you mentioned is a great addition to this topic. And, yes, plenty of historical works have some fictional aspects. Or at least a certain amount of guesswork and extrapolation. Almost inevitable.

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  4. Not quite on topic, but a sort of ironic tangent, I think:

    The oft-cited shortest poem in English (“Fleas” Adam / Had ’em) covers, for inductive Believers, the longest time period possible— from Genesis to the present day!

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    • M.B., I think that all of those books must be well worth reading. Start sarcasm: I’ve been to Gettysburg at least three times, and studied it in college. And I am the best student of military history and the smartest one ever! (Ha! Of course I just heard our POTUS saying basically the same thing about his Michigan rally last night on TV last night! 🙂 I assume everyone will see the sarcasm dripping from my mouth as I type this. I’m sitting on MSNBC this morning as Bill is listening to the live show! Every time I hear something ridiculous I yell out something even more ridiculous.

      I think I read books by Cornelius Ryan about both of his best selling books, “The Longest Day,” “A Bridge Too Far,” and a memoir about his struggle with prostate cancer.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sure, these cited examples of fiction taking place over a short period of time cover little ground time-wise, but this week’s blog entry has reminded me of a “Rockford Files” episode, starring Anthony Zerbe as an addled, frazzled, past-it,would-be Beat writer whose fictional fiction is titled “Freefall to Ecstasy” . This convention-busting first novel covered the time between the narrator leaping from a roof and hitting the ground, which beats the timespan of Ambrose Bierce’s story “Incident at Owl Creek”, as that covers a bit of time before a hanging , as well as a bittier bit of time twixt drop and broken neck.

    I once had the only- in-New York sort of experience of riding downtown on the #1 train in a seat opposite quirky Mr. Zerbe. I have also visited Mexico several times, but did not spot Bierce.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Fixed!

        Ambrose Bierce’s story is incredibly poignant and powerful, as it juggles real time and a sort of dream time. That “Rockford Files” episode does seem to evoke Bierce’s tale, jhNY. Thank you for mentioning both.

        Didn’t Bierce disappear in Mexico, never to be found? Which adds context to your comment’s funny/macabre last line.

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        • Yep!

          The second appearance of this sort of theme is farce and fictional, as fiction. I only meant to compare freefall durations– only Bierce ever wrote on the topic, while the Zerbe ‘book’ was meant to embody all the misspent idiocies of an aging degenerate and degenerating Beat, as told by a Hollywood script writer for money.

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    • For third place in my examples of works of short duration, I’ll fudge a bit with “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” by Capt. Ted W. Larson, who was there, flying over. The book concerns the Doolittle raid, a mostly symbolic bombing of Tokyo soon after the US entry in WWII, when, because of the incredible length of the flight from base to target, the raiders had but a half a minute to do what they could to Tokyo, and then flew on to mainland China, or tried to, there not being enough fuel capacity in their planes for a return to base.

      In my defense for bringing in a non-fiction example, I can only say, had the raid not occurred, most readers would not believe it could have.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nonfiction is welcome, jhNY, and that’s an amazing actual story of how crucial a “mere” 30 seconds could be. Yes, as you allude to in your comment’s second paragraph, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

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  6. I might throw a nod to Cornelius Ryan for this week – and mention his work “the Longest Day,” a book written about D-Day. Of course I know you asked for fictional works, but this book does SUCH a good job reminding us of everything that happened in one single day during World War II! And gosh it’s so crazy all that happened in that one day that it doesn’t even seem possible at times. The book is very well done, I haven’t seen the movie but I heard it’s fantastic. I’m coming up short for fictional mentions, since I see “Gerald’s Game” was already mentioned 🙂 I’m sure I’ve come across more than that in my reading adventures though 🙂

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    • Thank you, M.B.! I’ve always thought that a compelling nonfiction book can almost read like a novel, so your mention of “The Longest Day” is appropriate and very welcome. I appreciate your vivid description of Cornelius Ryan’s book!

      Liked by 1 person

      • “The Longest Day” is one of my favorite movies ever, so thanks for mentioning it, M.B. I don’t think I read the book, because the film was so perfect. It’s been a while since I’ve watched either of them, but “Gettysburg” and “A Bridge Too Far,” might fall into that same category.

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        • I really really must see the movie! I should see if the library has it. I’ve both read the book and seen the movie for “Gettysburg,” they are both pretty good! 🙂 “A Bridge too Far” is on my “to be read” pile at home haha. So many books, so little time!

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          • M.B., I think that all of those books must be well worth reading. Start sarcasm: I’ve been to Gettysburg at least three times, and studied it in college. And I am the best student of military history and the smartest one ever! (Ha! Of course I just heard our POTUS saying basically the same thing about his Michigan rally last night on TV last night! 🙂 I assume everyone will see the sarcasm dripping from my mouth as I type this. I’m sitting on MSNBC this morning as Bill is listening to the live show! Every time I hear something ridiculous I yell out something even more ridiculous.

            I think I read books by Cornelius Ryan about both of his best selling books, “The Longest Day,” “A Bridge Too Far,” and a memoir about his struggle with prostate cancer.

            Liked by 2 people

    • As an avid reader of history and contemporary accounts of WWII, perhaps you will be interested:

      Have lately been reading AJ Leibling’s “The Road Back to Paris”. He was a correspondent for the “New Yorker” during that war. The first section describes the sitzkrieg period and its calamitous aftermath, and makes a fine introduction to Irene Nemerovsky’s unfinished novel “Suite Francais”, itself the only fiction I’ve read describing the flight from Paris during, and mostly after, the fall of France.

      As for D-Day, i was recently moved to read, in our present age of buck-passing pols and obfuscating heads under brass hats, Eisehower’s single notepad sheet, which he kept in his top pocket during the landings on June 6, 1944 headed “In Case of Failure””

      “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

      Thank goodness he never had to take that note out of his pocket.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I have “the Road Back to Paris’ sitting on my shelf. It is patiently awaiting the day when I can pick it up and read it, I’m glad to hear from someone who has! 🙂 I also have read “Suite Francaise,” and Nemerovsky’s story is covered a bit in the book “Les Parisiennes,” a very dense work about Paris life in general during the war. I was very moved by both her novel and her story. They did a movie of it a few years back, but I must say I enjoyed the book more. Eisenhower’s note always chills me when I come across it in historical works. You are right, thank goodness he never had to use it!!!

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  7. Dave, I’m not sure that I can take any credit for your topic this week, as it seemed an obvious follow up to your blog about the opposite. And sadly, I don’t think I have anything to add. I think there’s a book on my TBR that I haven’t gotten to yet that might fit. I think it’s a very popular and well known novel. And I think once, it was being discussed here and one of the final comments was about it being an impressive novel, especially considering it all happened in a single day. Of course, if that conversation did take place here, (and I’m not 100% convinced that it did) I have absolutely no recollection of what the novel actually is, so there is really no point to my comment at all!

    I can however second Molly’s comments about “Gerald’s Game” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue! Well, I didn’t think of the topic until you were one of the people to suggest it. 🙂

      I get the creeps thinking about “Gerald’s Game,” but it IS a compelling/ingenious novel.

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  8. I wouldn’t describe the novels of Dan Brown as ‘favourites’ (the dialogue can be excruciating at times) but when it comes to timespan I was left wondering how his leading characters managed to cram in so much frantic activity over a few hours without collapsing with exhaustion!

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    • Thank you, Neil! No problem — I also confess to using Google and Wikipedia to help jog my memory of books I’ve read that fit my blog-post themes. 🙂

      Nice “Saturday’ mention! The only Ian McEwan novel I’ve read is his most famous one: “Atonement.” Liked it a lot, but was not satisfied with the ending.

      And thanks again for being one of the people to suggest this blog topic!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Dave, I seem to be stumped again (2 weeks in a row!), though I do think that my favorite mystery/crime writers do transpire in a relatively short amount of time, particularly Agatha Christie. When one writes 66 novels, it would I think be hard to spend a whole lot of time to solve each and every one of them in a great length of time. There are so many of them I can’t even process which merit special attention, not to mention all of the short stories. Though I suppose “And Then There Were None,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” and “Death on the Nile,” could qualify as appearing on an island, a train, and a ship.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit!

      While I haven’t read anywhere near as much Agatha Christie as you, I’m sure you’re right that at least a few of her MANY novels must have fairly short time spans.

      And, yes, when an author temporarily puts her or his characters on an island, train, or ship, there’s a good chance the plot will unfold in a relatively short amount of time. For instance, it has been years since I read Paul Gallico’s “The Poseidon Adventure,” but I’m pretty sure I remember that tale of an ocean-liner disaster taking place in a brief timeframe.

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  10. I have to recommend reading both “Ulysses” (very difficult read!) and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (an easy read if you’re not trying to decipher the Russian prison slang yourself). Meanwhile, I have to confess that I’ve never read “Mrs. Dallowway.” Obviously I need to do something about that.

    I’m blanking on specific examples at the moment, but there are a number of stories in which the action seems to last a very long time, only for it to be revealed in the last scene that it was all a dream that took place over the course of a single night.

    Actually, the example that’s springing to mind at the moment is “The Nutcracker,” in which Clara/Masha fights the Rat King, meets the Prince, and travels off to fairyland, only to wake up at the end and discover that it was a dream and it’s only Christmas morning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Elena!

      I know I SHOULD read “Ulysses,” and have even reached for it on my local library’s shelves. But I couldn’t quite commit, and put the book back. Maybe one day when I have a bit more time and a less overloaded brain… 🙂

      And a great mention of a subgenre of fiction with short time spans (stories that seem to last a long time but are in fact a dream). Reminds me a bit of the terrific/poignant “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode in which Capt. Picard lives a whole lifetime on another planet in very brief real time while in a kind of dream state.

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    • “Actually, the example that’s springing to mind at the moment is “The Nutcracker,”

      A fine example.

      Hope you’ve read the original story, “Nutcracker and Mouse King” by ETA Hoffmann, as it’s untamed and goes places that none of the tale’s subsequent manifestations get to. Alexandre Dumas’ “The Tale of the Nutcracker” is an adaptation of the Hoffmann story. Tchaikovsky wrote his music to a libretto by Petipa and Vsevolojsky largely based, though sweetened, on the Dumas adaptation.

      Interesting, to me anyway, in the Penguin Classics publication (2007) of both Hoffmann’s and Dumas’ tales, Jack Zipes writes:

      “The premier of the ballet at the St. Petersburg Imperial Theater in 1892 received mixed reviews, and though it continued to be performed in the early part of twentieth century Europe, “The Nutcracker” was not at all that popular with audiences or with dancers… It was not until 1944, when William Christiansen produced the first full length production of “The Nutcracker” in San Francisco, that the ballet began to receive the attention it needed to become the classical ritual it is today.”

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  11. Great topic, Dave. I always look forward to what you’ve chosen to write about each week. A Stephen King book comes to mind – Gerald’s Game. The bulk of this chilling tale happens in a day and night when a romantic getaway in a remote cabin goes horribly wrong. There are events at the end of the book that do go out about a month, but most of the story occurs within a very short time frame. Have you read it? Netflix has released a film of this story that is very well done and quite true to the book. I was glad I’d read the book before I saw the movie so I knew what was going to happen. So scary!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Molly!

      I did read “Gerald’s Game” a few months ago — on your recommendation, I think. 🙂 You’re right — that ultra-intense novel mostly unfolds in a short amount of time. I should have mentioned it in my post. 🙂

      As for the movie, I don’t think I could take seeing that story on screen. Scary indeed!

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      • I’m glad you left it out – it gave me a book to write a comment about. 😉 It is hard for me to watch scary movies, too. It’s a bit easier for me if I’ve read the book so I know what to expect. The Netflix rendition is very well done, so you can imagine how horrifying it is. I had a chance encounter with Stephen King in the B. Dalton bookstore that was in our mall at the time. He told me the story was like an unplanned pregnancy to him – very unexpected. I thought it was a funny analogy considering he wrote the book completely from a woman’s POV (and did a great job of it, too!)

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        • Ha, Molly! Glad I left out “Gerald’s Game,” too. 🙂

          I agree that reading the novel first can at least partly prepare a person to watch a scary movie. Still, there are some films I hesitate to see. With Stephen King, for instance, I’m also reluctant to see the movie version of “Misery” after reading that great but stomach-turning novel.

          Wow — wonderful that you ran into Stephen King, and that’s an excellent/smile-inducing anecdote about “Gerald’s Game.” Thank you!

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