In the field of debate and rhetoric, Kairos (a Greek word referring to timeliness) is one of the approaches used by the Older Sophists, those masters of rhetoric in ancient Greece and Rome, to the canon of Invention. This was the first of five canons, the next four being in turn arrangement, style, memory and delivery. (Naturally rhetoric is about argument, which was/is important in politics, but the devices of rhetoric have relevance to the entire world of writing.)
Since each rhetorical situation has its own unique set of challenges, it is often hard to know how to approach any one of them. (This concept is easily applied to telling a story—from which direction or point of view of person and time/place does one approach?) Kairos offers one way. It makes the rhetor/writer think in terms of space and time. The ancients used the term kairos to suggest an opportunity or advantageous time. Kairos is not about duration but a certain kind of time, the time recognized by both comedians and politicians, and one which writers have to recognize as essential.
Today, writers use the concept of kairos both in their subject matter and in the development of a story. For instance, the surge of interest in vampires has brought about a great number of published books on that subject, generally fictitious, one of the most ridiculous recent titles being on Abraham Lincoln’s role as a vampire. There is now an entire aisle titled “Vampire” at Borders’ bookstore.
Kairos is a more important concept when writers use it to discuss situations as they arise in a novel, that being the easiest for readers to follow, and arguably of most interest to them. (Few things are more irritating than to have a fascinating subject suddenly drop off in a novel or memoir.) If a writer discusses an issue that has lost immediacy, he or she must make a case for the issue’s relevance to the story.
One of the most important aspects of kairos is that the arguments surrounding an issue are ever-changing, never stagnant. Since themes, topics, attitudes and motifs also change with time and in various societies, some stories fall out of favor—either never to return or to resurface decades later. The timeliness of a story or book depends a lot on the development of themes relative to the most basic concerns of man and society, no matter how the trappings change.