Practical Ways to Handle the Passage of Time in Fiction

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Whether you’re writing a short story or an epic novel series, fictional time is going to pass during it.

Obviously enough, fictional time is not the same thing as real time (unless you’re watching 24). Your novel might take four hours to read – and cover events that take place over the course of two years.

In fact, there’s another type of time that’s easy to forget here: writing time.

That novel that takes four hours to read could take a year or more to write.

This means that before you think about how to show time passing during the story, you need one tool firmly in place.

The Crucial Tool that Will Save You Tons of Editing

You need to know when every single scene of your novel (or short story) takes place.

You can put this in a spreadsheet or write it in your chapter plan. Here’s an example:

Lycopolis-time-spreadsheet-example

That was the spreadsheet I made to attempt to fix various time-related issues, and revise bits of the plot when going between Draft 2 and Draft 3, in Lycopolis.

Note: I have no idea what past-Ali was thinking, setting a scene on “Monday or Tuesday” . Be clear with yourself (even if the reader never needs to know the exact date).

third-novel-chapter-planMy current favourite way is to (a) include a day, date and rough time of day when planning scenes and to (b) put the day and date into each chapter’s Scrivener title. (My chapters are essentially single scenes.) You can see my novel-in-progress chapter titles to the right.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve made the mistake of leaping headlong into the first draft without a time plan not once, not twice, but three times. Every time, when I’ve hit the editing stage, it’s been a huge pain to sort out time-related problems – like a character, or a critical McGuffin, being in two places at once.

However you organise your time plan, make sure you have one. Know who’s involved in each scene, and when that scene takes place.

(If you don’t want to plan your whole novel in advance, that’s fine. Each time you sit down to write a scene, add in the day, date and time it takes place at the top – you can delete this when you edit.)

Why Time in Fiction Can Be Problematic

In real life, time passes at a constant rate (even if it feels like it’s slowing down or speeding up at times). We sadly don’t have the option to skip or fast-forward through the boring bits.

In fiction, readers will expect you to focus on story-relevant events … and leave out the rest. Unless the conversation over breakfast is important to the story, you don’t need to show your characters sitting down with their cereal and toast. Unless your protagonist’s commute to work involves something interesting happening, you don’t need to show him getting in his car and driving there.

Of course, that’s probably obvious – but it can pose difficulties when you’re writing. How do you jump between the interesting scene on Saturday night between the protagonist and his fiancée, and the interesting scene that begins at 9am when he arrives at work on the Monday morning?

It can feel even more difficult when you’ve got large gaps of time in your novel. Perhaps there’s a six month period in the middle where nothing much happens – or you want to jump 30 years or 100 years in the middle.

We’ll take a look at big jumps in time first (weeks or more) and then look at smaller jumps (between days, or between parts of the day).

Dealing with Big Jumps in Time

Let’s say your novel begins with two characters, Tom and Annie, as seven-year-old children playing together. They promise to marry one another when they’re grown up.

Annie moves abroad, though, with her parents, and loses touch with Tom. Twenty years later, she’s about to marry someone else.

How do you handle that twenty-year gap?

You could:

  • Separate the novel into two (or more) parts. A new part is a good clue to the reader that a major change has taken place – and this often includes a significant jump in time.
  • Start a new chapter. This also helps clue the reader in, though on its own, it may not be enough.
  • Give an explicit time reference. This can be beneath the chapter or part header, or it could be in the first sentence. (“Twenty years later…”) It can seem a little clunky, but sometimes it’s better to be clear rather than smooth!

What I wouldn’t suggest is that you summarise their lives apart. Long passages of summary aren’t generally very interesting to read – by their very nature, they’re undramatic – and if the events of those 20 years are going to be important to the rest of the story, you can work them in later on.

Examples

And Then It Happened (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk), by Linda Green, is split into two parts; there’s a jump of about three months between them.

The second part begins, like the first, with a date, “Tuesday 19th August 2010,” then the narrative resumes with a chapter that includes a fair amount of summary. (The viewpoint character has a strong, engaging voice, so this works fine.)

Ender’s Game (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk), by Orson Scott Card, begins when Ender is six; he’s twelve by the end of the novel.

The reader is frequently clued into time passing, often with a reference to characters’ ages. (“Valentine celebrated Ender’s eight birthday alone” … “The boy is fourteen, the girl is twelve”). Sometimes the length of time that’s gone past is simply explicitly mentioned (“But things were quiet now, had been quiet for a year”.) Often, there’s a time jump at a chapter break.

Dealing with Small Jumps in Time

Almost every novel is going to involve small jumps in time – perhaps from one day to the next, or from morning to evening.

Let’s say you’re writing a novel that takes place across several weeks. There’ll be days when nothing particularly interesting is happening (maybe your characters are at work or school) and days when lots of plot-relevant events are taking place.

There are several ways to move readers from the end of one interesting event to the start of the next. You can:

  • Put in a blank line (or, depending on how you like to format, three centred asterisks: ***).
  • Start a new chapter. I do this when I switch viewpoint, which means that there’s generally a jump in time and often a shift of location.
  • Summarise what’s happened in the dull bit, if you don’t want to break up the narrative too much, or if you have some relevant information to impart.
  • Give us a montage of events. This can be more exciting than a summary, because it offers specific actions or lines of dialogue that dramatise what’s taking place.

Pure summaries are usually best kept very short. For instance, The train was running late and horribly cramped. By the time Joe got off, his smart new suit was hopelessly wrinkled.

Examples

Almost any novel will involve small jumps in time – keep an eye out for them in whatever you’re currently reading.

Here are a couple of examples from novels I’ve read recently.

Storming (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk), by K.M. Weiland:

Chapter Two ends:

Hitch stayed where he was and looked up at the moon. Seemed like the old girl was winking at him. Might it be she knew something they didn’t? What secrets did she hold within all that silence?

Chapter Three begins:

Walter liked the early mornings, especially in the summer – with the full moon still hovering near the horizon, on its way to setting.

It’s immediately clear that we’ve moved on a bit in time, and it seems safe to assume (particularly with the use of the moon in both chapters) that Walter’s scene takes place during the following morning, rather than several mornings after the events of Chapter Two.

Lifeform Three (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk), by Roz Morris:

From Chapter 2:

At last the poovers can be emptied. On the way to the maintenance sheds, the other bod is boasting about his scores. Paftoo can only nod; he has had quite enough. All he has heard for hours is the rattling slurp of his machine and it has put him half to sleep.

(later, after a double line break)

Finally, the sun starts to set. The sky is darkening and the clouds are tipped with orange. Soon it will be night.

Paftoo feels such relief. He is looking forward to night. That’s when they switch off.

We get a sense of the monotony of Paftoo’s day without having to live through every moment of it. Words like “at last” and “finally” not only clue us in that some time has gone past, they indicate how Paftoo feels – he’s bored and time has passed very slowly for him.

Readers are well-used to stories moving forward in jumps, whether small or big – and as you can see from the examples, simple statements like the current date, or “for a year” are fine.

Handling time can feel a bit awkward when drafting, and it may be something that you want to revisit when you edit your work-in-progress – to check that transitions feel smooth, and that readers don’t get lost about “when” in the story they are. In the first draft, just make sure you know when everything’s taking place.

Have you got a different technique for handling the passage of time in your novel or short story? Or have you come across this done particularly well – or particularly badly! – in something you’ve read? Share it with us in the comments below.

Further Reading:

Marking Time with the Viewpoint Character, Beth Hill, The Editor’s Blog

This post is filled with practical suggestions for using clear time markers, so the reader doesn’t feel confused or lost.

Time Marches On: Dealing with the Passage of Time Between Scenes, Janice Hardy, Fiction University

Janice brings together a bunch of great examples, particularly relevant if you’re writing fantasy or adventure.

Altering the Quality of Time in Your Novel, C.S. Lakin, Live Write Thrive

C.S. takes a slightly different tack here and looks at the quality of time – how the passage of time within your story feels to the viewpoint character and, by extension, to the reader.

How to Write Fiction (And Think About It) (book, Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) has a whole part devoted to “How to Manage Fictional Time”, with lots of examples. It’s a more theoretical / academic book than most writing guides, but well worth a read even if you’re writing genre rather than literary fiction.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

8 thoughts on “Practical Ways to Handle the Passage of Time in Fiction

  1. Great article!
    One thing I’ve found useful for keeping book-time right is to use an old diary. These are sold off really cheaply at different times of the year. My local stationery shop sells off left-over 18 month diaries for about £1 just before Christmas. Yes, 6 months of the diary is out of date at the time of the sale, but I’m using it to mark out my scenes in a book, not as a diary as such. I also find it helpful to note moon phases and sunrise/sunset times of the days scenes happen in, so that I don’t have my characters stumbling around in the dark when the sun hasn’t actually set yet! And so I don’t have two full moons in the space of 10 days in the book.
    Amanda Fleet’s last blog post ..Reading speeds: Kindle or paperback?

    • What a great tip on using an old diary, Amanda, I’d never thought of that — thank you! And very good point on moon phases and sunrise / sunset (quite a few scenes in my current novel-in-progress seem to take place around dawn or dusk, or during the night).

  2. Yeah… I once wrote a first draft of a story that hangs quite heavily on what happens every single day… I so wished I had made a little calendar/timeline beforehand… now I write down my ideas for my outline and I include a little timeline so as not to fall into the same trap again! You live and learn with each (writing session/) day!

  3. Writing a western novel. ( not a author or writer, first time.
    Cody and Curley have had many adventurers.
    Riding through the mountains, hunting, camping, Indian fighting..etc.
    Found cabin in mountain, fix it up real nice..corral..wooden smoker.
    Indians stole their horses, Cody tracked them down, killed them. brought horses back.
    Aprox. page 80+,returned from trading post, with money, hides, etc. Purchased a lot of supplies, meat.and food.
    Now in cabin, winter is already there,,Snowed in..How do I do elapsed time to spring????

    • You’re a writer if you’re writing a novel! 😉 Doesn’t matter that it’s your first time. 🙂

      Sounds like an exciting one, too. If nothing important happens during winter, I’d simply start a new chapter (maybe a new part) and begin in spring. You’ll probably want to include something that relates to spring (e.g. warmer weather, flowers budding, whatever’s appropriate).

      Other options, if you do want to show what’s happening during winter:

      – A sort of montage scene (think the kind of thing you see in films and on TV, e.g. when a character is going through training or something) — lots of little snippets of daily life during the winter.
      – Specific scenes during the winter, maybe when there’s a problem or conflict (food running low, boredom, storm..?)

      Good luck with the novel!

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