Six Practical Ways to Handle the Passage of Time in Fiction

14 Mar 2024 | Craft

Six Practical Ways to Handle the Passage of Time in Fiction

This post was originally published in February 2016 and updated in March 2024.

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 several months. (And it could well take years to write.)

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. You might have multiple jumps in time. In a Single Moment begins with two mothers having babies. After several chapters where the characters are babies, we jump to when they’re 5, when they’re turning 11, then when they’re 16.

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).

Three Options for 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:

#1: Separate the Novel into Two (or More) Parts

When the reader comes to a page reading “Part Two”, that’s a good clue that a major change has taken place. A new part to a story often heralds a significant jump in time. Sometimes, authors name the parts (just like chapters are sometimes named), though it’s more common to have a number.

One drawback to having a new part is that it can feel momentarily jarring to the reader, perhaps taking them out of the story briefly. That’s why I think they’re best used for large shifts, where you’re going to need to get the reader past the time jump anyway.

#2: Start a New Chapter

It can be tricky to know how exactly to break your novel into chapters … but it will general make sense to begin a new chapter to indicate the passage of time.

Keep in mind that just having a new chapter may not be enough to clue the reader in. You’ll probably need some other indication if you’re jumping forward months or years in the timeframe of the novel.

#3: Give an Explicit Time Reference

It’s often a good idea to clue the reader into a big time jump by making it explicit. This can be done with a line that’s separate from the text itself, after the part of chapter number, that gives the year (e.g. “1995”). You could use this if you’re jumping backwards in time, too.

Alternatively, you can put the reference in the first sentence of the chapter. Twenty years later, Annie had just found the perfect wedding dress.

Avoid Long Summaries

It can be tempting to give your reader the details of what’s happened during the time gap. But long passages of summary aren’t generally very interesting to read – by their very nature, they’re undramatic – and if the events of those twenty missing years are going to be important to the rest of the story, you can work them in later on.

Examples

In a Single Moment, by Imogen Clark

This novel begins with the year, “1976”, on its own page. The next page starts Chapter 1.

At each big time jump in the novel, there’s a fresh part, each given simply as a blank page with the year: 1976, 1981, 1983, 1987, 1992 and then (breaking the pattern once the girls are adults) “Seven Years Later”.

Ender’s Game, 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.

Four Options for 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:

#1: Put in a Blank Line to Indicate Time Has Passed

A blank line is an easy way to indicate a new scene. You could also use three centred asterisks, if you want an even clearer break, like this:

***

If you do run straight on to the next paragraph without a blank line or any visual indication of time passing, you’ll probably need a quick summary instead (see below).

#2: Start a New Chapter

In my novels, I start a new chapter when I switch viewpoint. This means there’s usually a jump in time and often a shift in location, too.

Readers will be very used to this happening at the start of a chapter. They’ll expect to orient themselves to whatever’s happening, and you can jump a fairly big span of time with a chapter break.

#3: Summarise What’s Happened

I’d avoid summarising a long time break, as mentioned above, but a single sentence or two of summary is fine, and can help clue readers in to anything important that’s taken place in the story during the jump. 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:

    Storming, 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, 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.

    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) 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.

    About

    I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.

    Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.

    My Novels

    My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.

    You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.

    14 Comments

    1. Amanda Fleet

      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?

      • Ali

        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. Asma Ferdoes

      This article was amazing, ma’am. And a timely discovery as i’m presently working on a story i couldn’t juggle the time gaps well. Thank you.

    3. Asma Ferdoes

      Thank you, ma’am. It was a very handy article…and a timely one too 🙂

    4. Corianne

      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!

    5. Lan Hoang

      Woao, this is so impressive! Never knew that good authors can put their mind to work like this.

    6. JIM GRIER

      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????

      • Ali

        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!

    7. Susan Chadduck

      Here’s my question about handling time. My novel spans 40 plus years of the protagonists’ life, the draft written in traditional chronological order lacked something. The new draft begins late in life when she tries to reconnect with her estranged adult children. I’m aiming for a structure similar to Kristen Hannah’s The Winter Garden or Meng Jin’s Little Gods. However, I’ve only seen this done when there’s a second main character, usually a daughter, trying to reconcile with her mother, and the story is introduced through the daughter’s POV. Do you have some tips for jumping back and forth between “present day” (late in the mother’s life) and her memories of the events leading up to the estrangement?

      • Ali

        Ooh, interesting one, Susan! I’ve not read The Winter Garden or Little Gods (though both sound really interesting so I may have to add those to my to-read list…!)

        One novel that does something a bit like what you want is Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris — it’s a dark psychological/domestic crime thriller that has chapters following the first-person narrator Grace’s present day situation interspersed with chapters from a slightly earlier time (not nearly as big a time span as yours though).

        The chapters all start with either “PRESENT” or “PAST” — a little on-the-nose perhaps, but definitely clear! The present ones are written in present tense, with the past ones in past tense, which I think can be a useful way to clue readers in to “when” they are in the story if you only have one main viewpoint character.

        I’m not sure how much help that is, but it might be one way to approach the material!

        • Susan Chadduck

          Thanks, I will check it out! And I highly recommend Little Gods for a variety of reasons, so if you only have time for one, pick it up

          • Jeff Costello

            Susan, I’m only a first-time writer myself, but I wanted to add something here, since my novel idea is encountering the identical challenge. (Many MANY present/past dynamics at work).

            What I’ve been doing so far is writing a present-day scene at least tangentially similar to the scene from the past that I want to present. For example, I wanted to present a “Mom/Dad stargazing” scene from the past, so my present-day activator was the Dad sitting in his daughter’s hospital room looking out the window at the stars.

            Obviously, I haven’t published ANYTHING yet, but generally I’ve just skipped an extra line between the two scenes, and even as I’ve reread/revised, it still feels like the flow is pretty good. I don’t use it ALL the time, but it’s working out in spots (I think…).

            Either way, I wish you the best of luck!

    8. Jeff Costello

      Thanks for the insightful article! My challenge right now…and the impetus for me to FIND this article in the first place…is that I’m writing a story that’s more or less flowing day-to-day, with flashbacks periodically, but near the end one character’s imprisoned (for lack of a better term) for like a couple months. It’s a master character, but not the protagonist.

      Anyway, long story short, jumping straight to “three months from now” doesn’t feel prudent. And I’m afraid if I inject one more-specific scene, from a specific day and time, that would force me into doing multiple days and times like that, and making getting TOO much calamity going on, or boredom. Same problem with if I decide to summarize the timeframe.

      Any middle-ground that I might be missing here? TIA

      • Ali

        Ooh, tricky one, Jeff. I’m not sure there’s a perfect and elegant solution here! I do find it a bit jarring as a reader when a day-by-day story suddenly jumps to “Three Months Later” … but sometimes that is probably the only thing that really makes sense for the story.

        I’d be tempted, if I were you, to draft it in whatever way seems most straightforward. It may be, that once you’ve got the whole thing down on paper, you figure out a slightly different approach that works even better.

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