This week’s video discusses two ways in which you can trip your readers up with the passage of time in your novel—and how to avoid them.
The passage of time is one thing all stories have in common. In some stories, such as “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, maybe only a few minutes pass. In some novels, such as James Michener’s Centennial, decades pass. In some books, we may even see millennia go by. But no matter how much time passes in your story, the trick is making certain that time flows by easily and realistically for readers. So how do we do that?
Let’s answer that question by looking at a couple of pitfalls. Probably the most egregious problem is that in which we bore the reader. Let’s say we have a story that features long periods of time in which not much happens. To illustrate these passages, we might fill in the blanks with long scenes in which not much happens—or long summaries in which we explain that not much happens. Both methods will be effective in conveying the passage of time, but they’re also likely to bore readers. On the other end of the spectrum, we might choose to deal with these passing days or weeks by simply ignoring them. Our character is five years old in one scene, then—bam!—without so much as a warning, she’s twenty-five in the next scene. By using this method, we’ve obviously avoided the tedium that might bore our readers, but we’re also risking their wrath by confusing them.
The best thing we can do in either of these instances is simply to be upfront about the passage of time. Whenever we skip a large chunk of time, we need to immediately establish to the reader that, first of all that, time has passed, and, second, how much time. We only need to fill in the blanks of this lost time if something crucial has occurred. Otherwise, short summaries are best. In this as well all other aspects of storytelling, remember the rule of thumb: Tell the readers only what they need to know when they need to know it.