how-to-show-the-passage-of-time-in-your-novel

How to Show the Passage of Time in Your Novel

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.

Video Transcript:

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.

Tell me your opinion: How much time do you cover in your story?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I generally cover a time period of between a few minutes and a few days in my stories… so far. I’ve always wanted to try covering longer periods of time. And I think you gave me the answer to how I will do that.. :D

    Thanks for a great post,
    ~Gideon

  2. Short periods of time are much easier to deal with. Once you start delving into weeks or even years, it can be royally confusing to remember everything and keep it in its proper place. I usually use a calendar to block out events and make sure I’m remembering when everything occurred.

  3. It actually varies as to what I am writing. A story may cover a couple of years to three days.

  4. My current story covers a few days—less than one week. The most I’ve ever done is a few months, and that was confusing enough, so a story spanning years or decades would be rather challenging.

  5. @J.L.: The story is always boss. My own books have spanned anywhere from weeks to years. The shorter timelines are always easier!

    @Lorna: I like the fast pace and tight details of short timelines, but my stories always seem to outgrow them. One of these days, perhaps the right short-timeline story will come along.

  6. As for your example of a five year old turned twenty-five overnight, would it work to end one chapter with her being five, then starting the next chapter with “Twenty years later” or something similar to that?

  7. I think there are more seamless and elegant ways that literally saying “Twenty years later,” but, yes, that’s the gist.

  8. Breaking a book into sections can be a good option, especially if you’re covering several different time periods. That works well for backing and forthing in time, too. Good authors are often able to convey the passage of time through action, rather than using a more explicit device. For example, if we leave our heroine wiping off her milk moustache and cramming down the last of her PB and J sandwich in section one, and we find her throwing her husband’s belongings out the window at the opening of section two, we’re pretty much up to speed with the whole passage of time thing. :)

  9. For the most part, readers understand that when they encounter a scene or chapter break, time has most likely passed. Particularly if, as you say, the sequence of events makes sense, it won’t take much for the reader to catch on. Problems in conveying the passage of time usually only *become* problems when we’re dealing with a day or more of missing time.

  10. Great advice, K.M.!! I’ve had to work on passages of time in my own work to make sure the transitions are smooth. Short summaries do seem to work best.

  11. You see everywhere the admonition to “show and not tell,” but this is a good example of a time (punny!) when it’s actually better to summarize with a few neat sentences of telling.

  12. My novel is a time-travel story so I jump all over the place in time, but generally between two specific periods. I’ve included headings in each section with the location, date, and time, but one of my proof-readers mentioned it felt disjointed at times, and that she often didn’t pay attention to the headings. Do you have any suggestions?

  13. My novel is a time-travel story so I jump all over the place in time, but generally between two specific periods. I’ve included headings in each section with the location, date, and time, but one of my proof-readers mentioned it felt disjointed at times, and that she often didn’t pay attention to the headings. Do you have any suggestions?

  14. I had a similar problem with my western A Man Called Outlaw. It’s not a time travel book, of course, but it switches back and forth between two different periods, with each chapter heading denoting which period the reader is entering. There really isn’t a better a way to do accomplish the time switch, but inevitably you’ll leave some readers confused. The best thing you can do is reinforce the time switch, wherever possible, by mentioning it in the text itself as well as the chapter header.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I just finished reading “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton and I think the passage of time was portrayed really well in it. It skipped days, weeks, months or years and even several decades once but I never felt confused or bothered. Only the most significant events were told in a summary and the story moved on very naturally. It was a wonderful reading experience altogether.

  16. The best way any of us can learn how to manage time (or do anything else of importance in a novel) is to study the masters. When we find a story that accomplishes what want to pull off in our own novels, we need to pay attention to how the author got the job done.

  17. Nick Chapman says:

    I am currently writing a fantasy novel which spans over a two month period. My issue with time-skipping occured in the first chapter. My main character suffers a tragic loss, one that shapes his entire being for the future.

    I had to start it out when he was 8 to introduce an antagonist, progress forward two years when the loss occurred, skip another four years to show his progression into who he is throughout the story, then finally another ten years to meet up with his current age of 24.

    I like the way it reads, but I can’t help but feel like I’m skipping around too much. Each of the events I detail throughout the time progression of Ch 1 are necessary to understanding my protagonist’s reason for living the way he does; which is alone and indifferent to the world.

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m overthinking all of it. In any case, your article has helped me understand some of the basics I was lacking. So for that, I thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      You might want to consider using flashbacks. Tell the main story when the character is twenty-four, and intersperse the important earlier events as the info becomes necessary.

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