The Crucial Way to Figure Out How Much Time Your Story Should Cover

The Crucial Way to Figure Out How Much Time Your Story Should Cover

Do you know, off the top of your head, how much time your story should cover? If not, you’re definitely not alone. This is a tough question for most authors to answer. I keep track of the date and time of each scene in my story, and I still couldn’t tell you off the top of my head how much time my work-in-progress Wayfarer covers (I looked: a month and a half). But this is an important factor in any story. As such, let us now take a moment to consider just how much time your story should cover.

Why Does It Matter How Much Time Your Story Should Cover?

If you, as the author, of your story can’t even tell me how much time your story covers, why does it matter? Readers will rarely be any more aware than you are of the specific number of years, months, weeks, days, or hours that pass in your story. So what’s the big deal?

To a certain extent, there is no big deal. The passage of time in a story matters for only two reasons:

1. Pacing

Shorter timelines create faster stories; longer timelines create more leisurely stories.

2. Realism

Shorter timelines won’t allow for a believable evolution of certain character arcs, relationships, or situations. Longer timelines won’t allow for believable pressure and tension in the stakes.

Insofar as the timeline in your story isn’t endangering either of these factors, then it doesn’t matter.

But pacing and realism are two important and integral components of any story. They’re hardly to be achoo’d at. So how to decide if your story would be better off with a shorter–or longer–timeline? Let’s consider.

The Pros and Cons of Short Timelines

We find short timelines in fast-moving stories: thrillers, mysteries, and action stories.

Pro: Raised Stakes

The shorter the timeline, the louder the story’s ticking clock will be. In other words, the shorter the story=the more impossible the protagonist’s mission=the higher the stakes=the more readers won’t be able to look away.

Pro: Streamlined Plots

Short timelines also encourage a certain economy of motion. We know the hero has to rescue his wife in three days, so we know we have to keep the story moving as quickly as possible–and that means no extra moving parts. In a short timeline, we’re less tempted to throw in meandering, pointless sequel scenes in which not much is happening other than unnecessary chitchat.

The Crucial Way to Figure Out How Much Time Your Story Should Cover

Con: Not Enough Character Development

However, the pros of the short timeline are also its pitfalls. A too-short timeline in the wrong story might end up forcing the plot into a tighter box than what it really needs for optimum reader satisfaction. Sometimes those meandering sequel scenes aren’t so pointless after all. Sometimes they’re the readers’ favorite parts, since they’re often what allows for great character development. Every story–no matter how tight and madcap–needs enough space to slow down and breathe in between action montages.

Con: Defiance of Realism

There’s also the little matter of realism. It’s great to put your protagonist under pressure by limiting the amount of time in which he has to work (and then limiting it some more, a la The Guns of Navarone or Inception), but you’ve also got to give him enough time to make it at least semi-realistic. This is especially true when characters need to be traveling long distances. If he’s got to fly from Delhi to Rio, then you’ve got give him enough time to actually sit on a long flight or two.

The Crucial Way to Figure Out How Much Time Your Story Should Cover

The Pros and Cons of Long Timelines

We can find long timelines in just about any genre, but they’re especially popular in the more leisurely sort of tales told in literary novels, historical sagas, and fantasy epics.

Pro: Gravitas

A long timeline doesn’t necessarily have to equal a long book, but admit it: the longer the book, the more “serious” it appears to readers. By itself, this is no argument in favor of a long timeline for any story. But depending on the type of story you’re writing, you may need that extra sense of weight simply to drive home the magnitude of your story. A plot that takes place within a single day may indeed change your protagonist’s life. But how much more so a plot that takes up months or years? Some events need to be stretched out over a longer timeline in order to make readers feel the true weight of their impact on the protagonist’s life.

Pro: Deeper Character Arcs

Most people don’t change overnight, even after experiencing a tremendous catalytic event. Any character arc will be an evolution of your protagonist. As such, the more time you give him to learn, grow, and develop that arc, the more space you’ll have to create a sense of change that seems realistic, purposeful, and lasting. Longer timelines also give you more time to actually illustrate that change, instead of cramming important character-development scenes in wherever there happens to be a short lull in the madcap action of a shorter timeline.

Con: Non-Essential Plot Elements

One of the major problems with longer timelines is that they often give their authors the sense of a vast amount of space in which to play around with their characters. The result can be a host of non-essential plot elements that send the story wandering all over the place. A long timeline is no excuse for a sloppy story. If you’re meandering, then you might want to consider shortening up the amount of time you’re asking readers to spend with your characters.

Con: Low Stakes

Finally, and probably most obviously, long timelines often don’t provide the same opportunity for high stakes that we find in their shorter counterparts. When your characters have a year to achieve their goal and defeat the antagonist force, the pressure just isn’t going to feel as intense. In some stories, the solution may be to simply whack a few months off the timeline. However, it’s also possible to achieve the same sense of urgency by injecting many smaller “ticking clocks” throughout the story, instead of employing just one for the entire plot.

Which Timeline Is Right for Your Story?

How do you know how much time your story should cover? One of the most important things to realize is that the length of the your timeline has no direct correlation to the length of the book itself. As you can see in the graphic, below, it is possible to tell a very fast story in a great many pages, and a very slow story in a limited number.

The most important consideration is simply: How much time does your story need? A story should be given exactly aThe Crucial Way to Figure Out How Much Time Your Story Should Covers much time as it needs for its plot to unwind to optimum effect. Don’t feel that just because you happen to be writing a thriller, you can’t write a story with a long timeline. And don’t feel that just because you’re writing a leisurely family saga, the whole thing can’t take place in one day at a funeral or a wedding, as in Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons.

 

First, consider what speed of pacing would be most appropriate for the story you want to tell. Then, consider how much time your plot events require to transpire realistically. Your optimum timeline will be found somewhere in between.

Tell me your opinion: How much time does your current story cover?

The Crucial Way to Figure Out How Much Time Your Story Should Cover

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Hannah Killian says

    I was going to have Book #2 in my trilogy cover a span of 4 years, starting just a few months after the ending of #1, but now I’m starting to think that maybe I should start it about 3 years after the first book, like I originally had it back when the trilogy was still a duology. And then have #2 cover a span of one year.

    I don’t know, I’ll have to write it down and see how it figures out.

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