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. Both of my novels are between 450 and 500 pages and cover a period of approximately three years. I thought both were relevant to my story. Your post has me thinking about the first Taken film where Liam Neeson has 96 hours of real time to fly from LA to Paris and find and rescue his daughter. What were your thoughts on the film?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I actually haven’t seen Taken yet, but it’s the kind of story that definitely needs a short timeline to ramp up the tension. Three years, for a different type of story, would be just fine too.

    • When I pitched my first novel, Cut From Strong Cloth, to a New York agent, the agent asked me, “what is the time frame of your story?” I replied, “One year.” Then she asked, “How many pages did it take to cover that year?” I replied, “300.” She smiled and said, “Perfect! Your type of story (HF) fits perfectly into that type of time frame.” I remember breathing a sigh of relief. I hadn’t planned it that way, I just wrote the story scene by scene, chapter by chapter, until it reached its dramatic conclusion. Now working on the sequel, The Curtain War, I know to structure the family saga into 300 pages of approximately one year’s time:)

  2. I find myself losing track of time entirely. Looking back on my work-in-progress during editing, I realized there was one day that was packed with 11 setting changes, and about as many big events. That’s one VERY long day.

    It’s a mystery to me how I didn’t notice this in the writing stage.

  3. Great post, and it covers some important things to consider that are often neglected in many “how to write a story” books and blogs. I write epic fantasy, and my current WIP covers about a month a half of time. I meticulously keep track of the days that pass in the story. In my rewriting, I’ve cut down on the time a little by combining some scenes, simply because I realized I had too many days pass where things plodded along with little plot advancement or character development. All in all, I think I shaved about a week off of the original timeline of the story in my rewrite; I didn’t want to cut out too much time, because at least a month’s worth of time was needed for the plot and the character changes I wanted to have happen.

    In another first draft of a book I wrote a while back, I also tracked my time day by day because one of the characters was a werewolf, and I needed to know when the full moons would occur so that I’d know when he was about to transform, and adjust my plot accordingly. But that might be a different aspect of the timeline concept… :=P

  4. thomas h cullen says

    In total, twenty years is the estimate timeline for The Representative (a length permitted only by the format of story).

    The other curious thing, about this timeline, is what it can inadvertently cue the reader to ask about Croyan, and words like “squatter” being spoken of the way they are on his behalf:

    Is there an inconsistency in realism here? Or, just as probably, is this just meant to be a reflection of nuance in his person?

    (In so many ways, indeed, a timeline can either aid or hurt a story’s integrity.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Some stories need longer timelines to establish weight and heft. It’s an important decision whatever the author chooses.

  5. Oh Geez! Mine is about 130k words and takes place over a week. It is an action packed urban fantasy but the small time frame does make certain romantic elements and character arc a little hard to believe. It’s just the way the action needed to happen. If I add in a few glossed over days, will that be just as unbelievable? It’s a tricky topic. I wish I knew more about it when I first started writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Modern audiences tend to have a fair amount of suspension of disbelief when it comes to romantic relationships. We don’t (usually) roll our eyes when the girl gets the guy after just 12 hours. 😉

  6. I was keeping a timeline for my WIP, but someone (some writing buff whose name escapes me) told me it was a stupid idea. I decided I don’t agree. If there are several days or weeks involved, you have to keep track, or jumping between different scenes involving protagonist and antagonists could get messy. For instance, if you have a young runaway, you have to keep track of the time between when she ran, when the police find out, when the police track her down, and what the subjects of HER hunt are doing (does that make sense?)

  7. Steve Mathisen says

    I like the way that Steven Spielberg compressed time for long flights by just showing the plane over a map and suddenly the flight half way around the world was over with and no mention of the time it took at all.

  8. My fantasy story has a timeline that spans about three years. My biggest concern is that I am doing more telling than showing because of the timeline. I can’t take every scene moment by moment, and sometimes I feel like I’m giving the reader a highlight reel of a certain event, then rushing along. Any ideas on how to do less telling and more showing while working in a longer timeline?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Here’s a good rule of thumb: if the event is important enough to need mentioning, then it’s probably important enough to deserve being fully fleshed out. If it’s not important enough to be fleshed out, then it probably doesn’t need to be mentioned.

  9. My editing project lasts just over a year, but will probably be getting chopped a bit in the process, down to 8 or 9 months. My writing project will take place in under a week–probably 5-6 days, plus a scene a few weeks later to tie things up.

    Probably one of my worst fears as a writer is that I’ll try to write a story that happens in a day…and I’ll do something stupid like having the characters have lunch twice! 🙂

  10. Lanette Kauten says

    The core of my 80k word literary novel takes place in a three month time period, but the wrap up finishes out a full year (September 1990 to August 1991) with a couple of jumps in time. Doing it this way allowed me to show the full impact on the characters’s lives and how one incident changed them and their relationship to each other forever.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Some of the books I used for the infographic (Jane Eyre in particular) use that technique as well. The bulk of the story takes place in a very short amount of time, but it’s bookended by large passages.

  11. Since my recent novels tend to have shorter timelines, I usually struggle with making my character development believable–particularly as regarding my romantic subplots. I’m realizing that this is because I’m lazy and don’t spend enough time thinking about character arcs. Arcs are tricky to work into a shorter space, at least for me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes it’s just a matter of allowing more of the development to have happened *before* the story starts. If we can start with characters who knew each other before the book started, we gain tons of built-in traction in their development.

  12. I love thinking about time! I once started a story that spanned over twenty years in my mind, but then the finished product only lasted from August to May. I learned a lot about my action in the process. And comparing literary works’ timelines is fascinating! Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah! That’s fabulous! Funny how that works out, isn’t it? Sometimes the draft on paper is *so* different from our first idea.

  13. This is very helpful. I am always happy to see DIFFERENT topics of discussion posted on blogs about writing. Not only is this one of them but it also contains many gems. I have bookmarked it.

  14. K.M.
    For all the reasons you give, this is an important topic. From the first draft, I knew exactly what the timeline would be for my suspense novel Deep North: starts late Friday afternoon, ends late Monday afternoon.
    But time is also important at the micro level. My editor for Deep North saw I had a problem: too much time passed from the point near the end at which an important crisis was revealed, and its resolution. I kept trying different work-arounds, and none of them did work. Then I had a Eureka! moment: the information that precipitates the crisis does not need to include the information causing my problem. Once, I got rid of this small bit of data, everything fell into place.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This raises another good point: usually, we want the timeline to get tighter, the closer we get to the end of the story.

  15. J.L. Callison says

    My first novel for which publishing is pending is a YA action/mystery/adventure that takes place over a nine month period of time, but it has jumps in time between scenes in places. The book is about 60,000 words.

    My second novel, which is in the re-write phase at the moment is about 45,000 words, for a slightly younger YA audience. It is also an action/mystery/adventure that takes place over a period of about five weeks.

  16. I write short stories that sometimes only cover a few moments or a day. For my current bigger project, the timeline is nine months and then a time jump. I totally agree that the timeline should be appropriate for the story. The Hunger Games wouldn’t quite work as well if they spent six months in the arena… 😉

  17. Thanks for your post. I found the visual breakdown of the timeline versus length of book very insightful. I was very ambitious with my first novel The Dragon Phoenix Bracelet. This Chinese family saga spans three generations starting from 1916 to 1997. It is only 192 pages long but it became difficult to keep up with the cast of characters and events without constantly referring to my timeline.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As a historical writer myself, I find it super helpful to write up a timeline – year by year if necessary. It’s so easy to lose the forest for the trees.

  18. I’ve found a very strange situation in the story I am currently developing. It is a sci-fi fairytale. Because of the events taking place on multiple planets, it is difficult to determine at points whether the timelines are running correctly. I have a feeling everything in the course of the first 50,000 words has happened in the course of about 2 days, but it is very sketchy to write out the timeline.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The more complicated the story, the more complicated the timeline often is. And the more complicated the timeline, the more valuable it is to actually chart out the passage of time. If nothing else, it can really help us bring a sense of realism we might have missed out on otherwise.

  19. Thanks for this post! I have been having a difficult time figuring out the period of time my novel should take place over. It is a fantasy and there is a lot of travelling, so I need to figure out the distances and how long it would take to cover them to really figure out how long the adventure would take. It is hard to figure out because the stakes are high but I suppose it will then seem less urgent. I guess I just need to find a balance!
    By the way, I have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award!
    http://leetahbegallie.com/versatile-blogger-award-nominees

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Aww, thank you so much!

      As for distances in fantasy novels, I distinctly remember plotting out the distances between places on my hand-drawn map for my last book. Each fingertip was a mile or something. :p In the first draft, all the places were much closer together to allow for a faster timeline. But I realized I was gutting my fantasy world by making it seem to small. The scope of epicness got much bigger once I lengthened the distances – and the timeline.

  20. Sophia Zervas says

    This is such a helpful post! Right now, I’m dealing with a timeline dilemma in my WWII novel. The inciting incident and the climax rely on events in 1940 and ’45, but the rest of the actions is relatively compact, with the midpoint falling at the end of ’41. I’ve tried expanding the plot to fill the intervening years between Spring 1942 and Autumn 1944. Would you suggest adding subplots, or would they detract from the main arc and plot? On the other hand, I’m tempted to skip the intervening years and let my readers’ imaginations fill in the blanks after my hero escapes from Oflag IV-C and while my heroine settles into normal life in Warsaw. Would this seem like a cop-out, especially given the length of time?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, yes, the great conundrum of historical fiction: having to wrangle a story into a pre-existing timeline. Honestly, the answer depends on the specifics of your story. As a reader, I generally prefer stories that don’t jump around too egregiously in the timeline. If you can touch upon the “missing” years in a way that is integral to the story, I’d go that route.

  21. 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.

  22. I have a question, I am writing a book, probably a teen romance (I only have 4000 words at the moment) they are 15yo at the moment and i have ideas for when they are 16 and 17yo. is that too long of a time frame for this kind of book and how much would I have to write to make if feel like a year etc? would i have to describe something that happens ever week or can I completely skip months?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most YA books tend to cover a shorter amount of time–a year or even just the school year–and then cover later periods in sequels. However, this is not to say that you can’t do what you’re describing. You can skip as much time as you want as long as readers are clear about the transition.

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