Helping Writers Become Authors

14 Tips for Dealing With the Passage of Time in a Story

passage of time in a story

The passage of time in a story is, in some ways, what fiction is all about. But for most authors in most stories, the passage of time won’t necessarily be an explicit consideration. If I asked you right now how much time passes in your latest story, would you know off the top of your head? Some of you will, particularly if your character is under a deadline of some sort. But for many of us, if we know at all, we either have to consult our notes or tally it up on our fingers. The story, as they say, simply takes as long as it takes.

In most stories, the passage of time won’t be a major concern. Especially if your story’s plot is tight and your scene structuring is cohesive, readers will never need to stop to really consider what date it is for your characters or exactly how many hours, days, months, or years have passed since the beginning of the book.

Even still, most authors will eventually run into story situations in which a lengthy passage of time needs to be indicated, dramatized, or skipped in order to keep the story cogent and moving. Specifically, these are segments of the story in which the single most important factor is the passage of time. The events that take place during this time may not be strictly necessary for moving the plot forward. Indeed, little to nothing may happen during this time to entertain readers (for example, a character is imprisoned for a stint of the story). And yet, presumably, the fact that a certain amount of time has passed is crucial for both the realism of the plot and the development of the character.

8 Pros and Cons of Dramatizing the Passage of Time in Your Story

There are as many different ways of handling the passage of time in stories as there are stories themselves. Much depends on the author’s ability to handily knit these “time gaps” into their stories without interrupting the overall flow of the narrative and/or losing readers. This is no easy feat.

One of the easiest ways to indicate a significant passage of time is the inelegant but desperately effective notation of “3 years later” or some such. Often, this is not only the simplest but also the smartest approach. Speaking for myself, one of the quickest ways to lose me as a reader is to drag me through long passages in which nothing happens and/or in which primary characters are separated from each other.

However, I also grow frustrated when a story necessarily needs to bake some element for a lengthy amount of time in order for it come out fully cooked—and it flinches over it in too little time. For instance, I remember watching a movie in which a character was horrifically injured and dumped in prison. His recovery and survival over a long period of time were crucial not just for character development, but also so the audience could fully feel the weight of his suffering. But this particular movie skipped over the time of his healing, making it seem as if something that should have taken at least months required only a few weeks at most. It seriously undermined the story experience for me and robbed gravitas from the character’s journey.

And yet to slow down the story’s main plot to dramatize every excruciating moment can easily be so mishandled that it kills the story’s momentum.

So what’s an author to do?

First, glance over the following list of pros and cons for dramatizing the passage of time in your story. Seriously weigh out your options. You may feel the decision is obvious for your story, but in many stories there won’t be a clear winner and you’ll have to carefully work your way through your best-case scenario.

4 Cons of Dramatizing the Passage of Time in Your Story

1. Boring

Really, this the reason we’re even having this conversation. The only reason passage of time is ever an issue of concern for writers is because it tends to create sections of the story (even if just a scene or two) that risk being comparatively boring. Time passes in every scene in a story, but we only discuss “passage of time” for two reasons:

1. When we’re dealing with scenes in which the plot is stalled for some reason (e.g., the character is ill, imprisoned, or has temporarily tried to “quit” the main conflict—as might be the case, for instance, when a romantic couple break up for a long period before getting back together).

2. When we’re dealing with scenes in which the plot has significantly shifted focus away from the story’s main thrust (e.g., the mercenary protagonist hides out with a simple farming community for a while, or cruel fate separates the romantic leads and they have to go deal with their own individual challenges for a while in order to get back to each other).

Occasionally, these interludes can be the best part of the book. But if they bore readers, they can be fatal.

2. Separates Interesting Characters

One of the chief reasons “passage of time” segments might be boring is if the primary characters are separated from each for a long span of the book. This is specifically true of the characters who drive your conflict.

In some stories, this will be the love interests. In others, it will be the protagonist and antagonist.

The easiest way to know which characters need to be together in as many scenes as possible is simply to ask: “Which characters are creating the conflict in the majority of scenes?” In a story with a “big bad” antagonist, it will probably not be the villain who is creating the most personal conflict for the protagonist, but rather the supporting character(s). That conflict will not only be what keeps your story chugging along on a scene level, it will also mostly likely indicate which of your characters are the most interesting. If your passage of time sidelines your best characters for too long, that’s almost always going to be problematic.

3. Stalls Relational Development

Even heavily plot-focused stories are usually at their best when they use the events of the plot to drive relational development between characters. As already mentioned, if your passage of time separates your protagonist from her primary relationship within the story, then the development of that relationship may stall until they get back together. Now, it’s definitely possible that the characters’ separation and the passage of time can develop their relationship in some way, but this will only be true if the lone character is developing strongly in these interlude scenes.

Wayfarer (Amazon affiliate link)

And, again, this “relationship dynamic” need not be solely romantic; it will pertain to any relationship in the story that prompts deep growth for one or both characters. For example, in my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer, the protagonist’s primary relationship is not with his love interest, but with a nine-year-old little girl street urchin to whom he becomes caretaker.

4. Stalls Conflict

Long passages of time in a story usually indicate a “pause” in the conflict. This might be for many reasons.

For example:

If the passage of time here is stalling out the conflict, you may find that not enough is happening to carry full-fledged scenes.

4 Pros of Dramatizing the Passage of Time in Your Story

1. Deepens Realism

The greatest reason to include any significant passage of time in your story is simply that it usually strengthens realism, as detailed in the following points.

2. Emphasizes the Burden of Time

Romance stories where the leads declare undying love after getting trapped in an elevator for one night don’t really carry the gravitas of, say, Gabriel Oke’s enduring passion in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.

A hero who gets shot in one scene but who is healed enough in the next to physically manhandle the antagonist into submission will never convey the true stakes and suffering required for the courage of, say, Frodo and Sam’s travails during the long trek through Mordor in Return of the King.

3. Raises Stakes

Time amps everything, including stakes, suffering, love, and even the “ticking clock” in some instances. Sometimes time is a great luxury; but often, and perhaps always eventually, it is a debt that must be paid. The longer something takes, the more we (characters and readers alike) invest in the outcome. Time itself is an investment, but so too is all the hard work or suffering or even just the hoping that we put in during that time.

Plot-driven stories often take place in a rapid-fire timeline of just a few days, or even a few hours. This is often an excellent strategy for ramping up the pacing. But this approach can undermine the weight of a story’s stakes. The faster a character can solve a problem, the less dire that problem may seem.

4. (Potentially) Deepens Characterization

Stories are about things (people, situations, etc.) that change. Change—especially lasting transformation—requires time. Compare your story’s ending to your story’s beginning. How much has changed? The greater the changes to the characters or the setting, the more time will be necessary to realistically effect that change. If your story is dealing with vast and universal themes that encompass not just personal but social change, then your plot may require a greater length of time. Same goes if the change to your character is the kind that requires deep inner evolution.

It’s always possible to bolster a story’s time-related realism in other ways, either by leveraging transformation or catalysts that have already happened to the character in the backstory and/or by creating a story that acts more as a window upon a smaller change as part of an indicated larger change. Regardless, it’s important to examine how you can best craft the illusion of time’s weight in order to add realism to the meaningful events of your story.

6 Questions to Ask About the Passage of Time in Your Story

Once you’ve determined you do indeed need to include a significant “passage of time” sequence in your story, you can ask yourself the following six questions to make sure this segment is strengthening rather than weakening your story’s narrative power.

1. Is Your Plot Moving in These Scenes?

By its very nature, a “passage of time” sequence is more concerned with time passing than things happening. But if you have nonetheless chosen to dramatize these scenes, it will be important to make sure things are still happening. For instance, if your sequence is concerned with your protagonist’s recovery, the scene goals and conflict might concern themselves with his working through his convalescence. If the sequence is concerned with one character’s separation from another, the scene goals and conflict might concern the obstacles that are keeping them apart.

2. Are These Scenes Just as Interesting as Those Happening in “Real Time”?

Even once you’ve ensured that, yes, stuff is happening in these scenes, that’s not enough. Many a supremely boring scene has been written to be chock-full of stuff happening. What is most important is that the “stuff” in these scenes is just as interesting as what was happening in the scenes prior to this segment and what will happen when it resolves.

This is where most problematic “passage of time” segments fall off the rails. Whenever I’ve seen this done admirably, the scenes’ success is usually due to excellent characterization and evocative prose. On occasion, these interludes can even end up being better than the rest of the story (which can be a problem in its own right!).

A simple (but definitely not fail-proof) way to judge if these scenes are working is to evaluate whether you enjoy writing them as much as you did the rest of the story.

3. Can You Balance Full-On Dramatization With Some Summation?

The choice between dramatization and summation is not strictly either/or. Depending on how much time passes in your sequence, you may choose to use both. A general summary of the time passed, coupled with a few paragraphs of dramatization can sometimes be just right for conveying both the necessary information and the desired effect. On the other hand, especially if you’re dealing with particularly long gaps of time, you may opt for lengthy chapters of fleshed-out drama interspersed with a few quick indications of “two years later” or “the following December” to skip over the particularly boring bits.

4. Will Your Characters Have Changed During This Time?

Examine your characters’ evolution. The more heavily you choose to dramatize a passage of time section, the more weight this section will carry. If it doesn’t change your characters, then why is it even in the story?

5. If Your Primary Characters Are Separated, Have You Fleshed Out Your Supporting Cast(s)?

Particularly if the passage of time separates your most important (and therefore, probably, most interesting) characters, make sure you’ve surrounded your protagonist with a secondary cast of characters who are equally dimensional and interesting. Even if these characters are only present in the story for this segment, they should come complete with their own desires, motives, goals—and therefore ability to create both relational and plot conflict for your protagonist, even if on a relatively minor level.

6. Are These Scenes and Their Ultimate Effect Emotionally Moving?

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

As noted above, the passage of time should be included in a story primarily to strengthen the story’s realism. If that realism has only to do with accomplishing tasks (such as a scientist gathering research and conducting routine trials to reach the end necessary to move the story forward from there), then there likely isn’t much need to spend a lengthy part of the book dramatizing the time that is passing. But if the realism will include the travails, struggles, and evolution of your characters, then the scenes you create to dramatize this section of your story should ultimately have the effect of emotionally moving your readers in some way. Readers should leave this segment of the story with a true understanding of how it affected your characters and their struggles in the story’s main plot.


Including a lengthy passage of time in your story should never be a decision you make lightly. Done poorly, it can submarine your entire story. But done well, it can also add a depth and meaning that can take your story to the next level.

Wordplayers, tell me in the comments! Have you ever included a “passage of time” segment in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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