14 Tips for Dealing With the 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.

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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:

  • Because the necessary characters are separated.
  • Because the protagonist is out of commission for a while.
  • Because the protagonist is using this time to conduct necessary preparations for the next phase (such as research on a project).

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?

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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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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. Thank you! This is the exact question I had this last week about my WIP! This helps so much!

  2. I usually do a combination of dramatization and summation. I dramatize the bits that relate to a protagonist’s character change arc and summarize the boring bits.

    I’ve never really thought about this before; I just did it. It’s really interesting how you’ve broken it down. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most authors do all of this instinctively most of the time. It’s just that every once in a while, it gets hairy! 😉

  3. Grace Dvorachek says

    My stories typically take place over a short(er) period of time, so I don’t often have to deal with passage of time. Especially since my current WIP takes place over a single, 24-hour period. But if I do have to show passage of time during any of my projects, I hope I’ll be more prepared than I was before reading this post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I used to try to write stories with the shortest passage of time possible, but I’ve kind of gotten into the mode lately of stories that cover longer spans of time.

  4. Timely advice! Didn’t know how to go about this… Thought I would have to resort to a 2 or 3-part story… haven’t sorted through logistics yet but also means all characters would have changed along the way…so need a much larger canvas to handle them all… then the risk of boring reader with the trivial characters and/or trivial changes – thrilled by the choices…scared by the challenge 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it can definitely be a challenge–to balance cutting out the trivial bits with the need to create enough time for characters to realistically change.

  5. Thea T. Kelley says

    Great post! Can you say a little more about “creating a story that acts more as a window upon a smaller change as part of an indicated larger change”? You mentioned this in the paragraph about “(Potentially) Deepening Characterization.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Arguably, all stories do this, since no single change in anyone’s life is definitive. I’m having trouble thinking of a specific example off the top of my head, but “day in the life” stories often fit this bill, as they show a single significant day in the character’s life, which prompts change but is clearly only the tip of the iceberg for what is to come.

  6. As it so happens, I can say off the top of my head without checking any notes how much time passes in the manuscript I just took off the ice so I can revise it again: seven years. That’s because there’s a plot reason for that length of time.

    In previous drafts, I struggled with handling the passage of time (as you can imagine, I didn’t dramatize everything that happened during those seven years), and I really would’ve appreciated this post back then! The biggest reason so much time has to pass is that the protagonist goes from unskilled -> highly skilled, and it wouldn’t be realistic for that to happen in a short time (in fact, at least one beta reader said that even seven years felt a little short given how much the protagonist improves).

    I think I figured out how to manage the time passages through trial-and-error (checking with feedback from outside readers). I have two entire chapters which I cut because, though they were originally intended to make the passage of time fuller by dramatizing certain events, they didn’t work well in the overall flow of the story.

    One thing which worked in this specific story was summarizing time passages which really shouldn’t be dramatized by describing seasonal changes. It only took about a paragraph, and since the POV character pays a lot of attention to outdoors stuff, it deepened characterization.

    In a novella I’m also working on, I realized I had a different passage-of-time-problem: too many events happen in a single day. When I get back to revising that novella, I’ll probably break that into two days just so it’s more plausible that so many things could happen (also, it will give the protagonist a break & a chance to reflect).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, beta readers are great for fine-tuning this kind of thing. It can be so hard for a writer to know which parts of her own work are skimmable. As a reader, I’ve found myself doing a lot of skimming lately, even in books I’m enjoying, and it’s made me aware of how much leaner I could make my own stories.

  7. katie hay-molopo says

    The novel I’m currently working on happens over the course of about a week and a half, a very condensed timeline! But it’s a lot about the internal development of the characters, and so the passage of time usually is indicated in the questions they ask and the answers they seek. Time is something I think about a lot – it’s helpful for me to have a specific duration in mind for longer works so the story doesn’t ramble forever!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice! I always like to have a firm concept of my story’s timelines as well. It’s something I always makes note for in every Scrivener scene when I start outlining.

  8. Hi Kay, this is incredibly timely as I’m just editing a section where the plot fast forwards 330 years and the protagonist becomes a ghost! It’s really helped me to clarify why some paragraphs aren’t working. Huge thanks.

  9. Because I’m the weird person I am, I think of this as a lot like dialog. I don’t capture everything my characters say – there’s not a lot of “please pass the marmalade,” “you think it’ll rain?” and the ilk that makes up much of our conversation. There’s not even much of “how could Benito wear that hat to work?” which might be interesting and toss in conflict, but which isn’t pertinent to the story at hand. So, the goal is to maximize the interesting stuff that serves the story, and minimize everything else.

    That said, I do like to assure that the reader has an idea of the scale of time involved. One nice little option a fantasy author has is to create a new calendar for their world, and clock if you so desire. So, in my current work, each section is marked with something like “Red Moonrise, Fifth Day of the Macaw”, the reader knows their not in Kansas anymore.

    • Andy, I must be weird too, because that’s how I write. My characters never brush their teeth—take showers unless something interesting is going to happen in the shower. Either they’re really stinky or they’re doing those things off page. It’s fun to think of them walking around in clouds of flies, though. I don’t really get to write fantasy anymore, but I love when fantasy authors create their own calendars like that. It really draws me in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. It’s all about cutting out the throat-clearing.

  10. The greatest passage-of-time of all time may be in Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse.” A novel of three chapters, the second is entitled “Time Passes” and covers the characters’ lives during the years of World War One in Europe. It is a masterpiece.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Still have yet to read that one. I went through the classic authors alphabetically, so Woolf is still waiting for me. 😉

  11. So I asked myself, “Which characters are creating the conflict in the majority of scenes?” And realized it’s not my protagonist and the villain — it’s a murder mystery, so I carefully don’t show conflict between them until the end of the book. It’s not the mother-in-law; she can be easily walked away from. It’s my protagonist and her daughter. So while there are times when my protagonist is away from her daughter (most obviously at work) the less of it the better, yes? She could even be stewing while she’s at work (gathering clues).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as it all makes sense for the story and is interesting in its own right, definitely.

  12. My latest book (yet unpublished) is styled as a memoir, which naturally allows me to present the reader with selected significant events in the main character’s arc through the timeline of the plot. That said, I had to chose which events were the most interesting and produced conflict. I began to see the narrative as tiered, like terraced gardening, with plateaus where the reader and the plot could take a brief rest. The key was identifying the time periods that were important, then creating satisfying connecting scenes that make the transitions from one plateau smooth and natural.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve never written memoir and probably never will, but even as a novelist I get a ton out of reading about memoir techniques. It helps me distill the importance of choosing exactly the right scene to illustrate the theme or the action.

  13. Edward Downie says

    Scene ends with a garden spider climbing up a porch railing.
    ###
    Dew glistens on an intricate web in the morning sun.

  14. In my novella, my main character is a ghost, and the story jumps a century. Since I’ve already established who he is and his adjustment to being a ghost, I didn’t feel it was necessary to linger where nothing important happens. I cover this time jump in a paragraph describing the different ways he senses the passing of time. I think it works because I use three distinct ways, keeping him in the same city, and leaving him seasoned and more comfortable with himself, just before he finds himself in trouble. Thanks for the breakdown!

  15. Thanks for writing this piece. I always enjoy your posts each one teaches me something or reveals a new way to consider a tip/tactic/approach/etc.
    I have several instances in my WIP where the passage of time must be indicated to the reader. In one I simply say: “Four days later” as you mention it is not the most eloquent but gets the job done. Late in the manuscript I have the two MC’s split and do take some time apart to grow separately. During this time my MC meets with other characters to work out her issues so that when the two come back together she is more clear on her own desires and limitations.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, the latter instance is something like what I had in mind for the posts’s examples. These sections can be challenging, but they’re often necessary for realism.

  16. Adam James says

    Do you realize that on April 11, 2012 you posted about the passage of time? Check it out: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/how-to-show-passage-of-time-in-your/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thought it was time I wrote something a little more in-depth on the subject. 🙂 Thanks for linking back!

  17. Anne LaRiviere says

    I am covering a period of time that is almost 100 years (not quite). I am using simple “1653” (e.g.) at the top of a chapter, and then, after a few chapters, “1675” (e.g.). It seems to work. The same characters are interacting w/each other, so I am careful to indicate how they may have changed within those time periods. What do you think??

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes readers will easily scan over a time header like that, but as long as you’re reinforcing it in the actual text, it should be fine.

  18. Hi, Katie. Great post, as usual.
    My first book’s time-frame was 25 years. I had several time jumps (obviously) and I used timestamp headers and also made a point of mentioning the jumps somewhere in the first paragraph of each new section. It all seemed to work well.
    Book 2 is a prequel, and covers almost 30 years in the lives of the previous generation. Boy, did I make a rod for my own back with that!
    I’m having to incorporate a strict set of births, deaths, marriages etc. and still keep the story fluid, which at times isn’t easy. Almost finished the first draft and it’s been a marathon!!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      And who says writers are sane? :p I did something similar to myself in my last WIP. It was challenging but a lot of fun as well.

  19. One of my planned sequels has the MCs take a journey–a journey that is continental in scale. I have pondered the years involved with such a trek. I have considered keeping them away from home for 50+ years, or even to the end of a lifetime for one of them.
    .
    Trust me when I say I’ll be looking forward to more commentary on the subject of time’s passage.

  20. annegreening7365 says

    Yes. In my first novel I had this problem, although I did not realise it at the time. It was only after I had published it, that I started to understand what I had done. However I had had the sense to use each scene – even in a small way – to serve the story by underlining the heroine’s trauma on being parted from the man she had fallen in love with, and his seeming rejection of her; and to emphasise her character. In the two years since I published, I have been learning everything I can about the craft of fiction writing, and I had a vague thought of re-writing parts of the story, and re-issuing as a revised version. Once I’ve studied your article fully, I may do so.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s the glorious (and also sometimes painful) thing about self-publishing: there’s always the chance for revision. 🙂

  21. Helpful advice, thanks. I’ve just finish the first draft of my novel. It’s historical and takes place over 3 months. The made up parts of the plot have had to fit round the factual events which has sometimes been a challenge so in places I’ve been very specific about when in relation to a real event things are happening to the protagonist and in other places I’ve been deliberately vague. One other issue is that the protagonist’s job plays an important part i plot so sometimes Ive had to be specific about it being a weekday or at weekend. I also got in a mess when I had written a key scene taking place on a Friday and as it involved a character who is an observant Jew I suddenly realised they would not be doing this on a Friday night.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If I’m dealing with a story with a really specific timeline, I will sometimes use a calendar to schedule my events, so I know the date and day of the week for each scene.

  22. Bob Hazlett says

    A piece of advice I received a long time ago (maybe from you) was “write scenes and worry about chapter breaks later.”

    It seems that a chapter break is a good way to jump over long periods of uneventful time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That could have been me. I’ve done that on some books. Scenes are structural; chapters are arbitrary.

  23. This topic has definitely been on my mind. I’m editing a rough draft where I wanted characters to take time to reach the goal – if they find what they’re looking for too soon, it would feel too easy. Thing is, it’s post-apocalyptic, so they have to find food, water and shelter. On top of that, one of the point-of-view characters gets injured and has to find ways to be useful (and develop her relationships) while stuck at their makeshift base. It’s a balance that I’ve struggled with to have enough stakes and troubles over time, but not so much that it’s unrealistic they’d even survive, and more importantly keep the story from being bogged down by the survival aspect, keep the focus on the characters’ growth and relationships.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The key in situations like this is to double-down on the characters and their interactions. Let the “minor” plot goals be background to that.

  24. Jennifer Kepler says

    My WIP is first person pov. I am struggling with showing passage of time without sounding like my protagonist is narrating. For example two weeks has passed. How do I make that known without writing “over the past two weeks…” or “two weeks later…?” Am I overthinking this? Thanks for the feedback.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Generally, you can approach a first-person narration in the same way you would a deep third-person. In most instances, when it would not feel intrusive or awkward for a third-person narrator to indicate “two weeks later,” the same is true for first-person.

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