Managing the Passage of Time in Fiction

Image Credit: Toni Mihailov/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: Toni Mihailov/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

We’re almost constantly aware of the passage of time in our daily lives. We check our watches, set alarms, mark important dates on our calendars. We live by the change in daylight and the change in seasons.

The passage of time will be equally important to our characters…and to our readers. Readers can find it confusing or disconnecting if they don’t know when something is taking place or how long a time has passed.

Part of what makes our story feel real to them is the natural passage of time.

Unfortunately, how to deal with the passage of time is something that’s not as commonly taught. That means many of us don’t know how to deal with it correctly (or at all).

Lines like “the next morning” or “a week later” can feel clunky. As readers, we know they’re inserted by the author. They break the fictional dream because they feel like they’re coming from an outside source.

Or often we’ll write an entire story without a hint of when it’s taking place. Winter or summer? The 1950s or the 1990s?

So how can we deal with the passage of time more naturally—in a way that feels like we’re still living it with our characters?

Today I’m going to start a short series on dealing with time in our fiction. This week I’m going to look at ways we can establish the “time” of our story using subtle cues.

When our book opens, when we start a new chapter or scene, or whenever there’s a major change, we need to establish the time.

Establishing a Specific Time

You can establish a specific time internally or externally.

Establishing a specific time externally is usually done in thrillers where there’s a clock ticking down to a tragic event and every minute counts. The author opens each scene/chapter with the date and time.

E.g. 8:00 pm, Friday

Kassandra Lamb did this in her thriller Fatal Forty-Eight. We find out early in the story how long the serial killer keeps his victims alive, and seeing that clock counting down at the start of every new segment really added to the tension.

Externally establishing time doesn’t work for most stories, though, so if we need to establish a specific time, we have to do it internally, through the characters.

Have your viewpoint character look at a clock or their watch. This is the simplest method. To make this believable, give them a reason for doing so. Maybe they know they’re running late. Maybe they have a deadline to hit. Maybe they have an important meeting.  

Use dialogue. We have to be careful that we don’t fall into As-You-Know-Bob dialogue with this technique. As-You-Know-Bob dialogue is where a character says something they wouldn’t normally say. It’s dialogue that’s for the reader’s benefit rather than dialogue that’s from one character to another. Like with looking at a clock, make sure your speaking character has a strong and natural reason for mentioning the time. Would you include the time if you spoke this dialogue?

Establishing a General Time

Often we don’t need an exact minute or hour. Often all we need is an approximate time to show the days moving forward.

Use the sun or moon’s position. This is the simplest way to keep time moving forward. If in the previous scene our character was in a dark alley, looking for a place to hide from her stalker, and we open this scene with the sun making the broken glass seem almost pretty with the way it glitters, we’ll know time has passed. It was night. Now it’s morning.

Reference a commonly known time of day. As long as your story is set on Earth, you can also establish a general time using an event like breakfast or lunch (or happy hour or siesta). If the diner on the corner is filling up with lunch customers, giving your character a chance to vanish into the crowd, that sets the time and keeps the story moving forward.

Compare this day to the previous day. In the opening to this post, I mentioned that saying something like “the next morning” can feel awkward and intrusive. There are more natural ways we can handle this. A good one is to show what’s changed between this day and the previous one.

Yesterday’s sunshine had vanished and rain splattered her face, promising she wouldn’t be able to sleep out in the open again tonight. It was find shelter or perish.

We know it’s the next day, but it feels more natural because it feels like the character is thinking about the difference. It gives them a reason to note the change in days.

The important thing to remember with these cues is that they still need to fit naturally within the story. We shouldn’t stop the story in its tracks just to describe the time.

Establishing a Season of the Year or an Era in History

These time cues are the easiest to establish but nonetheless important.

Seasons all have built in cues for us to use. Christmas carols on the radio mean it’s before Christmas. Dead trees by the curb on garbage day means it’s after Christmas. The leaves change in fall. Stores bursting with heart-shaped boxes of chocolates mean Valentine’s Day is coming. We don’t have to hit the reader over the head to convey the season. A passing mention of seasonal items can subtly do the job for us.

Technology and clothing can help identify the era in history. If our character isn’t talking on a cell phone, we know the story isn’t set in modern day. A woman who struggles to breathe because she had her corset laced too tight or a man who is arrested for buying illegal booze gives the reader a general idea of the era. It usually won’t pin down a year (unless you include a radio broadcast about the death of President Kennedy for example), but it will help establish the right era for the setting.

Do you struggle with including enough time cues in your writing? Would you like to share another natural way to include a mention of the time?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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