Without adequate time markers, readers may be lost to the timing of story events, how quickly those events come upon characters and how much breathing time characters have between those events.
References to time and day (or month or season or year) are necessary to keep readers linked with story events and hold them deep inside the fiction. Without enough time markers, readers may be confused and find themselves turning back to earlier pages to try to figure out when they are in that story.
People are almost always aware of time in their daily lives—time of day or month or year; time in relation to a job or task that needs to be completed; time in terms of religious holidays or seasons; stages of life such as infancy or teenage years, school years, years of fertility, and old age; era, such as the Roaring Twenties or Regency England or the frontier years on Mordant Five; or time as it relates to anticipation of either a dreaded or an eagerly anticipated event. Readers stepping into a story world should also step into the time reality and expectations of that world, at least the reality of the major characters. At least of the viewpoint character.
Unless the viewpoint character is blind to the passage of time in a way that serves the story, readers should know when that character is in every scene.
Time and the passing of it is an easy element to blend into scenes. Yet as a writer gets caught up in the action and dialogue and description of setting, time markers can be overlooked. The simple fix? Check the beginning of every scene for a time marker. If there isn’t one, add it. Do the same for the body of a scene. If nothing marks the advancement of time as a scene unfolds, if the length of an event or passage of dialogue hasn’t been made obvious, add a time marker. You can show the passing of time throughout the scene or give readers an indication of how much time has passed at the scene’s end. At the end, you can also set up how much time will pass before the next story event or scene, or at least the next one mentioned by the current viewpoint character.
Okay, that’s the general way it should work, but what are the specifics for how to show time and the changing of time?
Scene Openings and Middles
The opening of every scene, especially if one of these elements changes, should indicate setting—where and when the scene unfolds—and the identity of the viewpoint character.
So if Bertram was the viewpoint character in the last scene and now Felix has viewpoint duties, Felix should be named almost immediately in the new scene.
The same is true for place and time. Where does the new scene take place? How much time has passed since the last scene ended or since the reader has last been with Felix? This information should be revealed almost immediately at the top of the new scene.
Keep in mind that Bertram’s awareness of the passing of time may be different from Felix’s. So what one character uses to keep track of time—the countdown toward a deadline—may be different from what another uses—the anticipated arrival of a long absent lover. You can use these differences in time as one way to bolster the feel and unique characteristics of the scenes in each character’s viewpoint.
So when we’re in one of Bertram’s scenes, we should always be aware of the clock ticking away toward the deadline, whatever that deadline might be—the required completion of a job, a deadline set by his wife to make a decision on their marriage, the need to find a bomb before it explodes, the race to prevent a deadly strain of disease from wiping out all humans on the planet. In Felix’s scenes, time is used to underline his yearning for his lover or maybe his fear that she isn’t the same woman she’d always been or that he was no longer the right man to capture her love.
These different ways of looking at time could morph into the same one as the story unfolds if, for example, the arrival of Felix’s lover has an impact on Bertram’s ability to meet his deadline. Such a blending of story elements that had seemed separate is a great way to increase tension and conflict and raise the stakes.
The differences in the way these characters look at the passage of time, in the way the anticipated events affect them as what they anticipate draws nearer, will color their scenes. The viewpoint scenes of different characters should feel different to the reader because they are different.
Characters look at story events from vastly different viewpoints and the way they deal with the passing of time, the way they experience and feel time and what it means specifically for them, will depend on their own interest in story events and in the other characters.
This is one reason why jumping from the head of one character to the head of another character in a single scene does not work well and why using nearly unlimited characters as viewpoint characters keeps readers at a distance. Every time a reader is pulled out of a character’s head and is thrust into the head of another character, the reader must adjust to the new character’s viewpoint. And that means so much more than only what the character sees and hears in a particular scene.
The Viewpoint Character’s Baggage
A character’s viewpoint includes experiences and coping mechanisms and emotions. It includes every action and reaction that brought the character to this moment and place in the story. It includes the character’s sense of where he is in time and what that means to him.
As we’ve already seen, his understanding of time and how story events relate to time will be different from any other character’s experience with time. If time doesn’t mean the same thing to characters, doesn’t drive them in the same way or toward the same goal, the feel of a scene told in their viewpoints will be different from that same scene experienced by another character.
You’ve limited yourself to only one viewpoint character per scene; so how do you establish time and then show it passing?
This is where the easy stuff comes in. Marking time can be done in many, many ways, all recognizable to readers and all easily inserted into your story.
A story’s opening should always provide setting details, and time is one of those details. Unless the character who opens the story has no idea where or when he is, establishing the when of your story right away is vital. And you can immediately clue in the reader without having to write long passages to convey time.
Time of day can be conveyed by reference to sun or moon or to the absence of either.
Last night’s storm clouds were long gone and nothing marred Chet’s view of the sunrise breaking over the lake.
It can also be approximated by the mention of any recognizable event, something such as breakfast or happy hour.
A specific minute or hour can be relayed by a glance at a clock or a character thinking or speaking it.
“Lee, go find your brother. It’s five till six and your dad’s gonna be home any minute. Tell him if he’s not here when we sit down, the dog gets his dinner.”
Season can be conveyed by a reference to setting props, such as carved pumpkins on a porch or a dried-out Christmas tree awaiting pickup at a curb or store displays. Christmas carols on the radio or a weather report of a winter snowstorm or summer tornado could be used to identify a season. Anything recognized as related to a season needs only to be mentioned and readers will pick up on the season.
Era, too, can be made clear through props. Consider items such as cars or machines or the presence (or absence) of a particular type of building. Keep in mind, however, that you may need to include more details than those that simply show the presence of an object. A Model T in your story might indicate that the year is 1910. But a character might be looking at it in a museum in 2015 or digging it out of the ground in 2135. Remember to give not only detail but enough detail to truly convey the era.
Season and era can also be conveyed by character behavior, such as kids running happily home on the last day of school before a long summer break or kids running home from a one-room schoolhouse, downing milk from a tin cup and a piece of homemade pie handed them by their mother, and then running out to help their dad pull a plow through a field.
A mention or description of clothing can establish the when of story, but again keep in mind the need to indicate whether or not the clothing is current or retro by the way it’s introduced.
Marie stood determinedly still as Jenelle and Simone slipped the Worth gown over her head and Mama watched, lips pursed but eyes alight. Charles Worth did not make wedding gowns for just anyone, and Marie was fearful of ruining the exquisite material.
Marie stood determinedly still as Emma worked the Worth gown over her head. The material and stitches had to be over a hundred years’ old, and Marie feared ripping the fragile material.
While you might not set a clock ticking on page one to start a countdown toward a deadline imposed on a character, you could show that character’s indifference toward the passing of time as a revelation of his personality. So you could show Sam putting off his wife’s request, the fifth in a week, to get him to fix her car while she’s gone for the weekend, because he thinks it’s only a pity job contrived to keep him busy after he’d been furloughed.
You could show him prowling his house all weekend, unconcerned that the hour of her return is approaching. When later in the week her car is found abandoned on the side of the road, the hood up but his wife missing, and Sam receives a message from a serial killer warning Sam he’ll kill his wife unless Sam solves a series of riddles within an allotted time, then you can set a clock ticking and show how that ticking clock changes and drives Sam.
A simple way to convey one time element is to report a character’s age. No, this doesn’t necessarily establish time or date. But if you report a character’s age throughout a story, especially a story that spans years, that recurring report of his age will indicate the passing of time. The best way to start this style of showing time passing is to report a character’s age right away.
NOTE: In addition to simply stating a character’s age in numbers, you can report life events that show the passing of time. Such events include entering the teen years, learning to drive, getting a first job, the first sexual experience, graduating from high school or college, celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah or quinceañera or first communion, getting married, having a child, buying a first home, going to college reunions, death of a parent or spouse or friends, and retirement.
You can use time in the opening pages to set the mood by showing a character’s response to a coming event. When Flo hears that an old lover is returning, does she start clearing her calendar or does she look for ways to fill her days so she can honestly tell him, when he arrives, that she doesn’t have time to meet with him?
Indicating how much time is to come before an expected event, good or bad, and filling that time period with actions and other events will allow you to direct a character’s responses and emotions as well as the reader’s tension level.
Time in Scenes Beyond the First
While you establish time in your story’s opening, you have to indicate its change as your story progresses.
We’ve already seen that you should do this at the top of every scene. And when a scene changes, you can use the same techniques you would use at a story’s start to identify the when of the scene.
But you can also use other techniques.
~ Use character dialogue and thoughts in a direct way to show time passing. One character can ask another why she’s ignored his phone calls and texts for a week (or maybe it’s only been a couple of hours). If both characters were in the last scene, this is an easy way to show how much time has passed. Or even if they weren’t involved in the most recent scene, this conveys how much time has passed since these two last connected.
~ Or you can set up a passage of time at the end of a one scene that is only resolved in a later scene. When you reveal in one scene that some event will occur a week later, when that scene ultimately unfolds, readers will know a week has passed since the moment this information was revealed.
~ You should also show time passing as a scene unfolds. Use meals and sleep and repeated or common events—such as going to work—to show time passing. Use unusual events as well.
For example, if firemen are dealing with a fire, how long are they on the scene? Does the sun go down or rise? Does a firefighter miss a special event? Do they grow tired? Have hunger pangs?
If characters are talking, what happens outside their setting? If they only talk for what seems to be moments but you reveal some major event that happened at the same time, an event that took hours to unfold, something is wrong with either your depiction of their dialogue or the duration of the other event.
This is one of the time anomalies I frequently find in manuscripts, that time which transpires in a scene unfolding in what feels like real time—that feels like the present for the reader—doesn’t match what’s reported to take place off the page at the same time. Typically this simply requires adjusting the scene that plays out rather than changing the off-scene events.
Try including motion and not only dialogue. Move talking characters to other positions in their setting or have them step into another room. Indicate a passage of time at a meal by briefly mentioning the food of a different course or show characters slowly sipping coffee as they enjoy dessert. If you restrict a scene to dialogue only, without action or a report of what else is happening in the scene, that scene can seem to pass too quickly and not be realistic in terms of the time it should take.
Keep in mind that while a scene doesn’t have to take as much time to read as the story time that passes during that scene, the reader has to feel that the necessary amount of time has passed. You have to purposely convey the passage of a specific amount of time.
~ And there’s nothing wrong with simply reporting the time. Do it when doing so serves the story. But don’t do it as the only way you indicate time passing. You don’t want to baldly report day and time at the opening of every scene. Your readers definitely don’t want you to do it. As with any writing element used too often, this bores the reader.
You could, however, use a scene header that reveals place and time. Thrillers with scenes that span the globe often use such a device. But because the information is not in the story text, the reader doesn’t have the same aversion to the information as if it were revealed by a character in every scene.
~ Use summary at the top of a scene or even in the middle of a scene to show time advancing. This can be as short as one line or as long as several paragraphs.
Yes, you can advance time without adding a chapter or scene break.
“I’ll file divorce papers in the morning.”
Caroline watched Zack storm from the apartment, watched him get into his car, and then she watched the bedroom grow dark. Slumped on the floor next to the bed, clutching the stupid floppy dog Zack had one for her twenty years ago, she even watched the sun top the buildings across the street.
You have several options to show that passage of time.
Ending a chapter and starting a new one is the easiest fix, as it allows a break readers are familiar with, and an opportunity to change gears/locations/time in an expected way. Going from night to day? A subtle remark about the time or clues that time has changed could be enough to keep readers with you.
“Fine,” she said, crossing her arms. “Stay if you have to, but you’re on the couch.” -end chapter-
-new chapter- He made her omelets for breakfast. Real, honest to God omelets.
A smooth transition, enough details to make it clear time has passed, and without any clunky “the next morning” type lines.
(More on transitions here)
Break the Scene
Scene breaks are great when a chapter ending just doesn’t work. If you have a situation where you need to jump ahead in time–say, if the character is hurt–try ending on a good hook, then starting the next scene with a line that states time passed and what happened.
She limped back to camp. Johnson was never going to let her hear the end of this. -end scene-
-new scene- It took her three weeks to heal, but two days to get sick of Johnson’s ribbing.
This lets the reader know the story has moved forward and catches them up without you having to explain it all.
A word of caution: make sure you’re not ending the scene on a cliffhanger, and then skipping over something important the reader actually wants to know. For example, ending with, “the knife sliced through her chest and she collapsed in a heap” then starting the next scene with, “Three weeks later she left the hospital…” risks angering your reader, as they’ll probably want to know what happened to her immediately after she collapsed.
(More on moving from scene to scene here)
Scene breaks also work for longer periods of time, and quieter moments where there might not be a large enough hook for a full chapter ending.
I kept staring at what was left of him. -end scene-
-new scene- Summer passed, but I still couldn’t get the image out of my mind.
A big jump ahead, and you basically pick up where you left off without having to shove a boring summer down a reader’s throat. The story keeps moving and time keeps passing.
(More on scene breaks here)
Summarize the Time
A summary paragraph can work if you don’t want to break the scene. This is useful for smaller passages of time when a full break would interrupt building tensions or the story flow.
It didn’t matter. He was dead and there was nothing she could do about it.
For the first week she cried. The second she stared out the window in a funk. By week three, she’d thrown back the covers and strapped on her gun.
Time passes, the reader is caught up, and few words are used. It also transitions nicely into whatever she does after she straps on that gun, which is the goal of the next scene.
Do a Montage
For a longer, more descriptive feel, you could do a quick montage of what happened. This works for events when you want to show a character learning/doing/struggling, but staying with that person for very long in that activity will start to bore readers. You don’t want to show the same thing over and over, though you want to show what she learns or does in some way.
Lead into the montage, then do a quick paragraph of what happens while time is passing, and finish with something that pulls the reader to the next scene where time picks up again normally.
She hefted the sword again and glared at the sword master. Even if it took her all summer, she’d figure this out.
For days she parried. Forgot to parry and bled. Parried badly and landed face first in the dirt. Sometimes the mud, which made her classmates snicker. Days turn to weeks and her swings grew stronger, the snickers shorter. By the end of the first month she could hold her own. The second, she was wining half the time. After three months, she owned them all.
The sword master smiled down at her on graduation day, rubbing his bruised jaw, the faint indentation of her sword hilt still visible in his chin. “Not bad,” he said. “Not bad at all.”
This is riskier if the summary isn’t interesting to read, as it’ll likely appear as a “stuff you can skip” paragraph. Try keeping it in the voice of the character and infusing it with personality to keep the reader all the way through.
(More on montages here)
Reminder Readers Time has Passed
Sometimes all it takes is a reminder that time has passed. A quick line that slips easily into the narrative and doesn’t take up a lot of space.
“You’ve been at this two weeks now, girl,” the trainer said.
It’s clear two weeks have passed since the character started, and the reader didn’t have to suffer through it.
Drop Readers Off and Pick Them Back Up
Skipping past travel is one of the easiest time passes to write. Simply state that your character is going somewhere, then skip ahead to when they get there.
“Guess we’d better go talk to Bob, then.” -end scene-
-new scene- Bob didn’t invite them inside, just glared at them from his cheesy apartment. His eyes narrowed. “What do you two want?”
There’s no need to describe the car, the ride over, the small talk in the car as they drove. Readers are right there with you and will just assume they got there in the usual manner of travel.
Skipping ahead in time is a handy way to tighten up a manuscript and cut out scenes that don’t need to be there. And get rid of the ones that readers skip.
More examples of Transitions at https://worddreams.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/37-ways-to-show-the-passage-of-time/