Writers have sometimes struggled with the concept of time in fiction and how best to portray it, because as much as writers would love to, they can’t write about every minute of every day in a character’s life within a story. Somewhere between the action and the narrative the writer needs to show the reader that time has moved forward – be it hours, a day, a month or even years. The story should have time markers, or references, to indicate to the reader that time has passed from one moment to the next.
Why do we have them?
We use time references to help with the timing of certain events within the story so that the reader doesn’t become confused to when those events occur. If you don’t indicate the timing, the story would just go on and on without natural breaks between key events and the reader won’t always know that the events happen hours, days or even weeks apart. Not unless you tell them.
By giving time references to the day, night, hour, month or season etc, you can keep the reader connected to the story arc. Fiction writing isn’t just about telling a story, it’s about clarity and consistency.
With the exception of the story taking place in one day, every story must move forward in a chronological and natural way, which means bypassing a lot of time which is unimportant to the plot, so writers make use of a few techniques to ensure that the story still runs smoothly, even with the natural time breaks.
So how do writers achieve this? Is there an effective way to show the passage of time without making the story jumpy or confusing the reader?
One of the easiest ways to do this is to use simple scene breaks. These allow the writer to finish one scene and move the story ahead to another scene and another time in the story, which may be hours or a few days or so. Readers are not stupid – they will instinctively know that with a new scene time has moved on if the writer has hinted in the preceding scene, for example:
John rubbed his eyes and slumped down into the chair. ‘It’s getting late. Let’s look at it fresh in the morning.’
A streak of sunlight poked through the broken shutters as John made a coffee strong enough to wake his senses...
It’s clear that the new scene smoothly continues on the preceding scene, without the need for the writer to describe the character going to bed, falling asleep and then waking up in the morning. The character clearly suggests the passage of time, so the reader will know the next scene will be the next morning. This is a practical and effective time marker.
The best way to show these kinds of scene breaks is to let the reader know beforehand.
From Within the Scene
Writing the passage of time within a scene is another effective way to show time has passed, all in a sentence or two and without the need to create a new scene, for example:
Jason finished the plan, just as he had promised, and he left the office earlier than usual. Three hours later, after the rain-beaten drive out of the city, he pulled up outside the cottage.
Here the emphasis is on the time marker – it clearly tells the reader three hours have passed since Jason left the office and it then neatly skips ahead to the moment he appears at the cottage, all within the same scene and all done seamlessly. It’s an easy effective way to move ahead without lots of unnecessary, boring description.
Using New Chapters
Like scene breaks, beginning a new chapter is another easy alternative to move forward in time – these are generally used for longer time spans, usually days or weeks etc.
Again, writers usually leave a marker in the preceding chapter, a hint that time will move ahead, then when the new chapter begins, the reader will understand that hours, days or weeks, whatever the case may be, has passed.
A lot of writers use symbols to show the passage of time – a clock, for example, is one of the most used symbols. This is really simple a reference marker. Other writers actually show the time in the narrative, especially if it is important to the plot, for example:
7.15 am. The time seemed to slow in his mind, as though all around him had become a sluggish blur, but in reality he knew how important every second had become. And when he looked at the time again, it was 7.21am. Two minutes from the inevitable...
Here, the narrative shows the time because it’s important to the central plot, almost like a countdown. Both reader and character knows it’s a countdown to something, and that the story is being told in minutes and hours, not days or weeks.
In truth, the passage of time is not actually hard to write. Writers only say it’s hard because they haven’t been shown how to effectively do it. Once you know how, and with all the different ways at hand, well, time is at your disposal.
Remember to be clear and consistent and you can’t go wrong.
Next week: How to create a bad guy