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June 13, 2017

How Can We Make Time Pass in Our Stories?

Writers Helping Writers: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold

It’s time for another one of my guest posts as a Resident Writing Coach over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. Previously, I shared encouragement for approaching a big revision, as well as advice on how to increase the stakes (the consequences for failure) in our story.

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m answering a question from a reader of the WHW blog. This time around, we’re talking about how to show (or gloss over) the passage of time in our stories.

The Timeline of Our Story

Unless we’re writing a story in the include-every-minute mode of the TV show 24 (and even that show doesn’t include every minute—bathroom stops, anyone?), we’ll occasionally need to jump ahead in time. We might jump to the next morning or skip over the traffic jam slowing our characters’ progress to keep our story moving.

We’re probably familiar with how to show those jumps in our writing. However, sometimes we’ll need to address longer periods of time: days, weeks, months, years, etc.

For those longer periods—when readers might not be expecting them and therefore need more direction—we tend to use two main techniques that we’ve all seen before (the second technique we frequently use for shorter jumps too):

  • Include a dateline (time passed or actual date) above the scene with the jump:

Two months later…   —or—   December 3rd

He paced through the hospital’s hallways, pushing his worries out through his soles and into the scuffed linoleum under his feet. The door at his dad’s room opened, and…

  • Begin the first sentence of the jump scene with an indication of time:

Two months later, she knew she’d made a mistake. Worse, it was now too late the fix the problem, as…

To Keep Our Story Moving, We Must Manage Time

We want to keep our story moving, and that means we need to skip to the next scene with relevant action. Readers would be bored enough by having to read about several hours of meaningless activity, much less having to read about weeks or months of nothingness.

At the same time, we can’t just make the jump without letting readers know. Not only would that be confusing for readers, but many story issues aren’t believable to readers if a resolution is found too quickly.

If readers don’t get a feel for how much time has passed, we might create several believability issues with our storytelling:

  • romantic plots might feel like insta-love,
  • bad guys might seem too easy to beat,
  • complicated skills might seem too quickly learned,
  • our protagonist’s internal arc might feel too shallow, etc.

Yet the usual methods for mentioning the passage of time might feel too limiting. Over at the WHW blog, Nancy C. asked what other techniques we could use for getting past those longer jumps, and that’s a great question that can lead us to ways to deepen our craft.

Come join me at WHW, where I’m sharing:

  • seven additional ways we can indicate the passage of time to our readers, and
  • two issues to watch out for when skipping over time. *smile*

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

A Question of When: Indicating Time Passage in Our Stories

Do you think jumping over time is an underappreciated way of increasing our story’s pace? Have you noticed any particularly good or bad indications of time passage in stories? Do you agree that failing to show time passage can harm our story’s believability? Have you ever wondered about different ways of indicating time? Do you have any questions about working with the passage of time in our stories?

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What do you think?

2 Comments on "How Can We Make Time Pass in Our Stories?"

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, this is particularly relevant for my SF books. I need to show six monthly periods passing as an asteroid miner can spend six months in space before returning to Earth.
One way to show passage of a lot of time is to make a jump forward and leave a gap, broken by occasional reminiscing or diary entries. But the character must feel different – he or she has matured and learnt hard lessons.

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