A Question of When: Indicating Time Passage in Our Stories

jami-goldToday, we’re going to discuss a question a WHW reader previously submitted to the Resident Writing Coaches. Nancy C. asked:

“I would like to know more about how to show the passing of time between scenes (other than dates or ‘one week later’ at the beginning of the chapter).”

Great question, Nancy! *smile* Before we get to the answer, let’s first recap why it’s important for our readers to be at least vaguely aware of the time frame of our scenes:

Time—just like location—establishes our story’s setting, which anchors readers in our story.

Without an anchored setting, readers might be distracted from digging into our story, as they struggle to correctly interpret events in their head. And time—especially the passage of it—can be just as important as our beautifully described locations in giving readers that anchor.

Including the passage of time can also make our story more believable. Readers are more likely to give us the benefit of the doubt if they’re not expected to swallow that our characters instantly fall in love, learn new skills, overcome their emotional issues, research how to beat the bad guys, etc.

So how can we indicate the passage of time in our story? Here are a few options beyond listing a date line above our scene or starting with “One week later…”

Option #1: Use Weather of the Seasons

If the previous scene took place during a summer heat wave, readers will understand that time has passed if the next scene mentions the russet colors of falling leaves or a wind-whipped snowstorm.

Freezing sleet drenched her thin jacket and made her long for the warm breezes of last summer.

Option #2: Setup a Wait and Payoff an Event

If the previous scene mentioned that the characters were waiting for something (receiving a message, another character catching up with them, an upcoming holiday, etc.), the next scene can jump to that event.

The medicine arrived in the mail on the promised day, and she grasped the tiny bottle with shaking hands. One more day, and it might have been too late to reverse the infection.

Option #3: Contrast What the Time Passage Could Have Been

Related to Option #2, if our characters and readers are expecting a wait, we can indicate how much time has passed by contrasting the actual amount with the expected amount.

Even though the instructions had said to wait two weeks, impatience got the better of her after ten days, and she dialed the number listed for Receiving Your Laboratory Test Results.

Option #4: Highlight What’s Changed—or Hasn’t Changed

Similar to Option #2 but without an expected wait, a scene can show whether anything has changed from the previous situation.

With every month that passed after the loss of her mother, her friends assumed her grief would lessen, but no amount of time would relieve the ache in her heart.

Option #5: Bring a Character Up to Speed

If a character misses events, another character could catch them up on what they missed.

“Thank goodness you’re finally here. Your father has been asking for you for weeks.”

Option #6: Use a Literary “Montage”

We’re probably all familiar with the “training montage” scene in movies, and even though that’s a visual technique, we can do something similar in our writing by contrasting a before and after.

From one day to the next, her accuracy improved until—after more weeks than she wanted to admit—she could finally hit the bullseye with every shot.

Option #7: “Hand Wave” Away the Time Passage

The opposite of Option #6, we can tell readers that time passed quickly while not much was happening.

At her stomach’s grumble, she glanced at the clock to see which meal she’d forgotten this time. Mealtimes—and days and nights—had passed in a hazy blur lately as she pretended the last message from Headquarters hadn’t changed her life forever.

Caution: Don’t Lose Readers by Skipping Information

While most of the examples above don’t use specific phrases like “three weeks later,” they still vaguely indicate how much time has passed—at least as far as days, weeks, months, or years. A passage of days is very different from that of months, and readers usually need the unit of time for an anchor.

Also, we don’t want readers to feel left out from whatever happened in the interim. As shown in the examples, we can keep readers connected to our story by hinting at how our characters spent the time: activities (training, traveling, researching), their emotional state (grief, impatience, survival mode), etc.

Do you have questions about any of these options, or can you think of other ways to indicate time passage in our stories?

jami-picture-200-x-300_framedAfter muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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23 Responses to A Question of When: Indicating Time Passage in Our Stories

  1. Pingback: Showing vs. Telling: How Do We Choose? | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

  2. Pingback: Pacing and Tension: The Heartbeat of Your Story | The Winged Pen

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  4. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you. Very helpful.

  5. Great tips. Even if we know this, we always need reminders!

  6. Anthony Harrison says:

    These tips really help, as I have two manuscripts with parallel timelines. I look forward to using them to tighten up my story.

  7. Peter L Holmes says:

    Thanks for this Jami…I sometimes get lost in time and have to rewrite the whole mess…but then I suppose ‘fix it later’ as they say, is OK …

    P.S. what’s your favourite chocolate?

  8. Sieran Lane says:

    Yes, even in many of my favorite books, I find it frustrating if I have to reread passages because I missed a time transition sentence…same with location transitions. I might believe that only a few days have passed but am later told in the story that an entire week passed… =_= Same with locations if I missed the sentence that said they are now in a different place. You could say it’s my fault that my eyes skipped over these transition sentences, but it would be cool if the writer found a way to make it easy for me to catch that time or place change. What do you think?

    I like your tips too, as they give me alternate ways of presenting time changes without always resorting to things like, “Before long,” “Not long after,” etc. Haha, I think I tend to be too explicit with my readers, as I always prefer to err on the side of being too clear than to risk being even a bit unclear.

    Yet, I notice that aside from your no. 1 tip on weather change, all your other tips’ examples use a time word, like “day,” “month,” “week,” etc. Not that I think including these words is a bad thing, but it seems that it’s hard to indicate a passage of time without explicitly using these (“days,” “months,” “weeks,” etc.) markers!

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Sieran,

      As you said, if you expect a time jump to be just a day or two, and it turns out to be a week, we can feel discombobulated. 🙂 So we want to get at least enough of a hint that readers won’t be thrown. That’s why the *units* of time involved can be helpful, even if we don’t have specifics beyond that.

      In the comments of this post, Natalie suggested physical indicators as well, such as a character aging, hair growing long, or a beard filling in. Most people are familiar enough with those situations to get a hint of the time involved.

      • Sieran Lane says:

        Hey Jami!

        Yeah, just to clarify, I don’t think it’s bad to use those time units! I would always prefer to be too clear than to be too unclear anyway. ^^

        Physical indicators are definitely a good idea. 🙂

  9. Excellent post, Jami. Really helpful. You mentioned things I hadn’t thought of. Thank you!

  10. :Donna says:

    Always excellent tips, Jami! Thank you 🙂 This site is THE BEST!

  11. Natalie Shannon says:

    What about your characters aging? Like going from black hair to salt and pepper hair to full gray hair? Or a character is a child, then a teenager to a young woman? I do this in my novel.
    or is this too vague?

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Natalie,

      Great addition to the list! Yes, indications of aging would imply that years have passed, so readers would still get that information about the *units* of time. Many epilogues have big jumps along these lines, so this usage wouldn’t be too unusual either.

      As I mention at the end of the post, you’d want to give readers a hint of what they missed so they don’t feel too disconnected. This could be as vague as indicating that their bad situation from the previous scene had continued, but now things were finally changing. Or it could be an indication (like in an epilogue) that they’d lived a good and happy life. The point is just to make sure the reader doesn’t feel left out or excluded.

      Hope that helps! 🙂

  12. Laurie Evans says:

    Thanks for this! I sometimes struggle to show the passage of time in my stories.

  13. Great ideas. I’ve bookmarked for future reference. Thanks, Jami!

  14. Great post, and a terrific list of options. I know I often find it frustrating when the passage of time is spit out directly because there are just so many was to integrate it into the story and description, as you’ve shown here. To me it makes no sense to break that reading spell if we can help it.

  15. Thank you so much for this, Jami. Very useful, well-organized information. Can’t wait to apply this in revisions! 🙂

  16. Jami Gold says:

    Thanks again for having me here as a Resident Writing Coach, Angela and Becca! I think this is one of those topics that we don’t think about very often, so I’m glad Nancy brought up the question. 🙂

  17. Bookmarking this page! Great tips on making that smooth transition for my readers.

  18. Jean Davis says:

    Excellent suggestions with great examples. I think I’ve used variations of most of these.

  19. I love this, Jami! The passage of time is something we all struggle with writing smoothly. These are great tips! I’ll be coming back to this one, I’m sure.

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