Today, 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 Gold, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.