Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Passages of Time

I am stealing the idea for this post from Tara Maya, who posted about the difficulties writers can have showing the passage of time in novels. Specifically, what to do when skipping ahead in the story. It doesn't really matter, in my experience, if you're talking about jumping an hour, a day, three years or three centuries. You need to keep the narrative flowing through these 'passages of time' (to coin a vile phrase).

What I think is important when skipping ahead is to keep the focus on the story, so that you are talking about the same thing (whether plot, theme, character, setting, mood or whatever) while you make the transition. Pick a story element and use it as your transitional device. Is a character waiting for news? Talk about the waiting while the time passes ("It took me three months to hear back from Derrick; I got his letter on the twentieth day of December"). Huge spans of time? Focus on something big that lasts through the eons ("As the years passed, the great Thorndyke mansion fell gradually into decay" or "Kingdoms rose and fell on the plains of Araxxara, and the great mountain outlived them all, standing imposing and some other adjective..."). You can also, for long leaps across the years, talk about an object ("The Vermeer Stradivarius passed through many hands before it found its way into those of Jakob Meerver...").

The point is to keep the narrative unbroken. What you don't want to do is have the story come to a stop at the end of one time period and then attempt to restart at the beginning of the next time period. The story must keep going during/across the time passage.

An exception to that rule is of course the chapter break, but only if your book is structured so that chapters generally begin further in the future than the last one ends. The reader will catch on to this structure quickly enough so you don't have to do much work aside from remaining consistent. I just read a lovely book where chapters alternate past/present consistently, and I wasn't confused ever. In my last novel, I think I was a bit clumsier handling passage of time than I could've been. My next novel will deal with it better, I swear.

I also think that this technique, of remaining focused on a story element through time changes, works with going backwards in time as well, for flashbacks (ugh) and whatnot. As long as the reader still knows what you're talking about, still is aware of the point of your narration, he will follow you along a great many tangents and timelines. But you have to give them something to hang onto while you gallivant across the years. So connect your timeline together with devices that form the backbone of the story. Don't think of your movement out of the story's "present" as breaks, but as digressions that are part of a larger framework, and tie them to your narrative present somehow.

The other thing to remember is that, very likely, any of the narrative/structural problems you'll come across have already been solved in any number of ways by good writers. I highly encourage you to look at books you admire and see how other writers have solved these problems in their own novels. Remember always to read like a writer, to learn from those who've come before us, and that there is no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants when we ourselves wish to rise above the crowd. That's a lame image but I'm tired, okay?

Caveat Lector: This all supposes that you write the sort of story that I write, in which a flowing and unbroken-seeming narrative is important. If your intent is to sometimes disorient the reader, or if you are trying to make the skips in the timeline stand out, you should ignore all of my advice. There are lots of types of stories, and lots of ways to tell those stories.


  1. What a baby comment near the end! Still, I'm glad you posted about this topic. In my current novel (you know the one), I skip months, sometimes years. But, I intend to write a few pages, rather than a few sentences, to summarize the skipped time. Is that okay? Sniff. Please love my work!

  2. I have to deal with this in my novel, FATE'S GUARDIAN. The story opens with the protagonist as a 10 year old boy. Then the action follows him through his teenage years, to his marriage in his twenties, and ultimately to his death in his thirties.

    Since it's a thriller, I don't want to dwell on the in-between periods where there is no action. I do need to create plausible reasons for skipping years of his life, though. The solution in this novel plays out through the motives for the antagonist...what keeps him at bay, and what inspires him to return periodically.

    One advantage of the suspense genre is that you can build tension by leveraging the passages of time (what a vile phrase you coined, Scott). I'm ending each section with a cliff-hanger of sorts, showing the reader that the battle was won but the war wages on.

  3. I LOVE this topic because I'm majorly dealing with it right now in my WIP. I love the idea of keeping focus on an object or one thing through your narrative to keep the focus. Thanks for this.

  4. I used the chapters as months thingy in one project. Each chapter is a new month, and each chapter is appropriately titled. For example - Chapter One: May. This worked for that particular project and I used small flashback scenes to relate some of what happened in the last month.

    Now, when I'm not using a convenient each chapter is a month format, I make sure to mention the passage of time fairly early in the chapter - three weeks since, a month had passed, four days . . . . something that shows the flow of time, but doesn't disrupt the narrative. This works for me, but maybe not everyone.

    I haven't tried the trick of jumping years forward in the narrative. I don't think I'm brave enough to try that one out . . . yet.


  5. Justus: Narrative summary of the skipped years is fine. Buck up; I loves yer work.

    Rick: Cliff hangers are good. I like a story where you tell yourself that you'll finish just this chapter before bed, but when the chapter ends, you want to turn the page and keep reading anyway.

    B.J.: The important thing to remember is that you don't have to do something fancy, you just have to find a way to tell the reader that time is passing while keeping the story moving forward. Avoid coming to a dead stop, is really all there is to it.

    Scott: Your mention of your "one month per chapter" structure on Tara's blog is the very thing I'm referring to in this post.

    In my last book, the final 2/3 of the story takes about a week and a half, I think, and I wrote about each day of that time period. Not much happens at night, so there are (probably too many) passages where my narrator says things like "and then I went to bed and woke early the next morning." Those tend to fall at chapter breaks, too. In retrospect, I might have done something different to better effect. But that book's done, so I can try to be smarter in my next one. I'm still not even sure how long a span of time this next book covers. Months, I think. Less than a year, very likely.

  6. Great post, Scott. I'll have to look through my WIP and see how I've handled this type of situation.

    Lynnette Labelle


  7. I really liked what you had to say about the continuity, Scott. That makes a lot of sense. And, like you said, I think patterning is key. If you're going to jump around, try to do it predictably so that readers don't have to reorient themselves after every few pages.

  8. Davin: You've summed it all up nicely. I was clearly padding for length. But yes, you should probably find one way that you use consistently through the work to structure time passing. Likely there are as many actual solutions as there are narrative problems; I just threw out a couple examples so I could say "and some other adjective" because stuff like that amuses me.

  9. Do you think it's important to pass time in the same way in the same book? For instance, if you use a flowing narrative in one section, to smooth over a few months, would it be too confusing to use a hard break and fresh scene to show a new year?

    Granted, I am sure a good enough writer could pull it off, but in general do you think that would be jarring, or is it completely dependent on the context of the novel?

  10. Another question: Does it make a novel read oddly if time flows at different rates throughout the book? (I don't mean in an sf way, where a blackhole is messing with the spacetime continuum.) What I mean is, I've read books where the first half of the book covers three years and the second half of the book covers three days, and it feels awkward because of the disparity. I've read other books where the author can pull it off, and I am wondering what they did to make it seamless.

    If I could remember the books where time passages are deftly handled , I would go back and re-read them. Alas, in most cases, it was so deft, I don't remember, or so daft, I've blocked the memory.

  11. Tara Maya: I'm betting it depends on the context. The style of the prose and the effect desired. Plenty enough books are broken into big sections, with section breaks coming at leaps in time. So, yeah, it likely depends. And there's also probably no universal reader response to stuff like this (unless it's really clumsily done).

    As for your second question, I don't think that's an issue. As long as, IMO, the focus remains on the story. In my last book, the first six chapters cover about 25 years. Chapter 6 is four or so years long. The next 20 chapters cover a couple of weeks. I like to tell myself that the transition isn't jarring, because there are no big skips in the storyline, as I used the techniques I mention above to deal with the biggest stretches of time passing. Hopefully readers will feel the same way.

    Like so many other things in writing, there aren't really any hard and fast rules so much as this is just another thing we writers need to be aware of.

  12. A book I love--A long way from Chicago--does this. Chapter 1 recounts the summer vacation week that 2 kids from Chicago spend with their Grandmother. The next chapter is that same week the following year and so on. Cool concept. Great book.

  13. The movie "Same Time Next Year" does the same thing.

  14. Very good advice. I just read "A Wizard of Earthsea" and the novels spans something like 8 years. I never once noticed that she just rushed me through three years of schooling because the narrative was so flawless. What a skill--one I'm still working on.

  15. Thank you, Scott, for some good thoughts on this. I like how you mention flashbacks as well. I have been struggling with this in my book, and finally realized the flashbacks shouldn't be passages of time at all. It's complicated. Passages of time can be handled in many different effective ways, but I think you are correct in saying that when we study writers whom we admire, these devices become clearer.


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