How to master the passage of time in your novel
Have you ever listened to someone—maybe a rambling uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, or a friend telling a riveting he-said-she-said bit of gossip—tell a story and they don’t tell it chronologically? They jump backwards and forwards as they try to explain something that happened, punctuating it with things like “oh because before that her mom said X to her…” etc. but they completely muddle the entire timeline.
It's annoying right? Some people make it really hard to pin down a story timeline.
Other people are natural born storytellers. They understand how to flow from past and present to convey the full picture of an event without the listener feeling utterly lost.
This is what we should aim for as fiction writers, as storytellers.
And yet so many inexperienced writers—and even plenty of experienced writers—get the passage of time wrong, y’all. Or if not wrong, then they haven’t yet mastered it.
Between weaving in backstory, memories, and story present, sometimes writers are straddling multiple timelines. The last thing you want to do is confuse readers.
Here’s the thing: Life happens chronologically. Story does not.
A story is only one slice of a character's life. Yet, in order to fully understand who they are and what makes them tick, you’ll likely need to include flashbacks of important things that shaped them before story present.
Here are some ways to help you master the passage of time in your book.
Timestamps are words or phrases that cue the reader when they are in time. They’re used when a character is slipping in and out of a memory, and when time moves, but you don’t need or want to show every little thing that happens in between now and then.
When a character remembers something, an author might write something like, "her mind wandered to the time when..." or, “it reminded him of the last time he saw…" These signal the start of a memory. But just like when you begin a memory, you must draw the character and the reader back into the present. Simple example of these are things like: “Now, as he..." or “…said Mom, snapping me out of the memory” or “I shook off my thoughts and…” etc.
When time passes, you need to let the reader know how much has gone by. Simple example of these include things like "the next day," "over the following week," or “When Friday came around…” etc. That way you’re not wasting precious space and time (ha) writing about things that aren’t story-worthy.
Scene vs. Narration
Keep in mind that scene and narration have different purposes and they each have a different effect on time. Scenes slow time way down. We are watching the action unfold as it’s happening, moment-by-moment. Real-time. Whereas narration, on the other hand, speeds time way up. You’re literally summarizing (usually minor) events that have been taking place. In this way, narration is great for transitions and bridging together the story-worth scenes together. (I did an Instagram post about scene vs. summary, which you can find here, that explains when to use each.) Just keep in mind that using narration and scenes effectively can also help ground the reader in time.
Consider making a timeline of your character's story, marking both story present and story past. Doing this can help you gather the big-picture view of your character and their life. As an example, I’m writing about a friendship that imploded before the story began. The story is about their reconciliation (and romance!), which takes place about four years after their fallout. So, on my timeline, I’d first start by marking all of the main scenes that take place in story-present (starting close to when they first see each other again after this four-year fallout). Then I would mark a couple of the main character-informing memories that happened in story-past. So their big fight would be the main one.
If you have too many scenes that are happening outside of the present…you may have to rethink where your story really starts.
Pro Tip: Things are triggered
When it comes to moving around in time—mostly thanks to the use of flashbacks and memory—you must have the time leaps show up in logical, purposeful places. Memories are best when they’re triggered by something that the POV character experiences (sees, hears, smells, etc.). This is how our memories come up for us in life, after all, right? We don’t walk through life randomly combing our minds for memories of our long lost love, for example. We are smacked in the face with those memories when we come face-to-face with something that reminds us of them.
In fiction, you’re striving to give readers the experience of being inside a character’s head, so it’s important to mirror the patterns we experience in life, versus trying to give the reader the information that suits us, the author. Let the information suit the character.
A final word about flashbacks/memories
In addition to being triggered by current story events, consider also presenting the flashback at a time right before it’s essential, in order to enrich the reader’s understanding of what the next scene will mean to the character. In other words, present it right before we need it.
So, for instance, let’s say you’re writing a romance between two characters who grew up together. You’re going to write a scene in which you have the childhood friends reconnect and the boy gives the POV character a replica of a bracelet she lost. But you want the reader to fully understand what this moment means to her. So you include a memory of them playing as kids and the POV character loses this special bracelet with a special dolphin charm. She is devastated because it belonged to her late mom or something. The memory would be shown shortly before he gives her this gift so that the moment he gives her the bracelet we fully experience and comprehend the emotions she feels. Not many chapters prior. Not explained afterwards. Shortly before the emotional story-present scene.
Phew! So as you can see, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to making sure you’re grounding your reader in time. But you should also be grounding them in space. Make sure readers know when and where your characters are at all times, and they’ll be moving confidently through your book’s timeline.