Elizabeth: T is for Time

swirlyclockI’ve been marathon watching shows on Netflix lately, and it’s got me thinking about timing in stories. When you watch shows on standard broadcast television, there is typically a week between episodes, which gives a sense of time passing in the story, even if no actual time cues are provided in the episodes. When you watch one episode after the other, however, that sense of space is lost and it can be challenging to determine just how much time has passed in the story. As viewers continue to transition from traditional broadcast television to on-demand viewing, the issue of timing becomes even more relevant.

The same problem can occur in books when no timing cues are provided. Back in Dicken’s day, when stories were often released in serial form over a long period of time, the lack of cues was probably less of a problem than in today’s books, which readers sometimes read from beginning to end in just a few hours. The book I just recently read, for example, had some timing cues, but not enough for me to have a clear idea of exactly how much time had passed in the story. The events may have taken place over a week or a month – I really couldn’t tell. Some elements of the story, like the progression of the main romance, were harder to believe, because it didn’t feel like enough time had passed for the relationship to develop.

There are a number of ways to show the passage of time without specifically saying “several days later” or “the next afternoon” in a scene. Having characters eat dinner in one scene and then breakfast in a later scene, can indicate the passage of time, as can changes of clothing or alternating scenes back and forth between work and home. Longer amounts of time can be indicated by changes in the weather (seasons), the transition from one holiday to another, or references to the growth of something like a garden or a child. Some books also successfully include actual dates or timing indicators in the chapter headings.

Time is very critical in my own story because my hero only has two weeks to clear his name and uncover his accuser. I’ve been very deliberate about placing indicators of the passage of time in my scenes, both to keep the reader informed and to increase the feeling of tension as the hero’s deadline gets closer and closer.  Now I’m taking a second look at them to make sure they are doing their job effectively but as unobtrusively as possible.

So what cues do you look for in a story to indicate the passage of time and how have you incorporated them in your own story?

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth: T is for Time

  1. I’m terrible in real life about time and space, so when I write a story, I keep a separate time line going. Day of the week, approx day of the month, moon phase and other seasonal cues might show up on the timeline, but they only show up in the story if the reader needs to know.

    I adore the olde timey movie device of setting a viewer immediately in the scene by providing a caption that says something like “Morocco, September 13, 1829” or whatever. I don’t think it’s as effective in books because it’s usually the chapter title — and I’ve learned to ignore chapter titles and all that epigraphical stuff. But then again, I like footnotes and other typographical devices that do tend to pull the reader out of the story — but they have to be used well. Usually, if they pass the editorial gatekeeper, they are doing something for the reader.

    As a reader, I don’t really notice the timing unless something big happens for me to say, “Wait, is this a time-travel story?” As a writer, it’s something that concerns me quite a bit. I just hope I get it right . . . .

    • Michaeline, I have a time-line for my story as well, off in a spreadsheet, since I need to make sure events are happening in the correct sequence. It’s also important because this book is one of a planned sequence, so I need to know when events are happening in all the stories so they stay consistent.

      As a reader, I don’t pay much attention to timing though, unless something in the story triggers the question.

  2. My problem with the timeline when I write is that I do have a sense of time passing in my mind, but it is difficult to transfer it on paper in order to seem logical enough to fit the whole story. I sometimes stick to the main storyline and then go back and forth describing events that led to that current storyline and maybe some expectations of what could come next.

    • You’re right – just like all the other aspects of writing, it can be hard to transfer the sense of time in your mind into your story. Getting your main storyline down and they going back to include the events that led to / impacted it sounds like a good method.

  3. I normally don’t think about time too much when I’m reading, unless it throws me out of the story. For example, if I can follow a character from chapter to chapter, knowing that it’s night or next week, for example, when the action takes place, I’m fine. I sort of lose track if the book’s time period is one day or one year, unless writing confuses me. But I like the timing to be clear in my own work, and I’ve been rereading something where I’ve realized the time cues—in terms of how many days or weeks have passed—are at best, not obvious. In the WIP, though, the timing is important (only two weeks for the full story to unfold), so to keep it straight and add the markers, I keep a timeline in my outline.

    Minimal narrative markers are fine for me though—“the next afternoon,” “by sunset,” “but the following week, it rained every day,” or whatever, work great, as long as I get a quick anchor to the time.

    • Kay – glad to know the minimum narrative markers work for you. I have several of those in my story as quick time anchors, even though there may be other cues imbedded in the actual story.

      One of the things that triggered this question for me was a hospital drama I was watching. The characters were in scrubs all the time, so no clothing cues for changing days, and the action was all inside, so no daylight/darkness cues for passing days. The who episode felt like it took place over just a few hours, but turns out several days were supposed to have passed.

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