I’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?