Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Showing the Passage of Time

Writer Jami Gold said, “Time—just like location—establishes our story’s setting, which anchors readers in our story.”

There’s a movie that does a marvelous job of showing passing of time. In it the character is literally walking through different seasons. It takes a very short time on screen but we know without a doubt that a year has passed.

We want readers to have a sense of time passing in written stories as well. How do we do that?

Use simple transitions to show time has been skipped. This is where we get to tell. “That evening…” “The next morning…” “Two days later…” “After school…” “He showered and dressed…” We are summarizing nonimportant happenings to get on with the story.

State the time in the text. Or day of week. Or date. Or season. “Leslie checked the time on her phone. 7:32 a.m. If he didn’t show up soon, they’d be late to school. 7:35.” “On the first day of spring break…”

Show the time with what is in the sky. “The rising sun peeking through the window…” “The moon glow…” Mention the stars and the reader will assume night.

Use events to show time. It can be a countdown: “Only one more week until my birthday.” Or can be days counted since an event: “It’s been three hours/days since…” Or it can be a wait and payoff. “In six and a half days Stella would finally see her best friend.” The next scene might be at the airport as the friend exits the gate.

Use physical cues. “Oh, great, it’s that time of the month again.” “Dad’s chin was scratchy on my cheek” could indicate evening. “The dew on the grass was cold on my bare feet” probably means morning.

Scene breaks can indicate time has passed. If the end of one scene shows a character studying for a final then heading to bed, and the next scene shows him in the classroom taking the test, the reader will assume the night has passed.

In addition, remember time is relative. Waiting 15 minutes to be called in the doctor’s office can feel like a long time. We might be aware of things we normally ignore such as a pattern in the couch across from us. Or the finger smudges on the window. Or the buzz of the lights. On the other hand, when a crisis is happening, we might only focus on the main thing—the charging bear.

Also, think how kids the age of your character in your manuscript view time. Author Elizabeth Varadan said, “In a child’s life, a week, a month, a few months, can feel like forever.” My great-niece who is seven recently said, “…it takes a thousand years before I get a year older!” A child character will not be talking about how quickly the years or even months pass—that’s an adult reaction. Though a kid might think summer vacation goes by too fast.

Robert Wood said in his article on time, “a compelling sense of time passing can bring a story to life in ways you’d never expect.” By contrast, if too many things happen in a specified time period to be possible, we can lose readers’ suspension of disbelief.

Do you know what time it is in your story?

If you need help keeping track of that time, perhaps this post on timelines will be helpful.

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3 thoughts on “Showing the Passage of Time

  1. Again, you said it well. my recent MG have been contemporary and take place in a short amount of time, a few even written in present tense. I’m mindful that, at all times, a reader has to have a clear sense of place & time.

      1. This is something I struggle with. I have to make a spreadsheet for myself, usually when I’m revising, to keep track of which day/time things happened. Then I’ll realized I packed too many things into one day.
        Great point also about how kids see time differently.

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