When writing a story, novel, or memoir, the passage of time is probably not one of the initial issues you’ll set about unwinding. Most writers first focus on other elements: who, what, where, when, and why. But at Writer’s Relief, we know that once you begin writing, this question will become relevant as you put words to the page—how do you write the passing of time?
Of course, you shouldn’t show every minute of every hour of every day (unless it’s done with specific intent). Yet you still want your readers to know that time has gone by. We’ve rounded up some of the best ways to effectively show the passage of time in your story.
7 Ways To Show The Passage Of Time In Your Writing
The first few methods for communicating the passage of time in your writing have to do with the physical structure of the page. These include:
Scene Breaks: Use an extra return (aka a blank line) or three centered asterisks to show a scene break. The amount of time that passes between scenes is up to you, and you’ll want to make it fairly easy for the reader to figure out where we are in time in the next scene. But once readers see a scene break, they’ll know some amount of time will have passed before the next sentence.
Chapter Breaks: Chapter breaks can function just like scene breaks—just on a larger scale. They can also indicate changes of characters or points of view. Either way, when a new chapter is started, the reader will know that we are almost certainly moving somewhere else in time in the story.
Book Sections: Starting a new section in your book works much like scene and chapter breaks, but again, on an even bigger scale! If there is a large amount of time passing between parts of your story, a section break will help physically imply this to the reader. If your book spans many years or decades, you can also use sections to split that time into a few smaller chunks. Once readers finish one section and move to the next, they will immediately understand the story is moving forward in time to the next “chunk” of years.
Within The Text
The passage of time can also be shown in multiple ways within the writing itself. Here are a few examples of how this can be accomplished:
With Words: You can simply tell your reader that time has passed. If you want to say “three years passed before…” and then be done with it, you can do that! You can also state the date or time to clearly show time has moved forward (or backward!). This approach is useful if you want to let readers know time has passed without drawing a lot of their focus to that fact.
Through Description: Since most everything and everyone will eventually bear the mark of passing time, you can use endless descriptions to show the reader how much time is passing/has passed. You can describe a short passage of time, like the sun going down or coming up, or point to a larger passage of time by having a house that was filled with a lively family now appearing empty, overgrown, and half rotted. Be creative!
Using A Slower Pace: As the writer, your foot is the one controlling the gas pedal and the speed of the story. If you want to slow time down, think about what it’s like when you’re driving reaaaaaaally slowly. You’re able to notice more details around you. If you want to slow time down for your reader, shift their attention to the smaller details. Allow your characters to make observations and have many varied thoughts about the tiniest details in their immediate surroundings.
Let your writing linger in these spaces; longer, more descriptive sentences are great for this technique. Your readers will feel slowed in time—almost suspended in time, if you really focus in strongly on details of the moment and surroundings. By using a slower pace, you can write an entire chapter that occurs over the course of only a few minutes.
Using A Faster Pace: On the flip side, think about driving very fast, and you’ll get an idea of how to speed your readers through time. Attention should shift to larger, more noticeable details, and keeping the overall rhythm of your sentences shorter and quicker will also help.
For instance, if you wanted to spend a paragraph showing that we’re shifting from winter to spring, you’ll want to use those few sentences to hit on the big, easy-to-spot changes that mark this seasonal shift: snow and ice disappearing, the days getting longer, birds and bugs reappearing, etc. Touching on a handful of bigger changes that occur over time will send a message that a larger chunk of time has passed. Also, the shorter your sentences and/or the fewer paragraphs you use to communicate the passage of time, the more dramatic and fast the change will feel to your readers.
These are just some of the ways you can show time passing in your writing. Using these techniques will help you knit together the main events in your story so that it stays cohesive without interrupting the flow or losing your readers.
Question: What’s your favorite way to show the passage of time in your writing?
My favorite way to show the passage of time is by describing time’s effect on characters; in need of a haircut, shift in attire, change in physique, etc.
I love Gina S’s way of showing time through characters. That never occurred to me. Brilliant! Thank you!
What’s the old saying: the devil is in the details.