How to Show the Passage of Time in your Novel

Last week, I went with my oldest to meet with his school counselor and to select the classes he would take his junior year of high school. When we were called back, we both stood, and then he stopped to let me go in front of him without a look or prompt from me. He gave me a hug when the appointment was over, with his arms wrapping around my neck with ease (and as I’m six feet tall, that’s saying something). He has just finished his driver’s ed course, may be looking at a possible prom date this year, and it has made my internal time teller go all wacky.

Time has been even more topsy-turvy because over Thanksgiving, I was able to snuggle with a two-month old niece and a four-month old nephew courtesy of my two youngest sisters.  It was fun to calm them down, to be still while the weight of infant slumber rested against me. And it seems cliché, but it really does seem like not that long ago that I did the same with my kids.

Of course, it was also really nice, when the baby became inconsolable, to pass him or her off to the appropriate mother.

The combination of these two things has brought to my attention, again, the way that time is inconsistent. This comic sums it up perfectly:

zits-long-days-short-years

The tricky thing for writers is how to demonstrate that. Part of the problem is that the whole “show-don’t-tell” mantra permeates our very writing existence and we are caught in the trap of thinking we need to show EVERYTHING. Truth be told, when creating that first draft, every detail may be necessary for you to be able to figure out the story. But the reality is all of us have experienced days where time speeds by and our glances at the clock are continually shocking because how can it be that late? And I’m certain we’ve all had the days (or parties, events, conversations, etc.) that take such a long time and yet it’s only minutes, or worse, seconds.

I have thought of a few kinds of cues that writers can utilize to help stories transition through time.

how-to-show-the-in-your-novel

Routine Cues:

  • Bedtime: As my children have gotten older, it is sometimes difficult for my husband and I to resist trying to get them all in bed by 8:00 like we used to be able to. There’d be mutiny. But for a mother of young kids, the routine for bedtime can be a proverbial light at the end of the day. It’s also the time to show what kind of a day each person involved in bedtime routines had (whatever the appropriate routines may entail).
  • Meal time: not only mentioning “That night, at dinner . . . “ but also “Wally ate his dinner, twice” would allow the reader to understand the stage that Wally is in. This can be done with coffee brewing, trying to set the table for dinner, opening a lunch box, waiting in line at school with a tray, etc.

Physical Cues:

  • If you are showing the coming of age, growth, vocabulary, dismissal of “childish” things all allow the reader to understand what is happening. Also, commenting on change in voice, body type, and depending on the story, smell, would let the reader know what is going on.
  • Height: though you don’t know how tall my son is, putting HOW he hugged me and my height probably allowed you to envision what he might look like.
  • If someone is intentionally going through a physical change (body building, pregnancy, weight loss) but it isn’t the main point of the story, consider using a montage kind of storytelling, giving glimpses at the progress but not bogging the reader down with details that don’t advance the character arc or plot.

Seasonal Cues:

  • Is your story set in a place that adheres to the typical “four season” model? Nature is great for helping readers jump ahead a few (or many) months, and with one or two sentences, you can ground them again.
  • Consider the flavor options that are available at each time of the year as well. For example:
    • Pumpkin spice
    • Peppermint
    • Cotton candy
  • Drop hints based on what people are wearing. If they are decked out in stars and stripes or swimsuits, we picture something vastly different than mittens and scarves.

Celestial Cues:

  • This one requires you spend some time looking up. Where I live, the sun rising, even on a cloudy morning, has different hues than a sun setting behind a clouded sky. The absence of shadows suggests a different time of day as well.
  • Remember that the moon has a path it travels across the sky as well, and that the brightness of the stars increases as the night darkens.

Calendar Cues:

  • Holidays
    • Our modern society has helped solidify what we expect from each holiday courtesy of commercialization, but as a writer, you can use that to your benefit. Easter looks and feels different than Labor Day, and even something like Groundhog Day can ground your reader in time and setting.
  • Anniversaries
    • There are all kinds of these. Thinking Through Our Fingers just passed its fifth year. Wedding anniversaries can be both bitter and sweet depending on the status of the relationship. See also time markers for work, friendships, annual events, etc.
  • School year considerations
    • Just picture a time with these three options: spring break, finals week, picture day, graduation/commencement. Chances are decent you saw time and seasons and time of day and appearance of character without needing more.

Sometimes you just have to tell:

  • If you get TOO detailed in the passing of time, your reader might start checking their own clock. Sometimes the best thing really is to say, “later that day” or “at six o’clock”.
  • You can do this with big jumps too. “The next summer” or “a few months later” or “when Scott turned ten” works to help reground your reader and stick with the character.
  • If you are doing a dual time narrative, putting the dates at the top of each chapter is the fastest way to convey what is going on to readers.

When trying to decide which details to share, and how to share them, think about the way you engage with the world, always trying to remember that time actually isn’t consistent in the way we experience it.

What are your favorite ways to show the passing of time? Have a book or movie that you think demonstrated passing time well?

_________________________________________
profileTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

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