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How to show the passage of time while writing novels

In two of our earlier posts we briefly spoke about the element of time in writing. While working on the plot of a story, for instance, it is important to consider when things are happening.
While writing about the setting of a novel too, we’d mentioned how it is important to demonstrate to readers when the book is set.
In this post we bring to you how you can demonstrate the passage of time effectively.
In his book, The Elements of Writing Craft, Robert Olmstead writes, “A story makes an opening in time.” Any story begins either in the past, present or the future.
As writers it is important to develop a sense of time for our readers; it is important to provide a clear picture as to the “when”of events, place descriptions, conflicts and character interactions during the reading process.

Why is it important?

Readers follow the lives of characters over a period of time. The time element provides an event-to-event change in the story, which then propels the story ahead. An entire novel may sometimes be events that occur in one day or over years.

Why Else?

  • Are you chronicling the life of a character from his birth to his death? In Alexandre Dumas’ novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the protagonist Edmond Dante is sent to prison without a trial. He is nineteen at that time and is just about to marry his fiancée.

Lesson: Age is a function of time. Your readers will want to know how old your characters are.

  • Edmond Dante is charged with being a traitor and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Lesson: Key dramatic events take place at points in time. The situation where a young man’s life is robbed from him (time taken away from him) creates the right empathy in the minds of the readers.

  • He spends six years in solitary confinement and is almost suicidal.

Lesson: Emphasis on time spent in conflict adds gravitas to the story; it sets the stage for the final against-the-odds victory.

  • After 6 years he befriends a fellow prisoner – Abbe Faria who is digging a tunnel in a bid to escape. The tunnel inadvertently leads to Edmond Dante’s prison cell. Over the period of the next eight years Dante acquires an education in history, languages, science and mathematics from Faria. Faria also provides him information about an island of hidden treasure. They also make a plan for the escape of Edmond Dante. When Faria dies, Edmond Dante takes his place in the burial sack and escapes from prison. He finds the treasure and over a period of five years takes revenge on everyone responsible for his imprisonment. He is thirty-eight at that time, having spent fourteen years in prison.

Lesson: The time spent in arming oneself with knowledge, i.e, time spent in conflict resolution provides for intrigue. In your novel there will be multiple conflicts (instances and events that propel the plot forward, the “something’s happening” bits) and conflict resolutions. It is important to show the time-distance between these.

How can you show the passage of time?

Robert Olmstead’s “Elements of the Writing Craft,” is a much recommended book. There are over 150 little lessons, excerpts from books and analyses to help you write your novel. On the matter of time, Olmstead suggests the following ways to show the reader the passage of time:

  • By the clock: Actual units of time in hours and minutes. Sentences might begin like this, “one hour ago or three hours later.”
  • By the calendar: Think birthdays or public events. Something like, “On the 13th of August of 1912…”
  • By the Season: “Last Autumn…”
  • By Festivals and Events: “Next Christmas they plan to buy a bigger tree…”

The following example is not in the book but I realized that many authors constantly use it:

  • Deftly changing tenses: “Today we admitted him in the hospital and tomorrow the doctors will discharge him because it is only a minor procedure.”

Note: You have to establish a sense of “now” – the time where the action is happening and then a sense of what happens later or what happened before and how long apart these are from “now.”

Linearity and Non-Linearity in structuring your work

A linear structure is one where events happen in a chronological fashion, in a sequential manner. Kazuo Ishiguro in his novel, When We Were Orphans, narrates the story in a sequential manner, structuring the story into sub-books (eg: Book 1, Book 2), each sub-book representing events in the protagonist’s life in particular points in time. Often the time in each sub-book represents a time period in years and this period is made known to the reader right at the beginning. This sort of structuring makes the philosophical architecture of the story simple, often discouraging the reader’s independent thought. Let me explain. The reader is told when things happen rather than having to unravel “the when” from seemingly obvious clues during the reading process.
A non-linear structure is one where the narrative shifts back and forth in time swinging from “now” and “then” and back to “now” again. “Now” is the point in the novel where all the action is happening.
In non-linear structures too an author might choose to employ sub-books. Each part or book may or may not have the same narrator. Often different sub-books have different narrators. For instance some novels may incorporate first person narrative accounts in one or two of the sub-books whilst a different point of view maybe presented in other parts or sub-books. Each narrator might be telling the story in a different point in time.
An extremely interesting example of a non-linear book is The Golden Notebook written by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing. Anna Wulf, the protagonist, is a novelist with only one novel to her credit. Money trickles in from the royalty she receives for this novel. Anna is a character of Free Women, a conventional short novel within The Golden Notebook.  Anna records her experiences in four colored notebooks. The black notebook records her writing life, the yellow notebook her emotional life, the red notebook her political views and the blue notebook – everyday events. But it is the fifth notebook – the golden notebook in which she reveals her inner self. Each notebook is returned to four times, interspersed with episodes from Free Women, creating non-chronological, overlapping sections that interact with one another. Another much recommended book, simply to marvel at technique and how time is handled.
Non-linear structures tend to use back-stories and flash-backs to bring about time shifts in the narrative.
The acclaimed writer Virginia Woolf once mentioned in an interview with The New York Times that “an hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or one hundred times its clock length: on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.”
Time can be an event in a moment, spread over a day, perhaps a week or maybe even a lifetime of a protagonist.
Are there other ways to show the passage of time that you’ve come across? We’d love to hear from you.

About Lavanya
Booksoarus writer, book lover, writing coach. If you liked this article, I'd love to hear your views and feedback on what we can do to improve this site.

2 thoughts on “How to show the passage of time while writing novels”

  1. This was a fantastic resource for writing a college essay in which I am commenting on the passage of time in a coming-of-age Spanish novel- thank you!!

  2. Hi Sameer,
    Just came across your blog and found it extremley helpful….
    Am planning to publish my maiden novel, but am tad confused between the genre I should go with…either mythological fiction (single) or a crime thriller…..
    I would be grateful if you could also help me with the guidelines as to how to go about it, as I already have the respective plots ready in hand…
    Just that being a fresher is giving me kinda goosebumps


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