5 Ways to Handle the Passage of Time in your Story

Passage of Time-Fiction

When writing fiction, you’re inevitably going to have to deal with the passage of time, skipping past the mundane parts in order to keep the reader engaged. However, this can pose many problems for a writer. For one, if not done in a clear and concise manner it can cause a lot of confusion for the reader.

In our latest novella, Providence, my co-author and I had to deal with a seventeen-year time gap. We thought we had it covered with just a few lines:

POV: Jason (antagonist)
He had been sent away for five years for the little incident with Jordan. She told the police that he had tried to kill her. That was bullshit! If he had tried to kill her she would be dead.
He was out for almost a year, long enough to get married to his white trash ex-wife, when he got done again for assault with a deadly weapon.  A trumped up charge designed to get him put away for a good chunk of his adult life.

But all of our beta readers came back feeling confused. And why wouldn’t they? We have the first five years covered with “He had been sent away for five years after the incident with Jordan,” then an additional year before he’s put away again with “He was out for almost a year, long enough to get married to his white trash ex-wife…,” but then we leave it with “…put away for a good chunk of his adult life.” That’s not clear and concise at all!

The second mistake we made in the first draft was to put this information about halfway through the scene. By doing this, the reader went into the scene still in the past, not realizing how many years had gone by.

To fix this problem, we added an anniversary scene from Jordan’s POV. We knew we had to make it clear that Jordan had moved to Arizona seventeen years prior and that seventeen rather uneventful years had already passed since we last heard from Jason, the antagonist. By celebrating Mike and Jordan’s fifteen-year anniversary, and referencing the two years it took Mike to talk her into marrying him, we now have our seventeen-year time gap made clear from the beginning.

POV: Jordan (protagonist)
“I still can’t believe it’s been fifteen years,” Jordan said to Mike. “I can still remember every detail of the night you proposed. It was absolutely perfect.” She took a sip of the wine he just poured. “Mmmm, that’s good.”
“What I can’t believe is that it took me two years to convince you to marry me.” Mike laughed. “But I’m glad you did. The day you married me was the happiest day of my life. You were so beautiful in your wedding dress, the sun shining off your golden hair…”
“And now here I am, pulling gray hairs and finding new wrinkles everyday.”
“Well, I for one think you just get more and more beautiful with each passing year.”

This then leads into a conversation that brings Jason back into the story seventeen years after we last heard from him.

PRO TIP: Be sure to indicate the passage of time early in the scene.

Our novel Choices spans almost twenty years, so to deal with time in this novel, we decided to divide it into three parts—mainly because of how large the book is. By doing this, we left no room for confusion. When each part begins, the reader knows exactly where they are reentering the story and how many years each part lasts.

Another way to handle a large time gap is to give an explicit time reference, i.e., “Eighteen years later…” I see this mostly in science fiction and, while it may seem a little forced or clunky, sometimes it’s much better just to be clear rather than worrying about how smooth or eloquent a transition it is.

In summary, here are 5 ways to handle the passage of time in fiction:

  1. Milestone event: Choose a milestone event, such as a birthday, anniversary, holiday, etc. and write a celebratory scene, making sure to indicate the milestone and time gap as early in the scene as possible.

  2. Dialogue: Use dialogue to reference the passage of time at the beginning of a chapter. You can insert a lot of information for the reader through simple dialogue.

  3. Parts: Divide your novel into parts.

  4. Explicit Time Reference: Give an explicit time reference at the beginning of a chapter, i.e., “Twenty years later…”

  5. Change of Season: A change of season is a great way to indicate a shorter time gap.

Handling the passage of time can be difficult. The first step is for you to know precisely when everything in your story takes place, and once you’re clear on that, then you can choose the best technique to make the time gaps as clear as possible for your reader.