Being aware of time in a story

It’s pretty easy to hear the clock ticking when you’re writing a pacy thriller which takes place over a short defined period of time, like my novel “Succession of Power”. Because everything moves at the pace of a beat, you are fully aware of those beats at all time, as are your readers. However, not every story has that style. This short article is really to say, that just because you don’t have an obvious ticking clock in your story, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t neglect the concept of time.

Some writers get a little muddled with the passage of time in their stories. If that’s you, don’t worry, it’s common. Time in a story can tie you up in knots sometimes.

The thing is, if the passage of time matters to your plot, then it matters that the audience know exactly where and when they are in your story. The beauty of a novel is that you can do it simply and in just a few lines if you want to, for example: John insisted that he knew how to fix it, as he got his tools out of the shed. He tried and tried but the hours went by with no success. Three days later, he was still trying until he gave up on the Saturday afternoon. See? We’ve covered quite a bit of time and got ourselves into the weekend in just three sentences. And we didn’t lose anything, even though that time went by slowly.

But a word of caution: if other things are happening to other characters in different places during those three sentences, you’ll have quite a bit of work to do to explain later what they’ve been up to over those three days.

Often you can transition to a different time at a new chapter or section of a book. Michael Crichton famously wrote lots of short chapters which often began with a location, a day, and a time. You can do the same with sections, or at least start with a vague reference to the time or describe the setting. An overcast moon poured a dull greyish-blue light on the parking lot. Or something!

If the clock is central to the story (the world is ending at midnight, so it’s vital we know it’s 23.45), then exact times work. In other scenarios, a general description of the time or how things look work well. Usually you want to explain the time early on, so you ground your reader and help them paint a picture of the time in their mind quickly.