Time Waits for No One

On April 13, 2020, Clare H. wrote, Any suggestions on a good way to show that time has passed in a book? Currently, my character is twelve, but I want him to be 17 or 18 by the time I hit my climax, that way readers will see him grow. So far I am trying to show that the seasons are changing and I have thought about using holidays almost as checkpoints.

Three of you weighed in:

Erica: Depending on what else you have going on, you might want to put in a big time jump somewhere, such as skipping directly from 14 to 16. I would suggest either making the passage of time fairly slow or fairly fast. If you do put in a big time jump, though, try to have it occur between chapters. It’s less confusing for the readers that way.

Katie W.: I vote for the big time jump. As a reader, I find it much less confusing than simply speeding up time, (i.e., skipping ahead in a movie instead of fast-forwarding.) especially if you can divide the book into parts and have the time jump take place between parts, rather than inside one. A simple “4 years later” (or whatever time interval you want) heading works wonders.

Melissa Mead: Do you want him to go straight from 12 to 17, or show some things happening in between?

Here’s one way I dealt with a big time jump:

“(Juvenile demon) dropped into a hunting crouch beside Malak, who realized with shock that (the youngster) was now as tall as he was. (JD) had changed from a spawnling to a long-legged juvenile before Malak had even thought to notice the transformation. Once, twenty years would have seemed an impossibly long time, but among Aureni years passed almost without notice. He’d lived years upon years, more than a Deeper One could count on hands and feet…”

Thanks, Melissa Mead, for the big-jump demonstration!

I’m with Erica and Katie W. that it’s best not to jump over changes that need to evolve in our story.

I like a direct approach, like seasons and holidays. Chapter headings or book sections can indicate the year–in our world or in a fantasy universe with a different calendar.

Depending on our story, we can use current events rather than years, like Royal Birth, Coronation, Royal Marriage, Assassination, Accession. Not in my case, but in most, we can even use height markers: 4′ 9″, 5′ 2″, etc. Diary entries can work too. July 1, 2008, March 13, 2010, November, 22, 2011. And so on.

We can get creative and have a different character mark the changes, say from a parent to a grandparent in letters, emails, phone calls, texts.

If we’re spanning time with a young MC, we have to think about growth. A twelve-year-old and a seventeen-year-old are different–emotionally, intellectually, and physically. The teenager will have more experience and a broader understanding. For example, if we’re using diary entries, the voice is likely to change over time. And yet, he still has to be the same person, even if the challenges in our plot also cause him to change.

In my opinion, L. M. Montgomery does a great job with this in Anne of Green Gables, one of my childhood faves. At the beginning, Anne speaks at a thousand words a minute with barely time for breath. That fades, though, as she matures. Yet, she remains thoughtful, smart, and imaginative.

These changes will mark time too, more subtly than direct markers, which we’ll probably still need (or I’d still need).

We can list ways our MC may change. Here are a few for starters:
• talkative to quiet, as L. M. Montogomery does it
• quiet to talkative, as our MC becomes more assertive
• incautious to careful
• clumsy to graceful, like Ella after finishing school

What else? List five more.

Then we have to weave these in–draw the reader’s attention to these qualities at the beginning and again later on.

We can also take advantage of plot in the aging of our MC, who at twelve will approach a problem one way, at seventeen another–different, not necessarily improved. We can change the challenges too and raise the stakes.

Having said all this, though, if we can–if our plot lets us–there’s an advantage to having our story happen in a short time, weeks and months rather than years. The advantage is just that it’s a little easier, because we don’t have to work to close the gap, as Clare H. is asking about. LOL: I should talk, because five of my novels progress from my MC’s birth or early childhood to her teen years!

Here are three prompts:

• Intelligent life in the world of your science fiction story is a species that follows the life cycle of a frog: egg, tadpole, frog. It’s a thinking creature every step of the way, but its understanding and temperament change as it goes along. Give your creature a goal or a problem from inception and write its story.

• The evil queen in “Snow White” changes as the story goes along. When the fairy tale opens, she’s beautiful and content; Snow White is barely a blip in her consciousness. After the mirror declares the girl lovelier than she is, she’s filled with rage but not ready to kill Snow White herself, so she commands the hunter to do the dirty deed. When he doesn’t, she’s ready to take over and commit murder. There’s a possible next transformation when she names the punishment that will be inflicted on her (dancing in the red-hot shoes). Write the story in a way that explains the transformations.

• Your MC Marietta is seven when her beloved older sister disappears and she swears to get her back. Your story takes her from seven to fifteen, when she either succeeds or fails definitively. Write the story, showing how she changes as she grows older.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thanks for the article!
    One caveat: I’m using the journal approach right now, and I had one beta-reader point out that a lot of people skip the headings instead of calculating how much time had passed. So I had to go into the first couple paragraphs of some scenes and sneak in words designating it as “two days later” or whatever it is.

  2. On a similar vein, I’ve found from personal experience, that “Five days later” works better than “the day before they reached Austin” because it’s entirely possible the readers don’t remember how long the trip was supposed to take, and I can basically guarantee you nobody’s going to flip back and look it up. Also, I know this is obvious, but you need to show all major changes in the main character’s life (births, deaths, weddings, etc.), or at least not skip straight from “the main characters are dating and it’s serious” to “the main characters are married.”

  3. Three books that I think do a great job covering lengthy time passages are `Ella Enchanted,’ (of course) `Spindle’s End’ by Robin McKinley, and `The Seer and the Sword’ by Victoria Hanley.

  4. Brambles and Bees says:

    I’ve been wondering the same questions. I’ve never really written a book where time passes and jumps, but right now I am currently planning something that would require some short skips in time. This really helped me understand better how to write that into my story!

  5. Brambles and Bees says:

    I am currently trying to figure out a way to transport a character to a different world. My MC is from earth, but the main setting is in a different world. I have no idea how I’m supposed to get him out of our world and into the one I want without making it seem a bit strange. How does one move a person from one setting to a totally different world nothing like the last?

    • Why your character? Was it a coincidence, such as stumbling upon a special portal, or is it engineered by someone? How frequent does this happen–have several people crossed over, or is your character the only one? Is your character some kind of Chosen One that someone from the other world was looking for specifically?

      Brandon Mull has used some creative ones, including walking through a natural arch or being swallowed by a hippo (after someone on the magical world performed a sacrifice), or villains kidnapping children as magic-using slaves. Narnia has some clever ones too: the wardrobe, obviously, but also two train crashes, stepping into a painting, and escaping through a mysterious door.

      • Song4myKing says:

        Adding to the Narnia list: rings and pools, Susan’s horn, a doorway made of branches, a cave (very briefly mentioned in an explanation of where the Telmerines came from).
        Other methods in other books: a rabbit hole, a looking glass, a tornado, portals hidden in places like subway systems, coral reefs, caves, and hollow trees.

        It will make a difference if your character or someone else is trying to transport them, or if it’s accidental. If it’s on purpose, your possibilities are wide open. You can use magical objects like rings and horns, or magical spells, or hidden portals that one would have to know about to find. If it’s accidental, you’ll have to have a reason for how and why it happened.

        One thing I’ve thought of that you are welcome to use, of course, is the idea of a dense fog transporting someone. The possibilities are endless when you can only see things clearly that are 10 feet in front of you!

        Here’s something you could do. For a day or two, regard everything with suspicion. Anything at all could be the key or the doorway to another world. Imagine the possibilities and jot them down. Nothing’s too crazy. If C.S. Lewis could use a picture on the wall, what’s to prevent you from using an exit sign above a door?

  6. Here’s my current question:
    My main character, the investigator in the 12 Dancing Princesses, learns that one of the twelve is a thief and sets out to discover which it is. My rough draft has him overhearing people on the street dropping the hint, but that seems too contrived–and too passive.
    I’ll get a list started, but does anyone have any ideas to add to it?

    • Maybe she steals something from him/someone he knows? Or the king hires him to figure it out? Or maybe he’s just hired to find something she’s stolen and the trail leads to the castle. Is the princess the type to boast (anonymously) about her escapades? Is he on the scene when she steals something? Presumably she’s disguised so no one will recognize her, which does raise the question of how people figure out it’s one of the princesses. A piece of jewelry with a royal symbol on it that she never takes off? A distinctive accent? The things she steals? Sorry, that’s off-topic, but it occurred to me, and I thought you might like some ideas on that front if you haven’t already come up with something.

      • Yeah, thanks. Right now, he foils one thieft (for a royal artifact), but the little pickpocket who did it was clearly hired by someone else. Later the artifact is stolen successfully, and he needs to find a clue(s) that narrow it down to the princesses. Once there, I have plenty of ideas for red herrings/real clues about which one, but I’m still working on the clue that implicate the princesses as a group.

  7. Okay, I have another thing I’m worried about. I wrote a rough draft for a book that was a Beauty and the Beast retelling. A little while later, I decided to expand this into a series with a lot of different fairytale retellings. The characters and settings overlap, but there is no overarching plot. I’m planning on writing most of the series in chronological order… but the first manuscript I wrote is now in the middle, about twelve books down. So I’m trying to decide if I should publish the one I’ve written first, or if I should sit on that rough draft until I’ve written the dozen books ahead of it. Anyone have any thoughts?

    • As long as there’s nothing in your current draft that needs to be explained in the earlier books, go for it. The Redwall books, for example, weren’t written in chronological order. Especially if you can make each of the books mostly independent of each other, you should be fine.

      • Of course, there are people who would have preferred the Redwall books to be in order so they could know when the book was set before they were four chapters in. Also, if you plan to be writing most of it in chronological order, then it wouldn’t make much sense to have the order go 12, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. Of course, Patricia C. Wrede wrote the last of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Talking to Dragons, as a standalone, and then went back and wrote the other three as prequels. (The series is middle school and up and highly recommended.) You could tell Talking to Dragons was different from the other three (different POV, time jump, slightly different style) but it wasn’t too jarring. So it would probably work for you, especially since your series is a lot more loosely connected.

    • Thanks!
      I’m trying to think of a reason that book 12 should be first. Some kind of frame story that justifies it? Or I can move book 12 a bit later so it’s the last one, and then have the others be a kind of “how we got there” kind of thing? Any other ideas for how I could make book 12 coming first look like it’s on purpose?

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        How does the chronology of the books work, since each one is discrete? Why is there an order they have to be in?

        • Mainly it’s the age of the characters. They’re all YA romance, so I need to make sure that all of the cousin protagonists are the correct age. I feel like it would throw off readers if a character is 5 in one book, and then a 17-year-old love interest in another, and then back to 10 or something.

          Although, come to think of it, I could just make the protagonist of this one older. That would simplify a lot.

          Thanks, that’s what I needed!

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