How do you show how much time has passed in a short story or in a novel?
Events happen, characters develop, and so time flows. But as your story stretches across days, weeks and years, it’s impossible to write every moment.
So how do you skip or gloss over all those parts you don’t need to describe?
Summaries, flashbacks and scene breaks are the answer. But have you mastered them all? Do you know how to use them and still keep your reader engaged and grounded?
1. Summarise events
Many are familiar with the difference between summary and scene writing, but sometimes it’s not so easy to identify.
Summaries skim through events, not providing enough information for readers to completely visualise the actions in their mind.
Scene, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of summary.” — Selayna
Scenes are a more moment-by-moment, detailed showing of events. Scenes also include dialogue and non-paraphrased thoughts, which summaries don’t.
Writers use summaries all the time.
A summary could be as simple as: “She travelled by train.” There is no detail about what she did on the train, what the train looked like – it’s a simple telling.
You could surround these four words with dialogue and scene writing, but they are still a summary.
Hide summaries in scenes
Summaries lack tension and naturally use “telling” rather than “showing” techniques. But you can’t do away with them altogether.
One way to keep readers engaged with summaries is to keep them short and mix them between scenes. You can also use a summary sentence or two as a transition between scenes.
J. K. Rowling summarises a whole afternoon and conversation in a short paragraph sandwiched between two scenes:
‘So?’ said Ron, but he looked a bit uncomfortable. ‘She must’ve noticed she’s got no friends.’
Hermione didn’t turn up for the next class and wasn’t seen all afternoon. On their way down to the Great Hall for the Halloween feast, Harry and Ron overheard Parvati Patil telling her friend Lavender that Hermione was crying in the girls’ bathroom and wanted to be left alone. Ron looked still more awkward at this, but a moment later they had entered the Great Hall, where the Halloween decorations put Hermione out of their minds.
A thousand live bats fluttered from the walls and ceiling while a thousand more swooped over the tables in low black clouds, making the candles in the pumpkins stutter.” — J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
To spice up a summary, actively use “show” techniques such as adding bursts of detail, or a humorous side-note by the narrator. Anthony Doerr summarises years in his short story For a Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story, but with detail that keeps the reader engaged:
The curtains went gray; Twinkie wrappers sprouted from couch cushions; ants roved in the metal mouths of soda cans stuck to windowsills.”
Just because summaries naturally lean towards “telling”, it doesn’t mean you have to stick with that. Be creative, and don’t drop your voice when summarising.
Keep the summary relevant
The events you summarise must be necessary for the story to move forward, or to put your characters in context for the next scene.
You don’t need to mention grocery shopping, for example, unless your character is about to cook. Even then, that’s usually implied.
If nothing relevant occurs in the time you are glossing over, use a time-skip instead.
Balance summary and scene
Ideally, you want summaries to take up the smallest percentage of your word count as possible. When you do need to use summaries, the best places to put them are at the end or sometimes the beginning of a scene. This way they don’t interrupt the flow of action.
A scene beginning needs to move fairly quickly and, on occasion, summary will get the reader there faster.” — Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Summaries are slow, while scenes are fast. So when you want fast pacing at the start of your story and at the climax, it’s best to use scene writing.
However, summaries can also be used as the calm before the storm, or to portray a character going into shock after a big event. The following summary doesn’t make light of the character’s loss. In fact, the detached telling emphasises the shock and emotions:
For the first week she cried. The second she stared out the window in a funk. By week three, she’d thrown back the covers and strapped on her gun.” — Janice Hardy
2. State the time
Stating the time is a small, necessary step to keep your reader grounded in the story.
You should let them know either the current time or how much time has passed whenever you summarise, skip time, or move back in time.
Use transitional time words
Starting new scenes with phrases such as “the next day” or “a week before the party” is a clear way of stating the current time. Transitional words and phrases give context to the new scene by comparing it to a time the reader is familiar with – the previous scene or a pre-established event.
A quick search will give you a whole list of different time transition words that you can alternate between to keep a sense of time flowing for your reader.
Include time markers
Time markers are any descriptive details that indicate time has passed. Ideally you’ll also want them to flag how much time has passed. These markers can be a reference to the time or date, a season change, holidays and festivals, or even character age.
Finally, the sun starts to set. The sky is darkening and the clouds are tipped with orange.” — Roz Morris, Lifeform Three
This is the first line after a scene break in chapter two of Roz Morris’ Lifeform Three. Immediately the reader knows that hours have passed, and the atmosphere for dusk is laid over the scene.
The next example shows a larger jump from spring to winter:
…and she walked towards him through the young cherry blossom that was dancing in the breeze like notes seeking a song.
The stark ice-gloved twigs of the cherry tree were dark against the snow.” — Caro Clarke
When you next come across a time jump in a book, check how quickly the author places a time marker.
More often than not, you’ll find something within the first two sentences. Because so many different details can be associated with time, authors can use this technique again and again with subtlety.
Mark when little time passes
If your story is hundreds of pages long but only covers a short period of characters’ lives, be sure to regularly remind the reader of how little time has passed.
Humans are very aware of time, and if your reader’s assumption of time is wrong, they’re missing part of the story.
Often in these situations a lot of events happen very quickly.
So quickly, it isn’t unusual for characters to pause and reflect on the short time. As well as this, you can make use of quicker time markers, such as the sun, meal and sleep cycles, or mobile phone battery life.
3. Master flashbacks
Rather than summarising backstory, or dropping it into dialogue, some writers reveal it in scenes called flashbacks. This enables the writer to create a more vivid and emotional character backstory.
When using flashbacks, always remember when the main story is. If you’re turning to flashbacks because there isn’t enough emotion or tension in the present, you may be writing the wrong story.
Another common mistake is using flashbacks too often, or too soon. With the main tension in the present story, readers won’t thank you for dragging the action out with lots of flashbacks.
Flashbacks should also be avoided within the first few chapters, as readers won’t be invested enough in the present to care about the past.
To signal the start and end of flashbacks, switch to past perfect tense for a few sentences.
Past perfect verbs indicate that the action was completed before any past tense verb. To do this, simply add “had” to any past tense verb. Short flashbacks can be done entirely in past perfect, but in longer ones it becomes clunky.
He knew all the practical moves and involuntary gestures, and he scanned everyone, granting no exceptions. He and Eddie had done a job like this one when he was no more than twelve. Eddie had dressed him for baseball, and had even bought him a new glove to carry folded under his arm. When they had come upon the man in the crowd, he hadn’t even seen them; his eyes were too occupied in studying the crowd…” — Thomas Perry, Sleeping Dogs
The tense change in Perry’s writing creates a smooth, clear transition into flashback.
Note how he also adds a time marker — the character’s age — quite early. From here he starts to return to past tense for the main flashback, then ends the flashback with a few more perfect past sentences.
Of course, if your main story is in present tense, use regular past tense for flashbacks. In this example, the author switches to past tense to indicate a flashback, and again uses a time marker to let the reader know when the flashback is set.
He’s probably forgotten it. But I haven’t and I know I never will.
It was during the worst time. My father had been killed in the mine accident three months earlier…” — Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
For long flashbacks, if you’re writing primarily in past tense, your scene’s tense should look something like this:
- Present story (in past tense)
- Flashback starts (a few sentences of past perfect)
- Flashback (past tense)
- Flashback ends (a few sentences of past perfect)
- Back to present story (return to past tense).
Return to an altered present
A flashback should significantly alter either how the reader perceives the present, or how the character does. If a flashback reveals that a character was attacked by a dog as a child, the reader has a deeper understanding when, back in the present, the character shies away from a puppy.
You can also use flashbacks to show how a character is affected by their past. By connecting a past event and the present situation, you can demonstrate how your character echoes or tries to escape their past actions.
If your flashback doesn’t add anything to the immediate present of your story, it’s in the wrong place or it’s unnecessary.
4. Trigger Your Time Jumps
When you skip a period of time, or go back in time, lead into the jump with a trigger. This trigger can be anything – an object, a sensory item such as a colour or smell, a line of dialogue, or simply something embedded in the narration. It serves as a link to the time of the next scene.
When you’re moving back in time, use something strongly and clearly linked to the specific past event to trigger memory. The best triggers for flashbacks spark a character’s memory, which the narration follows to lead the reader through past events.
The last time Fred saw this apron, he was helping his mother bake gingerbread. He was twelve then and…” — Harvey Chapman
When you come back out of the flashback, mention your character in the present with the trigger again to reorient your reader. For example, if they picked up an object to trigger the memory, return to the present with them putting it back down.
When you’re skipping over time, it’s good to trigger that too – especially if it’s a large jump. The best way to do this is to refer to an upcoming event, and either jump to that event or before the event.
A trigger could be a physical invitation, a present waiting to be gifted, the smell of festival food being cooked or two characters talking about an event.
“The event” doesn’t have to be big. It can be as simple as a character thinking about an exam, then jumping to them cramming in the library.
Don’t trigger without jumping
Don’t end a scene by referencing a different time, past or present, if you are not about to jump to that time. Readers become disorientated if they don’t know when they are, or if several sentences later realise they weren’t when they thought they were.
Consider this scene change:
Cinderella looked at the mess of the basement and sighed. She wouldn’t get much sleep tonight, as the ball was only days away.
The Prince ducked through a narrow servant’s door into the vegetable garden. He wove through lengthening shadows of evening and breathed in the chilly air. Freedom, at last. Freedom from stiff smiles, exaggerated bows and polite small-talk.
He still didn’t understand why his father insisted on the ball. Or why he had to be there when every visiting family arrived to settle in before the big night.
The switch uses markers to indicate that both Cinderella’s and the Prince’s scene are in the evening. However, Cinderella thinking about the ball makes the reader also think about it, leading to the assumption that the Prince’s scene occurs on the big day.
Moreover, until the last sentence, every detail could support the assumption that it is the evening of the ball. That’s five sentences of a reader sitting in the wrong time. If you can’t avoid triggering, you should have transition words or a clear time marker within the first sentence.
5. Separate Time Periods
When skipping over time, you must insert some sort of break. This break could be the end of a scene, chapter, section or a book.
When using flashbacks, it isn’t necessary to use a break to separate the past and present, but it is recommended.
It’s possible to skip hours, days or even weeks with a scene break; as long as the writer draws attention to the fact that time will pass by before the next scene, otherwise a jump in time without hinting at it or preparing the reader might confuse them.” — AJ Humpage
Flag breaks that don’t skip time
If you skip time often, or twice in a row, be clear when a scene break doesn’t skip over time. Readers will quickly become familiar with patterns, and are off-put when their expectations aren’t met.
To avoid this, simply use a time marker. If your break switches between characters, have them both notice the sunrise, or be thinking about the same event.
David couldn’t wait for the party tomorrow. He had everything planned to the T.
Cheri grinned as she made her way to David’s. She was ready to ruin everything he had planned.” — Lacey
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Sometimes your story spans hours, and sometimes it spans generations. With these tools and techniques, you can have full control over your fictional time flow, without losing your reader.