Time is weird. It flies by when we’re having fun, yet the weeks drag on. Something can happen in the blink of an eye, yet certain situations seem to last forever. We wish we had more time in the things we do, but we always waste the time we have.
When it comes to talking about time in our novels, it’s not exactly as easy as you would think.
Time, in my opinion, is probably a theme in every novel you’ve written or read. It may not always be noticeable, but think about it: everything that happens, happens in time.
Time can either be used for or against the protagonist. Time can just be present because… well, time is always present no matter what. Time can be subtle, time can be noticed. There are a lot of different ways you can use time in your novels whether you’re advancing the plot or you’re just making your world feel that much more realistic.
Probably one of the most common forms of time in novels is transitions, or changing scenes. You can change scenes by ending and starting a new chapter or using a page break such as (*) before beginning the next paragraph.
Transitions can do a lot of things:
- Change the POV
- Warp to a new location
- Allow time to pass
Changing the POV may not necessarily mean time has passed, but then again I don’t think you would rewrite the same scene in the same time and space just through the eyes of a different character. I feel like that would be redundant, but who knows? Maybe it’s been done.
When you go to a new location, chances are you’re changing the time. It takes time for your character to get to one place to another. Unless you’re writing fantasy with interesting world rules, your characters can’t teleport instantly.Of course, there’s also changing locations to look at different characters doing something different at the same time your characters were doing their thing. Of course, you’d just be showing off time in a different space.
Of course, there’s also changing locations to look at different characters doing something different at the same time your characters were doing their thing. Still, you’d just be showing off time in a different space.
Then there’s letting time pass through. Is it the next day? The following week? Maybe two years had gone by. The point of changing scenes to let time pass is to give the reader a sense that life went on, but nothing too important happened that the reader has to know.
How much of our lives are spent waiting? We wait in line at the grocery store, we wait at red lights on our way to work, we wait for the doctor to see us, and we wait for our future, for our lives to finally begin. (That was a bit dramatic, I know, but I’m leaving it in there.)
In order for the plot to move forward, your characters just have to wait in line like everyone else. Writing a mystery? You have to wait for the autopsy to come back. Writing fantasy? You have to wait for that special potion to brew.
Waiting is what advances the plot. What does your character do in that time of waiting? Maybe he doesn’t want to wait at all and makes some rash decisions.
Flashbacks and Flashforwards
Writing flashbacks and flashforwards are probably the most tricky ways of telling time in novels. You should only use these forms if your novel really needs it–if it helps the reader gain certain information and advances the plot.
Flashbacks should only be used once in a while and should only show one quick scene or plot point that goes along with your theme and plot.
By writing a flashback, you’re showing a different timeline that has nothing to do with what’s going on (at the time) but has everything to do with what’s happening to your characters at that present moment.
Or you could just have someone read someone else’s diary. That could work, too.
Flashforwards are hard because, depending on the genre, no one can predict the future. Those should be used scarcely or go along with the rules of your fantasy world.
Speaking of flashbacks and flashforwards, this is a fun way to incorporate those. Again, this depends on the genre you’re writing, but characters can have special powers or have a certain machine that allows them to date backward or forwards. Like the flashbacks and flashforwards, though, you should only use this to advance the plot.
Now, not every story is told chronologically. Chapters can jump around from one year to the next if two different stories are being told that end up intertwined somehow.
Books can be told out of order as well. One of the major issues I’m having with my mystery series is that the cases aren’t all one right after the other, and until I get a good timeline down, I keep confusing myself.
Telling stories out of order can be pretty clever, though. It allows some mystery for the reader when the characters know something they don’t, and vice versa.
What exactly does time do for us? It helps us move forward. Healing takes time, grieving takes time, growing up takes time, everything takes time.
Something may happen to your protagonist at the age of 10, but the real heart of the plot doesn’t begin until he’s 21 or something. In other words, time has to pass to get to that moment. Are you going to write about his ups and downs at school, him going through puberty, getting his driver’s license? No, because they don’t matter.
Time passes to allow us to get to the major point of the story and to show certain aspects of our characters and setting. (Yes, setting. A lot can happen to the Earth in ten years.)
Time is easy to talk about, but it can be hard to write about. Of course, time doesn’t always seem present, but it’s always lurking around somewhere.
Make sure you and your characters use their time wisely.
How do you incorporate time in your novels? Do you have any advice that I missed? Let me know in the comments below.