I have lately been hearing a lot of questions about how to handle time in a narrative. Writers seem worried that they will bore the reader by referring too often to the passage of time – Do I really need to say, “Three weeks later..” or “The next day” all the time? Isn’t it obvious?
The short answer is: yes, you do need to say those things and no it’s not obvious to the reader. It may be obvious to you, but not to them. You need to get in the habit of putting “timestamps” on everything. It may feel clunky at first, but soon you won’t even notice you are doing it – and neither will your reader.
It helps to remember that readers want to be led by the hand through your narrative – and this goes for any genre. They want to be in the hands of an authority who knows where they are going, how they are going to get there, and why the journey is worth it.
One of the most effective ways to give the reader this assurance is by the way you handle time.
You need to let your reader know where they are in time and space at all times. (Space is another lesson for another day – but you can’t have someone suddenly show up in another room of the house without showing how they got there, because if your reader is spending her brainpower thinking – Wait. Are we still in the kitchen? I thought he was cooking. How did we get to the garage? – you have lost them. They are no longer living into your narrative’s reality but living in their own.)
In order to show how seasoned writers handle the passage of time, I have marked up the opening chapter of Harlen Coben’s best-selling thriller, Fool Me Once. You can see how often he refers to time, how nimble he is as he slips in and out of various time periods in the character’s llife, and how time is like a drumbeat throughout the narrative – always there, grounding the reader in what’s happening.
You can also see how the character is constantly using the past to make sense of the present, which is what we all do all the time in our real lives. You don't really notice the back and forth switching from present to past but you know it’s there. It becomes like that drumbeat, and he world of the book becomes something that feels just like real life.
In this opening passage from Coben’s book, I bolded every place where time itself is explicitly mentioned.And I highlighted the broad strokes of time, as follows:
- Green highlights depict story present.
- Grey highlights depict the character’s backstory – things she is remembering or recalling or using to make sense of the present.
You can see how these highlights largely trade off, back and forth, creating a rhythm. We are in story present, then we slip into the past, then back to the present, and so on. As a reader, you always know exactly where you are in time, and exactly why the author takes you out of story present and back to it, and so you can focus on what, exactly, is going on and why it matters to the character – which is exactly where your attention should be focused.
Download the attached document to see my notes on the chapter.