Why You Must Show Time Passing in Your Novel


It’s easy to take the passing of time for granted. It happens all around us, constantly, without us lifting a finger.


Well, in the real world, yes. But in your story, you are responsible for making time pass. Let’s take a look at why time matters—and what happens if you forget to include it in your novel.

2024 Is Flying By

Right now, as I record this episode, it’s May of 2024. Which is pretty wild. I have no idea where the time has gone. It seems like just yesterday that I was putting together all my plans and dreams and goals for 2024, and somehow here we are, nearly halfway through the year.

It’s been an exciting year so far. I’ve gotten to take several writers and their manuscripts through my story refinery process, where we set them up with a really clear outline for their next draft. I’ve brought on a few new coaching clients, and I’m getting to dig into their stories every week, which is always so, so fun. And we’re getting close and closer to my big, exciting summer project, my new Scene Mastery Workshop, which is starting in late June.

And it’s a warm spring day here in the southeast United States, so when I went on my walk to write this episode, I got to enjoy the gorgeous spring weather and the smell of all the flowers blooming and plants growing and hear all the birds chirping. (And then I got rained on, because I didn’t time my day quite right, but hey, it’s spring; that’s what happens.)

I’m just soaking up all this gorgeous spring weather before it gets really hot—because I live in Georgia, and once summer hits, it gets really, really hot.

I say all this because somehow, the year feels like it’s just flying by. And I was looking at my podcast editorial calendar and realized that for the last three months, most of my episodes have had something to do with the mindset it takes to edit novels.

I stand by every one of those episodes, because your mindset is just so important. Those episodes are all drawn from real conversations I’m having with the writers I coach one-on-one every single week. These mindset challenges come up with the writers I’m working with, and then I turn around and share the big takeaways with you here on the podcast.

For instance, in April, I shared a couple episodes about the learning stage and the execution stage of skill development.

And in April, I had one-on-one conversations with several writers about their current projects, their goals for their manuscripts, and whether they should shift into a learning stage or an execution stage right now in order to meet those goals. And I have clients who are going in both directions—some are moving into more of a learning space, and some are moving into more of an execution space.

So what you hear on this podcast really is coming directly from the coaching and editing I’m doing every day with my clients.

But here’s the thing. I know you really love my super technical how-to episodes, where I give you specific strategies for how to edit your manuscript: what to look for, how to spot the problems and opportunities for development, and how to figure out what to change and how to change it.

And since I’ve spent so long talking about mindset in the last few months, we haven’t had many how-to episodes lately. It’s been a bit of a how-to desert.

But I’m not going to leave you in the desert! So this week, we’re heading back into that good how-to content. And I have a topic that I’m really excited to share with you—because again, this is something that’s coming up over and over again in the work that I’m doing with writers one-on-one.

It’s Time to Talk About Time

Let’s talk about time.

Specifically, let’s talk about how to convey the passage of time in your novel.

I began training as an editor in 2017, back at the first Story Grid editor training with editor Shawn Coyne. And I remember Shawn mentioning time passing. In fact, I think he spent like an hour one day to show us how Jane Austen marked time passing in Pride and Prejudice.

And I remember thinking, “Okay, that’s nice. But I want to get back to the important stuff—to all the good story structure concepts that are what editors really need to know. This feels like a no-brainer. Of course we know time is passing in a story.”

Well, seven years and many, many manuscripts later, I can tell you that it is not nearly as much of a no-brainer as I initially thought. It’s actually something that is so often overlooked in the manuscripts I edit. And as an editor, it’s something I definitely need to know, and I bring it up all the time with writers.

So let’s talk about it. Over the next three episodes, I’m going to show you how to make your readers feel the passage of time in your stories just like your characters do.

In this episode, we’ll talk about why this matters so much. Then, in the next two episodes, I’ll give you some specific techniques to convey the passage of time on the page.

That’s three meaty “how-to” episodes in a row, so get excited!

Why Do We Forget About Time?

All right. Why are we talking about the passage of time? Why does this even need mentioning? Why is it so easily overlooked?

I think this is a case of author brain—that is, when you, the writer, know your story so well that you think that what you’ve written on the page is clear to your readers. But in fact, there’s information in your brain that you haven’t put on the page, so there’s something you know that isn’t clear to your readers.

Every time you read your manuscript, your brain fills in the missing information automatically, so you don’t even know it’s not there on the page. But when someone else picks up the story, they feel the gap.

This can happen with a lot of story details. But the place where I see it most often is definitely time passing. You know how much time passes between the events in your story. But a lot of times, writers forget to put this critical information—and yes, it’s critical information—on the page.

The thing is, for your characters, the story is taking place over days, weeks, months, or even years. But for your readers, it’s probably happening a lot faster. They might spend just a few hours reading your book. If you have a page turner that’s hard to put down, they might finish it in a single day.

And that means for your readers, the story will feel like it’s taking place over the span of just a few hours. They’ll feel like it rushes through to the end, like me feeling surprised that we’re in May already—unless you make it really clear that it’s taking much longer.

The good news is that this is super easy to fix, and it doesn’t take a lot of words to fix it. You won’t be in danger of ballooning your word count from adding in markers of time. And it will have a big impact on your readers’ experience of your story.

3 Essential Reasons to Mark Time in Your Novel

So why do we need markers of time? More than that, what do we want to do with them? How can markers of time actually enhance your story?

I’m sure there are many things that markers of time can do, but there are three main ones I want to draw your attention to.

1. Establish the setting

The first goal of time markers is to establish the setting of your story.

Your story has a setting in space and time. I find that writers usually know they need to ground their readers in the physical setting of the story. I don’t generally encounter characters doing things in an undefined void; it’s usually pretty clear where things are happening.

But writers often forget the time part of the setting. It’s just as important to tell us when something is happening as it is to tell us where it happens.

And just like establishing the setting in space, you’ll want to establish the setting in time very quickly. When we enter a new scene, we want to be grounded in the setting so we can imagine the scene accurately.

It’s jarring to get halfway through a scene thinking that we’re at one point in time, and then discover halfway through that it’s actually six hours, or six months, or six years later than we thought.

There’s only one time I can think of when you might want to withhold information about the time setting of the story, and that’s when being unsure when it is is plot relevant.

If your character wakes up from a coma and doesn’t know what year it is, you might choose not to tell the reader what year it is. If your character is trapped in a room with no windows and loses track of how many days they’ve been there, you might not tell the reader the date.

But even here, you can still give the reader clues about the passing of time that your character does have access to.

The person who just woke up from a coma doesn’t know what year it is, but they can see the sun set and know how many days have passed. The person who’s trapped in a windowless room might not know what day it is, but they do know when they get hungry and when they get tired.

There’s almost always something you can share with the reader to help ground us in the story.

2. Make your readers feel time passing alongside your characters

The second goal of time markers is to make your readers feel time passing the same way your characters do.

Your readers want to read stories that make them feel. They want to connect with characters they care about and feel what they feel.

And that includes feeling the passage of time the way your characters are feeling it.

In my regular life, I feel the passage of time.

I feel it when I walk outside in May and the day is sunny and warm, not icy and cold.

I feel it when I get hungry and realize that I haven’t eaten food since lunch. I feel it when I look up and realize it’s dark outside, and that probably means I should do something about dinner.

I feel it when I visit my best friend’s toddler, and she’s walking now when she was only crawling on my last visit.

These are all ways in which I feel the passage of time. It’s not just information I’m aware of; it’s something I experience.

Your characters also experience the passage of time. And your readers want to experience it the way your characters do—to feel time passing as the story progresses.

3. Create tension

And the third goal of time markers—really, the culmination of everything we’ve talked about so far—is to create tension.

Time markers give you an opportunity to create tension, anticipation, curiosity, conflict, uncertainty in your story. And who doesn’t want that?!

There are a couple different ways you can create tension with time.

Backwards-looking tension

First, there’s backwards-looking tension. You can think of this as:

How long has it been since something happened?

Maybe something major happened in the past, and your character is reacting to it.

They might react to it by trying to get back to whatever life was like before that thing happened. As time passes, it carries them further and further away from that “before” life. Time passing is painful and makes things harder, because your character doesn’t want to let go of that before.

Or they might react to that major thing by trying to get away from it, forget about it, leave it behind them in the dust. So time passing is a relief, making things better.

Forwards-looking tension

And the opposite of this is forwards-looking tension. You can think of this as:

How long is it until something happens?

Maybe something major is coming up. Your character knows it’s coming, and your reader knows, too, and now everyone’s looking at this point in the future wondering, what’s coming next?

What will happen when we get to that major thing?

Time-based tension at play

I just read Funny Story, the newest novel from Emily Henry, and she uses both backwards-looking tension and forwards-looking tension to shape her story.

I won’t spoil the book for you, since it just came out. But I will tell you how Emily Henry creates this tension.

Funny Story is a romance novel, and in April, a few weeks before the book begins, Daphne, the protagonist, gets dumped by her fiancé. That’s the major thing that happened in the past, and Daphne is trying to get away from it.

In fact, she’s trying to get away from it so thoroughly that she’s planning to move to another state. But she can’t leave until she finishes running the Readathon, the fundraising event she’s organizing through her job at the local library. So she’s counting down the days until the Readathon and freedom.

I mean that literally—the title of the first chapter is “Wednesday, May 1st, 108 Days Until I Can Leave.” That tells us both how long it’s been since Daphne got dumped and how long is left before she can leave town. And the countdown continues in the chapter titles all the way to the Readathon.

So there’s a major event in Daphne’s future, and we the readers know it, and Daphne’s keeping us on track with time passing until we get there with a literal countdown.

And in the first few pages, Emily Henry creates both forwards- and backwards-looking tension.

More Than Enough Reason to Mark Time

So there you have it: three important things you can accomplish in your stories simply by making sure you’ve included enough markers of time for your readers to follow along.

Here they are again:

  1. You’ll establish the setting so your readers know where the story takes place in both space and time.
  2. You’ll make your readers feel time passing the way your characters do.
  3. You’ll create tension—backwards-looking tension, forwards-looking tension, or both.

How do you do this? How do you give your readers just the right clues to indicate the passage of time? That’s the topic of the next episode.

Your Turn: Notice Time Passing

For now, I encourage you to do two things:

Assignment 1: Study a book you love

First, pick up a book you enjoy and read a few chapters. Look for every clue you can find that indicates when the story takes place. What are the obvious ways the author tells you when it is? What are the subtle hints?

Assignment 2: Evaluate your own manuscript

And second, pick up your own manuscript and read a few chapters. Where have you indicated when the story takes place? What clues have you given the reader so they can follow along with time passing?

I’ll be back in a couple weeks, in late May, with another episode of Your Next Draft. In it, I’ll share some specific ways you can get the passage of time on the page of your story. That’s some forwards-looking tension for you—you’ll have to wait a couple weeks to find out how to do this!

In the meantime, see what you can discover within the stories you love, and what you’re already doing in your own writing.

Happy editing!

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