2 “Showing” and “Telling” Ways to Convey Time Passing in Your Novel

STRUCTURE

Your characters feel time passing in your story. But your readers won’t—unless you tell them how much time is passing and show them why that matters.

Use these techniques that blend telling and showing to make time matter to your readers the way it does to your characters.

Today, we’re talking about time some more. Specifically, we’re talking about techniques you can use that blend showing and telling so you can convey time passing in your novel in a way that’s meaningful to your readers.

This is the third article in our series on time. In this article, we looked at why it’s so important to convey the passage of time and what happens if you don’t. And in this article, we looked at some ways to tell your readers that time is passing—that is, telling ways of conveying the passage of time.

You’ll definitely want to use some of those telling techniques in your story, since they trigger your readers’ intellectual knowing that time has passed. Every story needs its own balance of showing and telling, and sometimes, you just need to tell us what time it is!

But telling alone isn’t enough. In order for your readers to feel time passing the way your characters do, you’ll need to show time passing as well. So I’ve got more techniques to share with you that go beyond telling to show your readers how time is passing.

How to Show and Tell the Passage of Time

In this series, I’m sharing seven techniques to convey the passage of time to your readers. I’ve ordered them from most telling to most showing, and in the last article, we covered all the techniques that are strictly telling.

The thing is, though, these seven techniques aren’t really on a binary of showing versus telling. They’re on more of a spectrum.

On one end, there’s exclusively telling information that has no emotional impact on the reader whatsoever. And on the other end, there’s exclusively showing information that has all this unconscious, implicit, emotional impact, but that alone might not be enough to cognitively orient your reader in your story.

And then in the middle, there are some techniques that sort of blend the two—they’re a bit of a mix between that knowing and feeling.

So today, I’m going to pick up where we left off, and we’ll cover two techniques that are in the middle of that telling versus showing spectrum. I have a lot to say about both of them, so I’ll save my two techniques that are strictly showing for the next episode.

First, I want to recap the three telling techniques so you can see all these techniques in context and get that bigger picture of the spectrum.

  1. Use numbers or dates to mark your chapters, like a dated journal entry or a countdown to an important event.
  2. Literally say how much time has passed within the text of the story, something like, “Three weeks later . . .”
  3. Literally say the date, whether that’s the day or the month or something else. This might sound like, “On Friday . . .” or “By January, he still hadn’t heard from her.”

So those are the telling techniques we’ve already covered. You can see how in those three techniques, we start with factual data that have no emotional associations whatsoever, and we gradually move towards details that have more implicit emotional associations.

2 Ways to Show AND Tell Time Passing in Your Story

Now, let’s take this a step further and dig into two more techniques that blend telling and showing.

1. Mention something seasonal

First up, technique number one: mention something seasonal.

This could be a holiday or tradition, like Christmas, which is a Christian holiday that happens on December 25, or Memorial Day, which is a federal holiday that we just acknowledged here in the US.

Or it might be something else that occurs at a specific time of the year. I love strawberries, and so every April and May and June I’m on the hunt for strawberries at farmer’s markets and opportunities to go strawberry picking. And as my friends well know, because I talk about this more than they have any interest in, I do not buy strawberries out of season. So April and May and June are pretty exciting months for me.

Anyway. Before I go on a rant about how to find a great strawberry, let’s go back to holidays and traditions, because there’s more to say here.

One example of using holidays and traditions to mark time comes from Funny Story by Emily Henry.

We know that the first chapter is set on May 1, because all the chapters are dated so we know exactly when everything happens. This is a great example of that first telling technique, of using numbers or dates to mark your chapters.

But maybe this is just me, but once I get into a story, I kind of gloss over chapter headings and just skim them on my way to the story. So it’s easy for me to miss that metadata entirely—and remember, even when readers do take note of it, it’s entirely telling and doesn’t have any emotional feeling attached to it.

So later on in the story, Emily Henry gives us more clues that time is passing. A few chapters in, she mentions that Juneteenth and Pride Month are coming up. And I know those are both in June, so I know that we’ve made it to the end of May and are heading into June.

How should you choose which holidays to mention? Use calendars that are relevant to your characters so that the passage of time is filtered through their experience even more.

Juneteenth and Pride Month are relevant to Daphne, the protagonist of Funny Story because she’s a librarian in Michigan and she updates the book displays each month depending on what topics the library is highlighting.

A character who lives in a different country, or who practices a specific religion, or who is part of a different culture will probably recognize different holidays.

To Explain or Not to Explain

I do want to note here that if you’re using holidays or traditions to mark the passage of time, and you think there may be readers in your audience who will be unfamiliar with them, you get to choose whether you’d like to explain them in your story or let your readers figure it out on their own.

If you’re writing a fantasy novel where you’ve built a whole world with its own calendar and its own traditions and celebrations, we’ll definitely need some context in order to appreciate all that along with your characters. We just don’t have access to that world outside of your story, and some of the appeal is getting to immerse ourselves in this entirely new world.

But if you’re writing a novel where you’re using real holidays and traditions that your readers could be familiar with, it’s up to you whether you’d like to explain them or not.

For instance, maybe you’re writing a novel with an Indian character who celebrates Diwali. Your character knows that Diwali happens in October or November, and so when Diwali is coming up, she knows that means we’re sometime in the fall.

I personally don’t celebrate Diwali and don’t know much about it. But I have the capacity to put in the legwork to look it up myself and learn something new.

I’d encourage you to think about your readers and the experience you want them to have. If you think your readers probably won’t know about an element of culture, you might decide to put in more details to help them fill in their gaps of knowledge.

But there’s also a lot of value in not treating your story as though it has a responsibility to educate your readers. After all, your characters don’t need to be educated on the holidays and traditions and cultural practices that are second nature to them, and so they probably aren’t going to take a moment for internal monologue to explain to themselves what Diwali is.

When you filter the information through your characters and the details that are relevant to them, you allow us as readers to experience the characters’ lives as though we are them, living their lives too, not as though we’re outsider students attending a cultural presentation.

And if we readers get confused, well, that’s what Google is for. We can educate ourselves.

All that to say: mention seasonal events like holidays and traditions to give us markers of time, and choose the events you mention based on the events that are relevant to your characters.

One Common Calendar: The School Calendar

I’ll mention one more super useful calendar before we move on: if your story is set at a school or includes school-aged characters, the school calendar is an excellent marker of time.

It’s a pretty universal calendar—all school calendars have different specific dates, but we all know that school calendars have rhythms of semesters or terms interspersed with breaks, and that they’re all leading up to the end of the school year when we take a break for summer and the class moves up a grade.

And of course, at the end of high school and college, there’s graduation—the really big event on the school calendar, which typically happens in the spring.

The school calendar is a fantastic way to mark time while rarely needing to mention dates, especially because if your characters are in school, they’re pretty much always looking forward to the next break.

So that’s tip number one: mention something seasonal.

2. Mention future events

And that’s a great segue into tip number two: mention future events.

The idea here is to mention events that are coming up later in the story.

I’ll take that Funny Story example again: Juneteenth and Pride Month are mentioned in passing. They’re indicators of where we are in the year, but they’re not events that are part of the plot of the story.

But there is an event that happens towards the end of the novel, an event the protagonist is heavily involved in and that she’s basing a lot of life decisions around, and that event is mentioned early on.

I won’t tell you what it is just because this book came out so recently that I’d definitely be spoiling it for some readers who haven’t gotten their hands on it yet. But what’s worth knowing is that this is an event that happens in the plot, and Emily Henry tells us fairly early on in the story that it’s coming, and then we measure time against that event as it gets closer and closer and finally happens.

Another example of this comes from The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. In The Truth About Forever, the protagonist’s mom runs a construction company that builds housing developments.

At the beginning of the novel, there’s an open house to celebrate breaking ground on a new row of townhouses. And then, a few chapters later, we learn that she’s also planning a gala that will happen at the end of the summer, when construction of the townhouses is complete.

So we know a few things: the gala is happening at the end of the summer, and it’s a big event that matters to the protagonist.

When she’s thinking about the end of summer, she’s not just thinking about cooler weather in the fall, or even school starting back up. She’s thinking about this gala that she’s going to be attending and what it will mean for her mom to finish this major project that she’s pouring all of her energy into.

This technique of mentioning future events that are coming up in your story is highly impactful on several levels.

First, it gives you something story-relevant to use to mark time.

You’re not just telling us about time; you’re telling us about something that’s very plot-relevant to your story. June and July and August are universal, which is great because we all know what they mean, but they also don’t attach us to your story specifically. The gala at the end of the summer allows us to use the actual events of the story to keep track of time.

Second, this creates forward-looking tension.

Back in episode 70, the first episode in this series, I talked about how marking time is an opportunity to create tension in your story. When you tell us about something that’s coming up that hasn’t happened yet, you create forward-looking tension, where we get to anticipate something coming up and wonder what will happen when we get there.

We have to keep turning the pages, because Emily Henry told us about this big mysterious thing that Daphne’s looking forward to, and we have to know what’s going to happen when it gets here and what Daphne’s going to do!

And third, it filters the passing of time through the specific ways your character experiences it.

More than anything, we want to know what the passage of time means to your characters. And when you mark the passing of time with specific events in your story, you create the perfect opportunity for us to tap into that meaning.

That gala is at the end of the summer. But it’s not just a sign that Macy, the protagonist, is going back to school.

When Macy thinks of the gala, we get to see what the end of the summer means to her. For her, it’s a cue that her summer job working for a chaotic catering company will end. She’ll no longer be in this liminal space where perfection isn’t expected and mistakes are taken in stride, a space where she’s made new friends and started to relax and heal.

The gala is also about how she relates to her mom. Macy’s mom has been carrying enormous pressure to get the townhouses constructed perfectly and on time. And Macy is scared the stress might crush her mom before they’re finished—and she’s scared of what her mom is going to do once that pressure is lifted and she doesn’t have that project to ground her.

So the gala does a whole lot of things at once. Whenever it’s referenced, we get another indicator of how much time has passed and how close the gala is now. And whenever it’s referenced, we get to see through Macy’s eyes the hopes and fears that she feels as that milestone date creeps closer.

In short, it makes time matter to the reader in the way that time matters to the character.

The Blend of Showing and Telling

Do you see how these techniques fall in the middle of that showing versus telling spectrum I mentioned at the beginning?

The first technique is to mark time by mentioning something seasonal, whether it’s Christmas, Juneteenth, Diwali, graduation, or strawberry picking.

And the second technique is to mark time by mentioning future events that will happen in the plot and that matter to the characters.

These techniques do have elements of telling because they are, in a way, stating objective measurements of time.

But they also have elements of showing because they’re conveying the effects that time passing has on your character and their world.

They carry meaning beyond just their place on the calendar. That second technique especially, the one where you mention future events, creates tension and emphasizes the things that matter to your character and the emotions your character feels about them.

And you can do all of this simply by mentioning these markers of time!

Mix and Match Multiple Techniques

Like I mentioned in the episode of telling techniques, you don’t have to use any of these techniques in isolation.

In fact, I highly encourage you to use a mix of many techniques—one or two of the telling techniques, one or two of these telling/showing mix techniques, and one or two of the showing techniques I’ll talk about in the next episode.

When you use them in combination, you’ll enable your readers to consciously, intellectually follow along with the timeline of the story while also allowing them to experience the pace of the story in the way your characters do.

So if you haven’t listened to the last couple episodes in this series, head back to those to listen now. And keep an eye out for the next episode for the showing techniques—there’s some forward-looking tension for you.

Your Turn: Show and Tell Time Passing

In the meantime, you know what your assignment is:

First, pick up a book you love and read a few chapters to see if you can spot either of these techniques.

Where does the story mention something seasonal? And where does it mention an upcoming event in the plot?

And second, open up your work in progress and see whether you’re using either of these techniques.

Think about your characters and what calendars or events matter to them. How do they keep track of time?

And be sure to catch the next episode of Your Next Draft, coming to you in a couple of weeks.

Until then, happy editing!

Find Out How to Edit Your Novel

Editing your book doesn't have to be overwhelming. Enter your email, and I'll send you my free, 10-step guide to editing a book.

Awesome! Now go check your email for your guide!