3 “Telling” Ways to Convey Time Passing in Your Novel


The passage of time seems intuitive. It just happens, right?

But the thing is, unless you tell your readers how time is passing in your novel, they won’t know.

Use these techniques to keep your readers grounded in your story so they know exactly when everything happens.

This is episode 71 of Your Next Draft. Can you believe it?

I know that 71 is not some specific, momentous number. It’s not episode 1000 or 100 or even episode 75. But 71 episodes still feels like a lot of episodes. I started this podcast in November of 2022. And since then, I have produced 71 episodes of Your Next Draft. That is 28 hours of content if you listen to the entire podcast from start to finish right now.

In that time, I’ve shifted from weekly episodes to biweekly episodes, which, while I know it was a disappointing move for many of you listeners, on my end it’s really helped free up more time so I can work with more writers on their stories one-on-one. So I’m really enjoying this biweekly rhythm, and I appreciate you sticking with me for biweekly episodes.

That said, it’s been a couple weeks since the last episode, and it’s time to get back on the podcast and talk editing again!

I promise, all of this preamble is relevant to our topic today, and I’m going to show you how in just a minute.

Let’s Talk About Time

It’s about time to talk about time.

More specifically, it’s time to talk about how to show the passage of time in your novel.

In the last article, we talked about why it’s so important to indicate the passage of time in your story.

Here’s a quick recap:

Establish Your Story’s Setting

First, it’s crucial to establish the setting of your story in both time and space right away. If you don’t, your story will be ungrounded and your reader won’t know when or where they are.

Make the Reader Feel Time Passing

Next, it’s crucial to indicate the passage of time throughout your story. If you don’t, your reader will not feel time passing. It may be clear in your imagination that time is passing, but your reader won’t pick up on it unless you intentionally weave in clues to mark the passage of time.

Without those clues, the reader will experience the whole story happening in a rush, a blur, like it’s all happening right now in real time, and all the events take roughly the same amount of time it takes for your reader to actually read the book.

Now, if your story really does take place in that amount of time, and the narrative is pretty much a minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow account of it, then that rushed feeling your reader has isn’t necessarily the worst thing.

I’d still recommend including some indicators of time just to allow your reader to reorient and recalibrate every now and then. But their rushed feeling isn’t an inaccurate experience of the story—your characters are probably feeling a rushed intensity too.

But especially if your story takes place over a period of time that’s longer than a few hours, which is the case for most novels, then you’ll definitely need to indicate time passing so that the reader can feel that longer expanse of time the same way your characters do.

We want your novel to allow your readers to experience the story the same ways your characters do, and part of that is feeling time passing as it goes by.

Create Tension

And finally, marking time is a great way to create tension in your story. We talked about a couple ways you can create tension.

You might have backwards-looking tension, where we see how much time has passed since something happened in the past.

Or you might have forwards-looking tension, where we see how much time is left until something happens in the future.

So there you go, that’s your quick recap. You can check out the whole episode at Why You Must Show Time Passing in Your Novel.

How Do You Show the Passage of Time?

Now, what we did not talk about in the last episode is: how do you actually do this?

How do you indicate time passing in your novel? How do you convey time passing to your readers, so they feel it as deeply as your characters do?

Well, there are a lot of techniques you can use to indicate the passage of time. And that’s a good thing, because different techniques have different effects on the reader, and you can use multiple techniques to impact your reader on several levels at once.

Knowing Time Passes or Feeling Time Passing

Some techniques will trigger an intellectual knowing, which is helpful because it will allow your reader to consciously, knowingly orient themselves within the story. And that’s important and valuable!

But more than intellectual knowing, we want to create within the reader an emotional, experiential feeling of time passing.

And some techniques will do this: they’ll create the feeling within the reader of time passing, maybe even without the reader consciously recognizing it. They’re just in the flow of the story, and you’re giving them cues that ping their subconscious and make them feel time pass.

You might recall that in my last episode, I started off with a really long spiel about how it’s now May, and I’m going for all these lovely spring walks as the weather warms up.

Though to be quite honest, the temperature here in Georgia is lovely. The humidity is a lot less lovely. The 75 degree Fahrenheit days bring me a lot of joy; the 60% humidity brings me a lot less joy. So I’m enjoying my spring walks while I can, and letting them acclimate me to our upcoming toasty summer heat and soggy humidity, which is definitely on the horizon.

All that to say: when I open my calendar and the date says May 21, 2024, I intellectually know that it’s May.

And when I step outside and feel the warm sun and breathe the thick humidity and feel a lovely cool breeze (thank goodness for that breeze), I feel that it is May.

Measurable Time and Its Effects

There’s something I want you to notice about these indicators of time I’m experiencing right now.

The intellectual knowing is triggered by observing the fact of time passing.

We have measured the days and weeks and months and years, and we call this month May, and I can confirm that data by checking a calendar.

The subconscious feeling is triggered by experiencing the effects of time passing.

As the Earth rotates around the Sun, the world goes through a series of changes. The effects of time passing are the warmer weather, the longer days, the higher humidity, the flowers blooming, the birds singing.

These are not direct measurements of time itself, but the impact that time passing has on the world.

Showing and Telling Time Passing

This maps pretty neatly, actually, onto the idea of showing versus telling.

You create intellectual knowing in the reader by telling them the facts of measuring time.

You create experiential feeling in the reader by showing them the effects that time passing has on the world, the characters, and the story.

Every novel needs its own balance of showing and telling. Both showing and telling are essential to engage your readers in your story.

And so you’ll probably use both telling and showing techniques to convey the passage of time in your novel. You’ll probably trigger both your readers’ intellectual knowledge and their emotional, experiential feeling. You’ll probably both measure time directly and describe the effects of time passing.

This is a both/and situation. Neither telling nor showing is better or worse. Your story needs both.

And the techniques I’m going to share with you will convey both!

Techniques to Show and Tell the Passage of Time

I have a total of seven techniques in store for you. I’m going to share them in order from most telling to most showing.

I’ll warn you now, today we’ll cover just the “telling” techniques. We’ll save the “showing” techniques for the next episode, because you know I have a lot to say about everything.

So right now, we’ll cover three techniques to convey the passage of time that are squarely in the “telling” category. These are techniques that trigger your reader’s intellectual knowing and do not tap into their experiential feeling.

Then, in the next episode, we’ll cover four more techniques. I have two techniques that are kind of a bridge between telling and showing, and two techniques that are fully in the “showing” category. So get excited for those.

3 “Telling” Ways to Convey Time Passing in Your Novel

For now, let’s dig into three “telling” techniques to convey the passage of time in your novel.

1. Use numbers or dates to mark your chapters

First up, we’re going to start super on the nose: use numbers or dates to mark your chapters.

This is a very clear and direct way of communicating the passage of time to your reader. You’re literally titling your chapters with a countdown of time.

This technique doesn’t fit every novel. But many novels use it very effectively.

Examples of Time-Based Chapter Headings

One such novel is Funny Story by Emily Henry. It’s Emily Henry’s newest rom com, and it just came out last month, so I won’t spoil it for you. But I will read you some of the chapter headings:

  1. Wednesday, May 1st, 108 Days Until I Can Leave
  2. Back in April, Before I Knew I Needed to Leave
  3. Saturday, May 18th, 91 Days Until I Can Leave

And it continues like this all the way through the entire novel, counting down the date and the days until Daphne, the protagonist, can leave.

Another novel that does this is Looking for Alaska by John Green. Here are some of the chapter headings:

  • One hundred thirty-six days before
  • One hundred twenty-eight days before
  • One hundred twenty-six days before
  • One day before
  • The last day

And then a really big event happens, and the chapter headings switch from “before” to “after”:

  • The day after
  • Two days after

And so on.

These books explicitly foreground time passing by literally counting it in the chapter headings. If you’re ever lost in the timeline, just keep reading until you get to a chapter break, and you can recalibrate.

Time-Based Headings Can Create Tension

Notice, too, how they’re creating tension with these headings, both forward- and backward-looking tension.

In Funny Story, we’re wondering: what’s going to happen in 108 days, when Daphne can leave? Why does she need to leave, and where is she going to go?

And in Looking for Alaska, we’re wondering: one hundred thirty-six days before what? As the countdown ticks down into double and then single digits, it feels more and more ominous.

And then the really big thing happens, midway through the book, and we shift to counting how many days have passed since that happened, and it’s bittersweet to see the distance between us and that big event stretch longer and longer, to leave that big event in the past for first one day, and then a few days, and eventually one hundred thirty-six days.

So these are really effective narrative devices for these stories. They’re not essential for every novel, by any means, but they work really well for these books.

All Knowing, No Feeling

One thing I do want to note here is: think about how heavily this strategy triggers your intellectual knowing. And notice how it probably doesn’t trigger any feeling at all.

One hundred thirty-six days is very clear data. It’s an objective fact, a precise measurement of time.

But it doesn’t orient us in the feeling of the world and the characters and the story at the moment of 136 days before. We don’t have an intuitive, experiential, subconscious sense of where we are in time and how the days passing feel.

In fact, we’re probably going to forget the number “136” until we get to the next chapter, “128,” and think, “Well, I know the countdown is shrinking, so probably the previous chapter happened more than 128 days before.”

In order to know that eight days have passed, more than a week, I have to do math. I have to pause my reading to do a quick calculation.

And asking your readers to do a lot of math in the middle of your book is not a way to convey to them the feeling of time passing the way your characters are experiencing it.

(Unless your characters are also literally doing a lot of math. Then we can feel the mental challenge of doing math with them. But again, that’s not the feeling of the passage of time; it’s the feeling of doing math.)

The Journal-Style Novel

I also want to mention one other narrative device that lends itself really nicely to marking the chapters with dates like this.

You might decide to write your novel as though it is a journal or a diary. Your protagonist is recording their life in a journal, and the book we’re reading is that journal.

And in real life, when people journal about their lives like this, they typically date each entry. So journal-style novels tend to be written as a series of dated journal entries.

A couple of novels written in this style are Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding and the Confessions of Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennison. (I’m not sure you can talk about journal-style novels without mentioning Bridget Jones’s Diary.)

And that’s it for our first “telling” strategy to convey the passage of time: mark your chapters with numbers or dates. Use your chapter headings to literally tell your reader when each chapter takes place.

2. Literally say how much time has passed

Now, like I said, that first strategy won’t work for every story. And if it doesn’t fit your novel, no need to force it; we have several more strategies you can use.

This second strategy is one I suspect you’ll find in just about every novel. It is not at all story-specific; it’s a wonderful fit-all tool. Here it is:

Literally say how much time has passed.

Truly. For real. Just tell us.

You might say:

Susanne went to sleep. The next morning, she . . .


We say our goodbyes and I watch him walk away until he turns a corner and disappears. Two weeks later . . .


Three months passed without any word from him.

The next morning. Two weeks later. Three months passed.

In all these examples, I’m directly stating the amount of time that’s passed. When the story picks up again, we know exactly where we are in time.

This technique is a great one to use when you’re starting a scene and orienting the reader to where we are in the story now. It’s also really useful in transitions between one scene and the next, and in summary paragraphs that compress time to move us quickly from one important moment to another that comes a while later.

And since every novel is going to have scenes, and therefore transitions between scenes, this is a technique you’ll see in most novels.

Here’s an example of this kind of summary transition that literally tells us how much time has passed. This comes from The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik:

Hauling Orion up to the library and shoving him into a dark corner was my latest attempt to actually get him to do his remedial alchemy assignment, which was absolutely going to disintegrate him before the end of the month, along with several innocent bystanders and possibly me if he didn’t buckle down to it. I’d started making him show me his progress every evening at dinner, and since there hadn’t been any in the week and a half since the last time he’d nearly got me disintegrated, I’d dragged him out of bed at first bell this fine Saturday morning and marched him upstairs after breakfast.

Did you catch it? It’s been a week and a half since the last time Orion nearly got El disintegrated. Also, by the way, today is Saturday, although mentioning that is jumping ahead a bit in terms of our list of techniques.

Again, this strategy of just telling us how much time has passed is heavy on the intellectual knowing and light on the emotional feeling. It’s often paired with other “showing” indicators of the passage of time to create that emotion alongside the knowledge.

And sometimes we just need to know how much time has passed. So just tell us, and move on.

3. Literally say the date

And the third “telling” technique is in a similar vein: literally tell us the date within the text of the story.

This doesn’t have to be extremely precise. You might say:

On Friday, I skipped the bus.


For months, I didn’t hear from him. Then, in early November, I found a letter in the mailbox.

You can use this in the same kinds of places where you could literally say how much time has passed.

It’s great for orienting the reader at the start of a scene, transitioning between scenes, or compressing time to summarize events (which I’m mentioning like the third thing in a list, but which tends to be a tool for accomplishing the other two things. Many scenes start with a compressed-time summary of events, and often the way that scenes transition from one to the next will be with a compressed-time summary).

Here’s an example of literally saying the date. This comes from Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, which if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you know is a book that I just rave about. Here’s the passage:

By the middle of January, she still hadn’t replied, and he began to worry that his email hadn’t been received. He decided to send another.

By the way, a page later, this is followed up with:

Another week passed, and she still hadn’t replied. Harvard’s reading period was over; Sam had finished all his exams, and the new term was about to begin.

Note that “Another week passed” falls under the second technique, literally telling us how much time has passed.

And that final sentence about Harvard’s reading period relates to another technique, but that’s one of the “showing” strategies we’ll cover in the next episode, so I won’t say anything more about it here.

What I really want you to see right now is that first line: “By the middle of January.” It’s orienting us very early in the chapter to exactly where we stand in time, so we can follow along as time continues to pass throughout the scene.

Telling (With a Hint of Showing)

Like the two previous strategies, this is a “telling” strategy, one that’s based on intellectual knowing rather than emotional feeling. This alone will not make your readers feel time passing in your story, although it will help them orient themselves whenever they lose track of the timeline.

That said, I’ve put this strategy third in this list because I’m ordering these from most “telling” to most “showing.”

And we tend to have more emotional associations with these specific dates than we do numbers. If I say “November,” I bet you get a certain idea in your mind of what November is like. If I say “Friday,” I bet you have an emotional reaction that’s very different than if I said “Monday.”

These are names we have for time, and we have a lot more lived experience with them and emotions about them than we do the concept of 136 days.

We also tend to notice these dates more when they’re woven into the context of the story rather than listed in the chapter headings, which are easy to skim without taking in the information.

“Saturday, May 18th, 91 Days Until I Can Leave” is nice information to know, but it’s out of the context that gives it meaning.

“On Saturday, I slept in” is the same day, but within a story context that makes it stick in our minds a little more.

That’s one of the reasons why even if you do choose to title your chapters with numbers or dates, that alone is not enough to make your readers feel the passing of time in your story. You’ll need to add more techniques, both telling and showing, to ground your readers in the story and make them feel like they’re living it at the same speed that your characters are.

3 “Telling” Time Techniques

And this brings us to the end of the “telling” techniques. We’ve covered three strategies:

  1. Use numbers or dates to mark your chapters
  2. Literally say how much time has passed
  3. Literally say the date

These might feel too “on the nose.” But they really aren’t, and when used strategically, they can help your readers feel grounded and oriented within the story, like they’ve got a handle on what’s going on.

Plus, you’re going to pair them with the “showing” techniques I’ll share with you in the next episode.

I’m “Telling” You Time Is Passing

Now, remember how I spent an age and a half at the beginning of this episode talking about how cool it is that this is episode 71? And we’re on a biweekly podcast schedule, which means it’s been a couple weeks since you last heard from me, and also I’m really enjoying the spring days in May.

All of those are “telling” techniques to mark the passage of time. I looked for every number I could think of to quantify time passing here on the podcast. Like the 28 hours it would take you to listen to this entire podcast from start to finish.

I promised it was relevant! It was a little clunky, and won’t be winning any literary awards, but it was relevant!

Your Turn: Tell Time in Your Story

Now, it’s your turn to put these “telling” techniques to use. And I have two assignments for you.

Assignment 1: Study Time Passing in a Book You Love

The first one is to pick up a book you love, read a few chapters, and look very carefully for any of the three techniques I’ve mentioned here.

Where does the author literally tell you when the story takes place or how much time is passing?

How often do they mention it?

In what contexts?

Is it in the openings of scenes, transitions between scenes, time-compressing summary, or something else?

Assignment 2: Evaluate Time Passing in Your WIP

And then your second task is to pick up your work in progress and read a few chapters. I’d say read at least three chapters so that enough happens that you might run into some time passing.

Where do you tell your readers when the story takes place or how much time is passing?

How often do you mention it?

And in what contexts?

Are there places where you know time has passed, but there are no indicators on the page to share that information with your readers?

If so, well, now you know what you can add!

Watch Out—Time Is Passing Right Now

And that’s everything I have for you today. I’ll be back in a couple weeks with another episode where we’ll dig into all the showing strategies. They’re my favorites and I can’t wait to share them with you.

In the meantime, I encourage you to pay attention to all the signals in your life that convey to you the passage of time. How do you know time is passing?

That’s all for now. Until next time, happy editing!

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