Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ask the Editor- Showing passage of time in fiction

Can you offer any tips on how to show passage of time when the narration is in first person present tense?

Thanks for your help.

Betsy Rosenthal

My House Is Singing 

It's Not Worth Making a Tzimmes Over!

The sound of the rooster nudged at the edge of my consciousness, I reached across the bed--he had still not returned.

The scent of the cooking fires drifted through the golden light of the sun falling under the western horizon and I knew I’d not find Refilwe today.

Ding-ding-ding. That was it then, she said 2:00, I guess it means she isn’t interested.

There are numerous ways to show passage of time in your writing. In most cases, time passing is a transition from this time to that one, so the most important thing is to give the reader clues as to what time of day it is.

One way is with sounds. Depending on where your characters are, the sounds around them can reveal a lot about the time of day. For example, in a rural setting, or even an urban setting if you live in Botswana as I do, a rooster crowing is an indication of morning. In cities, morning or evening rush hour traffic can be another way to show passage of time. Church bells and cuckoo clocks can be used without the writer having to say-“it is now 2:00”.

Smells can also help writers move the time along. Bacon, coffee, evening cooking fires- all of these can help your reader figure out what time of day it is.

Other clues for your readers would be the happenings around your characters. Are mosquitoes starting to bite? Then it’s likely a summer evening. Are the flashing lights on the house across the street blinding your character? Must be Christmas.

If you’re dealing with larger bits of time, weather is very useful. Depending on the setting snow crunching underfoot, fallen leaves, dry harmattan winds, or torrential rains can show passage of time from one season to another. Other seasonal events can also clue the reader to time. For example, a flock of geese heading south, a dog shedding hair, the first crocus, the sound of a tractor ploughing, or the drip of melting ice.

Interesting writing is achieved when the writer pulls the reader by the hand and says, “look!” Then the reader gets the fun of discovering. Laying down clues about time is better writing than telling the reader “three months passed”.

These are just a few ideas of how to do that. What ideas do you have? 

Lauri Kubuitsile is the author of The Scattering and Signed, Hopelessly in Love, which was recognised by South Africa's O Magazine as one of the best reads of 2011. Lauri has won or been shortlisted for numerous awards. She twice won Africa's premier prize for children's writing, The Golden Baobab. She also won the creative writing prize sponsored by Botswana's Department of Youth and Culture. In 2011, she was shortlisted for Africa's most prestigious short story prize, The Caine Prize. Lauri blogs at Thoughts from Botswana




  1. Lauri,

    You made playing with time sound like fun. Thanks for all those ideas.

    What time of year is it when dry harmattan winds blow?


  2. Thanks Charlotte. We don't have harmattan here it is for countries around the Sahara. I think it is Dec-Jan. Perhaps West Africans can correct me. Please :)

  3. Nice post, Lauri. I especially liked the image of taking the reader by the hand and saying, "Look!" How exciting to think that we who write can do that. :-) And I love reading a book where that happens.

  4. Good idea, using the subtle approach of scenes from nature to show the passage of time.

    Morgan Mandel

  5. Wonderful, colorful and helpful images that you gave to portray time and season. Thanks so much. Very delightful as well as helpful.

    Pat Harrington, Seattle Noir, coming May, 2009

  6. Maryann, Morgan and Patricia- Thanks, glad you enjoyed the post and found it helpful.

  7. Lauri, What a unique and interesting way to show passage of time. You're right, so much better than the mundane "two weeks later such and such happened." I'll have to remember your tips! Thank you for being here.

  8. Great article. In my book, "Guardian," most of it takes place in a 24-hour period. But, I have to show passage of time, so it can be a little difficult to juggle so many pages over such a period of time.

    I enjoyed reading this and learning some more!

  9. As I read it, Betsy's question is how specifically to indicate passage of time while narrating in the first person present tense. It seems to me the simplest way would be to use asterisks to not the end of a scene and then start another scene. Another way would be to describe action taking place between scenes from the point of view of the narrator, possibly in the past tense, and then continuing with action in a new scene.

  10. Very good examples. Letting the reader see or realize the passage of time usually works better than telling them, although sometimes you have to tell. It doesn't really matter whether the book is written in first person, present tense or third person, past tense.

    Since scenes tend to be broken into chapters (but not always), another way is to start a new chapter. This is assuming the scene is wrapped up by the end of the chapter. The reader realizes that the new chapter often indicates a passage of time and a change of scene.


  11. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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