I was mining through the comments section on the blog, and this one came up a couple of times: how do you show the passage of time in a story without using author intrusion or telling? This is a tricky one that trips up a lot of writers trying to learn deep point of view.
For writers who grew up reading more distant point of views, it feels natural to have the author voice step in and explain or summarize that time has passed. There’s no author voice in deep point of view.
If the goal is to keep the story in deep pov, CONTEXT, DIALOGUE, AND SETTING are the tools we have to show time has passed. Some key red-flag words to watch for are: when, afterwards, and then, next, until, following, earlier…
When Sally got home… (Telling. Would Sally say this to herself? Probably not – it’s the author jumping in to summarize time passing. Just show Sally arriving home)
Sheila went shopping and afterwards watched a movie. (This is telling. SHOW Sheila shopping and then watching a moving. If either is relevant to the story, explore that scene with readers. If these lines are not moving the story ahead, they’re simply telling the reader time has passed — just pick up where the story begins again and show the time passed with context.)
Sheila woke up the next morning… (Telling. Deep POV is the character living out the story in real time with the reader. Would she narrate her own actions? Every word on the page comes from the pov character. Every. Word. Just show Sheila waking up.)
Using Setting To Show The Passage Of Time
This can be something as simple as noticing the time on a clock, noting the sun has moved in the sky, or a change of seasons.
Sarah shivered and rubbed at the raised bumps on her arms. She looked for the sun. It had already descended behind the trees heading for the horizon.
How can the pov character interact with the setting or the characters around them in such a way that it’s clear to the reader that time has passed? Do they pick up a stack of mail from the front door? Pick up Fluffy from the cat hotel? Are weeds and grass growing wild where they should be kept neat and trimmed? Is paint peeling, shingles missing from the roof, porches leaning with railings fallen over? Does Dad have a few more wrinkles or more gray hair than last time? Has their inbox exploded because no one’s done their job while they were away.
Make a list of what’s changed or what stands out, and then choose one or two key descriptions to show the passage of time.
Using Context To Show Time Passing
This requires some forethought (or editing after the fact), but building into the story cues on the passage of time is effective as well. Does the character habitually do anything on a particular day or hour? Having the character do these things cues the reader into time and place. Think about your character’s daily routine and how they move through their day.
Daily routine ideas:
- Do they grocery shop every Tuesday? Or maybe they only grocery shop after 11pm when it’s quieter in the shops.
- A cup of tea before bed
- Do they read the paper with breakfast every morning?
- Is there 5 o’clock rush hour traffic?
- Are the shadows longer or shorter?
- Is it hotter or cooler than earlier?
- Meals are a great hint to readers about the passage of time. Sitting down to breakfast or dinner immediately roots the reader in time of day.
A Ticking Clock
Maybe you’ve built in a ticking clock into your plot. The character makes note of the time specifically because it’s limited and carries significant consequence. Similar to this, is there an event the character is anticipating — a vacation, time off, road trip, parent-teacher interviews, peach season — whatever. By noting this event earlier, when it arrives the reader intuits how much time has gone by.
Stan’s watch chirped, and then buzzed with an alarm. His shoulders slumped. He was late picking up Sarah from school again.
Steve’s hands ached from gripping the steering wheel and slammed on the brakes – again. The car in front of him edged out of the parking lot, the driver lifting a hand in thanks as though Steve had invited being cut off. There must’ve been a hockey game on downtown. He checked his watch. 10pm. About time for that.
Use Dialogue To Note Passage Of Time
Have other characters note the passage of time. Let them ask a question, or perform some other action that tips the reader off about a change in time. This is perhaps the easiest workaround when it works for your story.
“How was your vacation, Stan? Two weeks in the sun must’ve been amazing.”
The barista set the coffee cup on the counter and rang up Mark’s purchase. “Haven’t seen you here for a couple of weeks.”
“The plane leaves in two hours, and we haven’t even left for the airport yet!” (Then show them running to their gate.)
One Quick Tip About Deep Point Of View
One quick tip that’s pretty vital, is to make sure the character has a natural/organic reason to notice the passage of time. This reduces the tendency to have the author voice step in with that information. What cues the character to check a watch or the calendar? What’s going on that’s causing them to note the day or time? What are they anticipating?
With the examples above (with the exception of the dialogue examples), each character has a reason to note the time. There’s some sort of external cue, a line of thinking that leads them to note the time.
Steve smelled the milk in the fridge. He jerked his head away from the sour odor. “How long has it been since we’ve been grocery shopping?”
Sheila’s stomach rumbled again. She checked her watch. She’d missed lunch again.
Telling Isn’t Always Bad
Here’s the honest truth I don’t find too many blogs on deep point of view admitting. Sometimes, you have to use telling to keep the story moving.
Sometimes the verbal and mental gymnastics required to stay in deep point of view will simply bog down the story to such a degree that it’s either tedious or ridiculous. I remember writing a scene a while ago where I needed a POV character to be present so the reader could hear what was going on, but it made no sense for this character to be there. I had them hiding in a bush listening in on a conversation. It got silly.
So, if the reader just needs to know we’re five years in the future, or a date or place, sometimes it’s really just better to cheat deep point of view for a moment and deliver that information quickly and concisely and keep the story moving. Brief headings at the beginning of a chapter work well and aren’t intrusive to readers generally (when used sparingly). Ie.
500BCE Near The Black Sea,
Five Years Later
It’s definitely more work to stay in deep pov and show a passage of time, but the reward is keeping the reader rooted in time and place without interrupting the story with the author voice. Got a good example of showing the passage of time? Share it below to help others brainstorm!