Conveying Time Lapses


How do writers signal to readers that time has gone by?

Perhaps it’s the teacher in me, but I’ve got a terrible habit, at the start of a new scene of writing, to summarise what has happened before. ‘Stay in the moment’ my workshop leader urges me. She’s right of course. No one wants a boring summary of what has happened in a time gap, they want to be projected straight into a new scene, to be inside a character’s head as they negotiate the drama of their life.

 My novels tend to cover several decades. So inevitably I skip over days, weeks, months, even years sometimes, in order to concentrate on the key moments of my story. So how do I avoid confusing the reader when I miss out a long period of time? Well, one way is to write the novel in sections, and head each section with the dates it spans so that the reader realises time has elapsed when he starts a new section.

Judiciously placed flash backs (as long as they are vivid and in the moment) also help to convey past events. Another way is to keep summaries short and embed them in scenes. Some writers use objects or sensory items to connect the reader to past and present events.

It’s also helpful to state the time: ‘three days later….’, ‘that afternoon,’ ‘By November…’ Here a time lapse is signalled directly, although there are more subtle ways to do this through references to nature (see ‘Let Nature Tell the Time’, October 9th). It’s also good to get these in early, before the reader becomes confused.

Going back in time can be signalled by tense changes: if you write in the simple past, use the pluperfect to signal flashback. (Jim picked up a knife. He remembered the last time he had gutted a fish on the river bank….) This is also an example of using an object – the knife -  to link events.

You could also write a montage: ‘The long summer days started to shorten, tight green blackberries on the bramble bushes turned to red, the oak leaves became dry and crisp. And still Peter hadn’t got in touch.’

Readers will enjoy these time transitions and as writers we will have the satisfaction of knowing we are showing not telling.

Hope that’s helpful. Now I’m off to savage my summaries!

StyleGill ThompsonComment