Today, I'd like to discuss the element of time, in writing.

The statement below was made by a reader on a book discussion list to which I belong:

"After Paris it all began to fall apart for me. A lot of skipping around—unexplained time periods went by that didn’t make sense. He was in Puerto Rico, running for his life. Then he was beaten in New York. In the next scene, the heroine was upset because he was gone for months, but the timeline did not support her feelings.” (Disclaimer: The locations in this passage have been changed to protect the author.)

Did you hear her frustration with the author's work? I did.

Have you read a story which made you stop and wonder either how much time had gone by or how did a claimed span go by so fast? I’ve read stories where the time lines were totally off.

I remember in one book while the clock stuck midnight on New Year’s Eve the heroine wondered how she would provide for her unborn child. She thought this while stroking her flat stomach. Because of one missed period, she’d taken a pregnancy test earlier in the day. Pages later, it was spring and she gave birth to a full-term health baby boy. Spring stopped me. The seasonal identifiers didn’t fit the timeline of a normal pregnancy. The story, which had drawn me in, lost me right there. The author hadn’t done her job.

I’ve also read stories where the author didn’t use any time descriptor words or phases such as the next day, or later that morning, or years passed before. Which can leave the reader feeling lost.

Here's another example: Jonathan’s jaw tightened before he turned and slammed the door. (End of Chapter. Next chapter begins.) Jonathan didn’t know what to expect when he opened the door. The whole house was barren. Everything he’d owned was gone.

As the reader, do you know how much time has gone by? No. Jonathan could’ve closed the door and reopened it in peek-a-boo fashion for all we know. Which if he did, this story would have paranormal or psychological-thriller elements. But if our hero had been gone for days, weeks or months, we would see an emotional conflict.

How do you ensure a proper time flow for your story? Map it out. Draw a line. Write the important events that happen to your characters along the line and then chart in seasonal bits and pieces. If your hero is going to be gone for six months and he leaves in July, when he returns in January the weather, food, etc. should reflect the month’s setting in the area.

Also, remember to ground your readers by using time related phases.

Example: There was no more to say. Jonathan’s jaw tightened. He stalked out and slammed the door behind him. The next morning when he returned home the entire house was empty. His life had disappeared overnight.

See the difference?

26 comments

  1. Tamara LeBlanc // February 25, 2011 at 8:28 AM  

    Autumn,
    I think this was a great post!!
    It's definitely annoying to read something that has a skewed timeline...unless its time travel of course:)
    It's also annoying when I write, and then re-read my work only to find out I drobbed the ball on time. I'm writing a scene right now where my hero and heroine are trecking through a city on foot. It's hard to figure out in my mind how big this fictional city is, and how long it would take them to get from point A to point B.
    Any suggestions?
    Thanks so much!!
    Tamara

  2. Beth Trissel // February 25, 2011 at 9:45 AM  

    Excellent post, Autumn. Time line is vital to a plot, and it needs to be easily followed and readily accounted for in the story. Ages ago, an editor told me to make who, what, where...very clear in the opening paragraph or two of each chapter. To have my character(s) clearly grounded in time and place.

  3. Judy // February 25, 2011 at 1:10 PM  

    Great post, Autumn. Getting the right time can be difficult. Getting the right ages in a multi-generational story is difficult too. That's when CPs come in real handy!! The other set of eyes can see what I've read over without catching it! Thanks!

  4. Mary Ricksen // February 25, 2011 at 1:31 PM  

    I have to keep record of some things just so I don't mess up. But, I have caught myself doing this!
    And it takes you out of the story, really out, when you read a time line error like that!

  5. Nightingale // February 25, 2011 at 2:33 PM  

    Guilty as charged! I have to really pay attention or I skip time without grounding the reader.

  6. Autumn Jordon // February 25, 2011 at 3:35 PM  

    Tamara, I'm a country girl too. Have you ever seen those pop up city maps? I have one of Mahatten. Love it. I wrote a scene in Evil's Witness set in the big city. I pulled out my little pop-up map and I could real picture what and how I could get around the city. I imagined in heavy traffic it might take 3-5 minutes to go a block. Late night less.

    Since your city is fictional you can use any city IMO and since it's fictional you can have number of modes of transporation. A quick mention from a character that the ride normally takes XXX amount of time should do it.

    Does that makes sense? I hope I helped.

  7. Autumn Jordon // February 25, 2011 at 3:36 PM  

    Beth, I heard the same thing. Ground your reader in a few lines and then dig into your story.

    I notice while reading that many authors to this. Good advice.

  8. Autumn Jordon // February 25, 2011 at 3:39 PM  

    So true, Judy. My CP has called me on timeline disruptions too. Time factor is just another element we need to be aware of when polishing out work.

  9. Autumn Jordon // February 25, 2011 at 3:41 PM  

    LOL. Mary and NG. I'm so glad you both confessed, so I know i'm not alone.

  10. Susan Macatee // February 25, 2011 at 4:09 PM  

    Great point, Autumn! I've had this happen a few times in my stories, but luckily, I have a great editor who catches those time warpy things. Of course I end up slapping my forehead wondering how I spaced out on that. It makes me all the more careful when writing new stories. I try to work the timeline of the story while still in the plot stage, whether the story rolls out in a couple of weeks, or takes years to unfold.

  11. Maeve // February 25, 2011 at 4:21 PM  

    Great post, Autumn. Thank goodness for another pair of eyes to close those sneaky time warps that can creep into a story.

  12. Autumn Jordon // February 25, 2011 at 4:27 PM  

    Hi, Susan. A straight line can be a wonderful thing. I post character pictures on a board, among other things. A time line is one of them. It has saved me during rewrites. Sometimes it's hard to remember what happen when, especially if you're working on several projects at once.

    Thanks for stopping by the Fuzzies.

  13. Autumn Jordon // February 25, 2011 at 4:28 PM  

    Hey, Maeve. I thought you were holding down the party at my blog. LOL. Glad you chimed in. Congrats again on your successes!

  14. Caroline Clemmons // February 25, 2011 at 5:01 PM  

    Autumn, I just read a book like you mentioned. This couple covered most of western Europe as if it were day by day. Annoying.

  15. Scarlet Pumpernickel // February 25, 2011 at 5:12 PM  

    Having the timeline screwed up will stop my read in a heart beat. I'll stop, go back double check and cuss. If it is really bad, I'll lose interest in the book. I try very hard to keep my timelines straight in my work,but it gets hard sometime. If it is my pet-peeve, it is sure to be my readers pet-peeve as well.

  16. Rachel Lynne // February 25, 2011 at 5:13 PM  

    Great post Amber! Continuity is another thing that pulls the reader, (me anyway) out of the story. During final edits on Ring of Lies I realized my hero 'flipped the light on' during a power outage that I hadn't ended yet. Neither my editor or I had noticed it and this was the last galley--no telling how many times we'd read over that passage and missed it! Thanks for the straight line idea!

  17. Autumn Jordon // February 25, 2011 at 5:24 PM  

    Caroline, hi, hon. Good to see you. I've read books that go day by day and that's okay if the it makes sense. But, sometimes things just don't and that is where mistakes in both writing and editing can really hurt.

  18. Autumn Jordon // February 25, 2011 at 5:25 PM  

    Scarlet, Been there. Cussing included.

  19. Autumn Jordon // February 25, 2011 at 5:30 PM  

    Hi, Rachael. Welcome to the Fuzzies. I know exactly what you mean. After reading your work a dozen or more times, it's hard to pick up on the little details. If readers only knew what we went through to provide them with entertainment.

    AJ, wiping sweat from brow

  20. Mona Risk // February 25, 2011 at 5:36 PM  

    Autumn, what a good topic. To keep track of the time I simply use a calendar and mark on it when each chapter takes place. It works well for me. What I also noticed in historicals mainly is that some authors forget to be realistic about distances and may cross the country East to West on horseback in two days.

  21. Autumn Jordon // February 25, 2011 at 5:42 PM  

    OUCH! How did that get by the editors.

    The calendar is a great idea too. Thanks, Mona.

  22. Mary Marvella // February 25, 2011 at 11:54 PM  

    Hey, Autumn,I didn't forget you, I was out ALL day. Tutoring and sick daughter took day and evening.

    Have you been reading my stuff? Are you sure? (grin) My CPs bust my chops about time.

    I had to keep a calendar when I had a pregnant heroine.

  23. Pamela Varnado // February 26, 2011 at 1:25 AM  

    Autumn,
    This is such a relevant post. When I judge contests I come across the "time" issue often. Another pet peeve for me is when a writer doesn't show how a character moves from one location to the next. For example, one moment a character is sitting in a chair in his library and three sentences later the same character is outside watering the lawn. As much as possible, I always use real time when I write a big event. Unless a baby is premature, a woman needs nine months to have a baby. If I don't incorporate the months in the story, I'll use a prologue to set up the time passage.

  24. Autumn Jordon // February 26, 2011 at 8:17 AM  

    LOL Funny, Mary. Thank those CPs because as you know, readers will hit the wall with books.

    And, Pam, I know. I just read a book where this happen twice. Talk about reader brakes grabbing. I stopped, went back and read again to see if I'd skipped a line or two.

    Thanks for stopping by, everyoen.

  25. P.L. Parker // February 26, 2011 at 10:44 AM  

    Great post - excellent reminders.

  26. Joanne // February 27, 2011 at 9:09 AM  

    Autumn,
    Your post was informative. As a writer, I have to go back and read several times to be sure I've grounded the reader in the right time of day/season, etc. Not easy!