Tension is one of the most important aspects of writing that connects with audiences and keeps readers turning pages..and one of the things most clearly lacking in writing that doesn’t quite make the grade. One way to keep tension tight, and readers excited, is to make certain your story has a realistic and palpable timeline.
To explain this, I’ll use a metaphor. We’ve spoken before about how dialogue that just sits there without context is less powerful than dialogue where you take the time to describe the setting and how the speakers are acting during the conversation. (Lots of good dialog tips here, here, and here…)
The same is true about action and time. If your story just happens without the context of time passing, it’s not as powerful as a story that interacts with the days, minutes, seconds, decades, or whatever.
Today we’ll talk about doing that.
Why Time is Important
If you ask one hundred different writers or writing coaches why time is important in your story, you will get one hundred different answers…two hundred if you come back in a week and ask them again. That said, the vast variety of answers boils down into three basic categories: timeline, world-building, and verisimilitude.
Conflict is at the heart of stories, and conflict without some kind of deadline is weaker than conflict without a ticking clock. A reluctant hero who needs to train until he’s ready to take on the Dark Lord of Darkness by, you know, eventually, whenever he feels he’s ready is a far less readable and interesting story than if the hero must be ready by Midsummer’s Eve, three weeks from now.
In that story, showing how the days pass builds tension and makes everything more exciting. See also the ticking clock on the bomb on a bus.
You can do this in emotionally-driven, less violent stories, too. A college romance could have the love interest going home for the summer…where his high school boyfriend is waiting to sweep him off his feet once and for all. Years might pass as an introspective parent prepares to have a meaningful re-connection with a child, and each year brings that parent closer to death by old age.
The inherent timeline of a story is another form of tension and narrative, and strengthens every scene where time becomes a part.
The passage of time is part of our lives. Our days have rhythms of pre-work mornings, work days, dinner time, and before bedtime. The week passes through weekdays and weekends. Our years include birthdays, holidays, school years, and new years. It’s a deeply-seeded part of the human experience.
If those rhythms are missing from your story, readers will notice. Maybe they’ll notice unconsciously, but they will get less out of your book than if they were in there.
For fantasy and science fiction, you’re free to invent that passage of time. Create local, kingdom-wide, and religious festivals. Make winter snow an opponent, or an ally, for the protagonists who navigate it on their quest. Mark the birthdays of your characters as a way of showing the passage of time.
For stories set in the real world, think about how your setting interacts with time. Christmas in London or New York is a landmark moment, and can help immerse characters and readers alike. Obscure holidays and festivals can help you describe exotic locations.
In all cases, these little details make a world come to life…and a living world is a world readers can get immersed in quickly and permanently.
Like I said before, real life includes the passage of time. Children grow. Relationships change. Wounds heal. Supplies dwindle. Favorite restaurants close. Old friends move to other cities, or just drift apart.
Even in a story that only happens over the course of a couple of days, packing in 100 minutes worth of driving into an hour will make readers balk. If your protagonist stays awake the entire time, and you don’t mention fatigue and exhaustion, your readers will notice something wrong. If there’s no indication of what happens during daylight and at night, your readers won't connect the way they should.
Even if tension in your conflict and strong world-building aren’t important to your story, the passage of time should be. Events happen in time, and if you show that time passing in a compelling, colorful way, your story will be richer for it.
Ten Time Techniques to Keep Your Story Ticking
Here are ten of the most common and effective ways to use time in your writing. Some I’ve mentioned in passing with the discussion above. Some are new. All are things you can (even should) try in your writing.
1. The Ticking Clock
In essence, this means setting some kind of deadline and then showing time passing until the deadline gets met. As time runs out, your protagonist is experiencing a small but meaningful setback with each passing moment.
- An underdog team is behind by five points in their baseball game. With each inning, the chances of a win diminish.
- A saleswoman must be the highest-selling member of her team in a quarter so she can achieve her goals and win her love interest. Every week, in a meeting, she sees her numbers in comparison to the competition, and is reminded how there’s one less week to make things happen.
- A galactic explorer has been hired to find an ancient ruin before a major holiday. Every hyperspace jump eats a week of time, diminishing how long is left before he loses the deal, and maybe his life.
2. The Rhythm Method
Instead of using defined units of time, use the rhythms of passing time to set the pace of your story. Like I said above, days, weeks, years, seasons, semesters at school, military deployments, seasons of a show, and any number of similar things all provide consistent, predictable rhythms you can use in your story.
- A dragon hibernates for 25 years, awakening to feast and pillage for 2 years in between. The hero’s tale begins on year 23.
- A deployed soldier learns his wife has been kidnapped. Before he can go to rescue her, he must survive the final weeks of his tour of duty.
- A college student solves mysteries between classes, with the timeline of his cases punctuated by class times, lab meetings, and midterm exams.
3. Use Flashbacks for Context
This isn’t as direct as many other items on the list, but can be very effective if done well. A flashback, lasting a sentence or an entire chapter, can give history, meaning, motivation, and other contextual power to your story. While you’re writing it, include visible markers that show the passage of time. Your characters will be younger, their world different, their relationships less defined…all of which helps make time feel real in your story.
- A flashback to childhood shows a friend, who has a place in the main story, without his trademark scar.
- A flashback to an ancestral time describes the city in detail, which is placed in juxtaposition to the modern metropolis it is at the time of the story.
- A flashback to the beginning of a protagonist’s marriage shows a vibrant, loving relationship and hints at changes which happened prior to the story’s opening scene.
4. The Other Ticking Clock
For some stories, time itself isn’t what moves forward, but rather progress towards something. That progress is just as inexorable as the hands of a stopwatch, but measures something else…and when that progress reaches a certain point, bad things happen.
- An enormous brawler sits at the bar, punctuating the scene as he slams empty shot glasses down one by one.
- A serial killer taunts the detective hunting him with letters, each of which tells how close he is to taking another victim.
- Desperately trying to get out of motorcycle gang territory, the protagonists watch as their fuel gauge gets lower and lower in the middle of the desert.
5. Holidays and Festivals
Things that happen at a certain time of year demonstrate time’s passage just by showing up on your page. In some stories it’s best to have them approach and fade to indicate time. In others, you can have things happen at the same event each year as a way of indicating how time impacts the characters and world. This can be especially helpful in fantasy and science fiction stories, by way of world-building and immersion.
- A gang of college friends get together every new year, discussing and witnessing what has happened to them over the course of their lives.
- Heroes of the realm must save the day in time for the King to congratulate them at the coming Midwinter Festival.
- The anniversary of a major battle put the captain of a starship in a dangerous mood, which impacts the mission and endangers the crew.
6. Use Pacing to Slow or Speed Action
It helps to make your writing match the pace of the passage of time. For a chapter that covers years, longer paragraphs that meander can help reflect the longer scope of the action. In a scene covering just a few minutes, short and sharp sentences underscore the immediacy. You can even demonstrate the perceived time dilation of stress and panic by drawing out seconds with a longer scene even though only a few moments elapse from start to finish.
- In describing summer off for a story set in high school, you give a long paragraph each to the most important experience each character has. You use long sentences and vivid descriptions to reflect the idyllic passage of summer…and short, sharp sentences for the character who had to work a difficult and demanding job.
- A detective story uses longer sentences when the protagonist is thinking about clues and investigating leads, but when the action happens there is no thought and sentences are short, indicating how time speeds up in life-or-death situations.
- A love story uses quick pacing when the protagonist is with the love interest, but long and convoluted sentences during her work day, showing how time flies when with him and crawls when at the job she hates.
7. Age Minor Characters
This is simple but important, and one that many authors miss. If your story unfolds over years, minor characters will show those years. Hair will gray. People will get married and divorced. A favorite barista will graduate and go on to work for an engineering firm. A static world is an unrealistic and less engaging world, and the people in that world are a big part of it.
- The protagonist’s best friend has a child. Even though the story only covers a few weeks, the kid loses a tooth, finishes fourth grade, and wins a track meet during that time.
- A favorite shop owner important to the main characters in an epic story goes gray, becomes hard of hearing, and is eventually replaced by his son who bears a close resemblance but lacks his old world accent.
- The elf character in a fantasy novel doesn’t change at all, while his human wife shows the passage of time.
8. Accumulate Damage
In action stories, this can be literal damage. As time passes, the rigors of conflict accumulate in visible, meaningful ways. In emotionally-driven stories, damage takes the form of lost confidence, eroded trust, and weakened motivation. Having damage pile on top of damage makes each scene feel less like they happened in a vacuum, and makes every scene more meaningful.
- A private detective gets a busted rib in an early fight, which makes a rooftop chase more difficult. During the climax, that rib and the twisted ankle from the chase become a major obstacle to his victory.
- The AI in a space freighter gets damaged by an EMP blast from the Evil Empire’s patrol ship, and makes travel harder and more dangerous until the crew can get it fixed.
- A marriage falls apart, with each transgression and harsh word eroding the trust and love of the couple in it.
9. Physical Cues
What are the physical indications of time’s passage in the place your story is set? When does snow fall each year? How do sunrise and sunset change? Does roadwork happen only during summer months? When do the leaves come off the trees? Are there seasonal foods or chores? These tangible cues help demonstrate the passage of time, and can help you create colorful scenes built around them.
- A protagonist who likes to cook uses different fresh ingredients at different times of year, showing the seasons go by.
- In a vampire story, daylight savings time helps the heroes go hunting after work.
- A tall ship in a pirate story has to be loaded and ready before the monsoon and hurricane season starts. Otherwise, they risk a much more dangerous journey.
10. Show Changes in the World
Characters aren’t the only things that change as a world gets older. Businesses close and new ones open in their location. Great old trees get cut down. Big buildings get built to completion. Climate change, ancient curses, and tectonic motion all progress on time scales of their own. Depending on the scope of your story, these changes both show time’s motion and provide hooks to hang action, thought, and character development on.
- Each time a noble returns home from university, the cathedral under construction in town is a few feet taller.
- Returning home via Dragon Pass, the fantasy heroes discover the dragon has been slain, and the road is filled with traffic who wouldn’t have previously dared.
- In a far future world, Florida is now an island thanks to rising seas and tectonic motion.
One piece of good news about tracking time in your story is that you don’t need to worry about it too much in your initial draft. You can insert these aspects, or underscore what showed up already, during rewriting. Just take your chapters, assign a timeline (or a threat line) to each, and then add the words and sentences you need in every chapter to keep time tight and your tension soaring.
Image by Gabe Raggio.