the official website of
Bob Nailor

Denoting the Passage of Time in Your Writing

Different writing formats require various methods of allowing the reader/viewer to understand time has passed. One of the quickest ways to show time is passing or has passed is with transitional words such as meanwhile, after, soon, and later – this is only a small list.

Jim and I went fishing, later Jim worked at ...
Betty and Barb went shopping, meanwhile their husbands ...
Billy and Annie went to the movie then afterwards went to ...

Poetry can also use the transitional words as mentioned above.

Another quick way to transport your reader to a new time is to use a separator such as "* * *" or "# # #" to separate your paragraphs. This can also be used to show scene changes. Of course, a chapter break is always a good indicator of time passage, also.

Screenplays and television scripts are a slightly different breed. Not being a screenwriter I can only rely on what I've been told.

Jill opens oven and slides a cake into it.
Angle in on the oven door and show smoke rolling out of it.

Another good way to demonstrate the passage of time is to use nature itself – the sun, for instance. There is sunrise, morning, daybreak, sunset, eventide, dusk and night, to name a few. For longer stretches of time, you could use moon phases, seasons, or months and weeks, even weather.

Gone was the snow, now small green sprouts ...
Last week had been terrible but I knew ...
Day was done, the rain had ended, the flowers had closed ...

Sometimes you can use a date/time stamp. We have all seen or heard Captain Kirk of "Star Trek" fame enter 'star date entries' into his Captain's Log. The same method can be used for your writing.

June 1, Tuesday. Detective Jones entered ...
2010.02.01:1225hrs. B'Nalcorth waited ...
Saturday. Judith knew ...

Even a speech can denote time–

Four score and seven years ago...

Sometimes a writer must denote the passing of time in one day. This can be easily done in various manners which is subtle to the reader.

Eyeliner, lipstick, powder (shaving, combing hair) – the ritual of getting ready for work gnawed at me.
The pink sky with gold highlights placed a glazing on the treetops as the sun came up.
Breakfast was hours before but it was still two more hours until lunch.
I ate my sandwich, hidden from the high noon sun in the shade of an oak tree.
The early afternoon rains waned and some kids hustled home from school while others played in the puddles.
Suddenly rush hour was all around me as I sped down I-75 from Detroit to Toledo.
I watched the evening news while the kids did their homework.
It was time to put the little ones to bed.
I glanced at my watch, Julie should be getting home now from her date any moment now.
I lay in bed watching Johnny Carson/Jay Leno/David Letterman. The nightly news was over.
It was the haunting hour as the clock struck twelve midnight.
With bleary eyes I stared at the glowing numbers of the alarm, only four more hours until I had to get up.

As a side note, time is a variable that the writer must be aware of. Using a line such as: After the evening meal, the back door slammed as I yelled, "You kids be home before dark." This sentence has different connotations at different locales and seasons. In Ohio, during the winter, that means they get to be out for approximately 15-30 minutes. During the summer it indicates a play time of almost 3-4 hours! Yet, in Alaska, you can only say it once, late May, and you won't see your kids until early September!

  Click to add a comment - say something!


Scott Bury
The passage of time can be tricky. If you do it too glibly, you risk of losing the reader's attention as they wonder "how much later?" or "What else happened in the meantime?"

Especially if you're narrating what the protagonist experiences very closely, I find it more enjoyable to read if you describe, even briefly, how the character experiences the passage of time. For example, "The next two hours felt like two weeks. Horace could not concentrate on his work. The columns of numbers held no interest for him. All he could think about were Ellen's long legs and smooth skin, he silky brown hair and the way the blood matted it down. How much longer before he could leave? Has the clock stopped? Horace wondered."
~ Reply to this comment ~

Bob Nailor
You are indeed correct. One must define the amount of time in such a way that the reader continues to be intrigued and not distracted with the worry about the length of time. When I was learning Russian, we learned there were two words for "now" which were теперь and сейчас. To better define them, we were taught: Now (сейчас) I am talking. AND Now (теперь) we are talking. BTW, I love your example... so subtle.
~ Reply to this comment ~

Nichole Hall
Great tips! I personally like to show the passage of time in a natural transition. Seasonal changes, throw in a quick glimpse at the sun or moon or a rustling of leaves or an owl hooting in the distance. Things like that.
~ Reply to this comment ~

Bob Nailor
Sometimes a simple "...multi-colored, swirling leaves..." can define the moment and " tulips blooming in the garden..." yeilds the season. Nature is its own timepiece.
~ Reply to this comment ~

James Prescott
Important tips as ever Bob, thanks!
~ Reply to this comment ~

Tamie Dearen
Great summary of how to "'pass time" in your writing. Great to have alternatives and mix it up. :D
~ Reply to this comment ~

Charles Dougherty
All good suggestions, Bob. I struggle with time in my writing. When I change viewpoints frequently, which I usually do, it's a challenge to keep events unfolding in their proper sequence. I've tried timelines, mindmaps, etc., but it's still the most troublesome thing for me.
~ Reply to this comment ~

Bob Nailor
Sometimes the best and only choice for designating the passage of time is to use a separator like " # # # " to let the reader know something has changed.
~ Reply to this comment ~

Elyse Salpeter
What about flashbacks - going BACK in time? I have a tendency to use the space between paragraphs and then italics to indicated a memory... though I've been told reading page after page of italics is jarring - not to mention when I write in italics I tend to start to sway to one side and tilt my head after awhile! No, seriously. Thoughts?
~ Reply to this comment ~

Bob Nailor
Showing the passing of time and using flashbacks are two different creatures of the writing world. The examples I gave show how to allow your reader to move forward and allow for the passage of time. With flashbacks, you reveal old information that is critical to the tale. One can use several flashbacks to denote time has passed, i.e. flashback to when your lead was 6, flashback to when your lead was 10, flashback to when your lead was 18. The only difference, by using flashbacks, your lead is still, in the current time, the same age. An example: John rode his horse, ignoring the beautiful afternoon, deep in thought about when he was taught to ride. [flashback to age 6] After arriving at the camp as the sun set, he rested by the campfire, remembering his first camp out. [flashback to age 10] (We've used the flashback AND we've also shown the passage of time.) As Mary gathered the plates and utensils to clean after the evening meal, John considered the first time he'd met her. [flashback to age 18] (Again, another flashback AND another move in the timeline.) Flashbacks aren't really a medium to show the passage of time but snippets of time that has passed.
~ Reply to this comment ~