How does one manage the passage of time in a novel?

In our lives, time can pass extremely slowly, or seem to escape us in a blur of action.  For me, and perhaps for many of us, time can seem to pass with excruciating slowness when I am in physical or mental pain.  Conversely, time seems to literally fly away, when I am engaged in a pleasing pastime.

By contrast, for the reader, the passage of time is more linear: time seems to pass at the rate at which s/he reads.  It can therefore be quite important to give the reader a more variable sense of time.  If time in the novel moves at the same rate as the reader’s eye scans the page, the reader will begin to sense that something is wrong.  This is true even if time in the novel passes at a constant multiple of the reader’s real time: for example of one minute of the reader’s real time is always equal to an hour of time in the novel.

So how can one achieve the sense of the variable passage of time?  In one case, it seems to me that the writer must recognise and write for situations where real time for the reader is the same as time in the story.  One can do this by using short sentences, and by mentioning only the essential sense of what is happening.  For example, see the passage below from Efraim’s Eye where, over a period of seconds, the terrorist is spotted, and his plot is foiled:


“My God!” Naomi exclaimed, “There’s Efraim!”


“He’s on top of the glass enclosure, and he’s doing something up there!”

There was, indeed, a man in jeans and a green T-shirt on the enclosure, but he was bent over, arranging something.

“Are you sure it’s him?”

“Yes, it’s him!  I’m sure!”

Paul thrust the remains of his hot dog at Naomi and began to run toward the van.  He noticed two men sitting in the front seat, but he ignored them, and leapt up onto the bonnet.  With another leap, he was on the roof of the van.  Swinging to his left, he saw the green T-shirt man, bent over and preoccupied with what he was arranging, less than ten feet away.  There was a gap of about five feet between the van and the enclosure, which was about two feet higher.  Paul gathered himself and sprang.  He landed awkwardly and fell forward against the man.  The man turned to see who or what had struck him, and tried to recover his balance at the same time.  Desperately, Paul got his feet under him and pushed.  This sudden momentum was transferred to the green T-shirt man, who lost his balance, and, arms flailing in the air, toppled over the edge of the enclosure opposite the van.  There was a loud howl of pain as he struck one of the stone bollards.

Immediately, Paul turned his attention to the shaped charges which had been arranged neatly – each crescent charge seemed to be embracing a cable.

“Detonate!” screamed the green T-shirt man.

Paul scanned the array and spotted the links which closed the charges into a non-recoiling string.

There was another high pitched scream: “Detonate!”

Paul uncoupled the links, holding one end down with his bandaged left hand while his right hand manipulated the clasp.  With his right hand, he began to pull one end of the string.  The charges were heavy.

“Where is the button?”  Was the shouted question from the van.

Paul dragged the first four charges over the edge of the enclosure.

“On     my       seat!” came the agonised reply.

Paul kicked at two remaining charges which were still on the enclosure.  With a rattle, they were dragged over the edge by the gravitational pull of the first four.

“No!  No!”  A desperate scream from below.  Paul began to turn away.  He was struck by a tremendous shock wave.  He hurtled forward, struck the edge of the van roof, and landed, arms outstretched, on the pavement.  There was nothingness.


The other situation in which time in the novel can approach real time for the reader is when characters are interacting in an emotional (rather than physical) way.  I think it’s important for the reader to get a sense of what the character is feeling, simultaneously with what s/he is saying.  (There could be conflicts between the words and the feelings.)  Where this kind of conflict, or hidden agenda is present, I like to intersperse what the character says – in plain text – with what s/he is thinking – in italics.

In other cases, there could be a gap of a year or more in the story, and nothing of significant interest occurs during the gap.  Rather than give a recitation of what happened during that period, it is sufficient to begin a paragraph with: “Four years later . . . .”

The other aspect of managing the passage of time is the trade off between setting the scene, and extending the apparent passage of time.  Sometimes it can be essential to describe the situation or the setting in some detail, but in doing so, we lengthen the reader’s perception of the passage of time, and risk losing his/her attention.  I probably have a tendency to set the scene fairly clearly, in the interest of conveying to the reader a sense that ‘this is real’.  When I do that, I try to be careful about using interesting language and phrases.



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