One of the things that it seems every single author has to address (and re-address…over and over…) in revision is the timeline of events. Keeping up with when things happen and how much time elapses between them is a headache in and of itself, but knowing how to convey that naturally in the narrative is a Super Mega Headache.
I always feel kinda silly offering writing advice, so caveat that these are just things I’ve learned as I revise my own work/things that have worked for me in my constant struggle against a concrete timeline. Your mileage may vary!
First, I’ll list some quick-and-dirty ways to get your timeline under control if it’s super baggy. Then, we’ll talk about ways to insert the passing of time in your book without it seeming awkward.
Ticking Time Bomb
Is your plot lagging? Add a deadline. Not only does this give you a concrete amount of time to work with in the narrative, it’s a natural way to up the tension, since everything becomes more dire the closer the deadline looms. Instead of Frodo just having to take the Ring to Mount Doom, make it Frodo has to take the Ring to Mount Doom by Halloween or the Witch King burns down Rivendell.
The thing with the Time Bomb plotline is that it’s only gonna work if you really sell it. If you mention a deadline once and don’t mention it again until you’re upon it, it’s gonna be confusing to your readers and it won’t hold the narrative tension it should. It should color your narrative voice and be at the forefront of your character’s minds.
Adding a Time Bomb is deceptively simple. If A doesn’t happen by a set amount of time, B will happen instead.
That said, a Time Bomb isn’t right for every story. So, as an alternative:
The Ticking Time Bomb’s less aggressive cousin. If your timeline is super baggy, consider condensing your story into a short amount of time—a week, a month, etc. Again, the idea is to give you a set amount of time to work with so you don’t have as much room to go off the rails. I’d suggest this route for stories that aren’t necessarily lacking in tension, but need some help establishing and communicating a solid timeline. It’s easier to convey time passing when you don’t have as much time passing to convey (say that five times fast).
This approach might not change your story quite as much as adding a deadline will, and is one of the tools I use when revising. I decide how much time I want to pass over the course of the book, and draw out a timeline with major plot points, marking which things happen close together and which far apart. This way, you have a visual of where exactly you need to convey the passing of time.
Okay, now onto how to do that:
Action Vs. Narration
I’ve found that in my own writing, referring to time passed in narration seems less awkward than action. You don’t have to get into the weeds of describing the minutiae of every day routine as it’s happening, even if it helps establish the setting or atmosphere.
“Days passed in a haze of routine. Ella read in the greenhouse and drifted through the library, greeting Corvid in his wire cage as he squawked along with the noon bell. One day, she read Poe, the next Dickinson, until she’d read all seven of the poetry volumes on the shelf and Sunday came around again.”
There’s a week, gone, a setting, established, and an atmosphere, clumsily executed (I just made this up, sorry). Three lines of narration in this case is way more effective than actually following Ella around in her dusty mansion and describing everything she does for seven days.
Keep your time passage narration on the short side, because the action is what the reader is there for.
The Ol’ POV Switch
If you have multiple POVs, a story organized into parts, interstitial passages, or really anything that breaks up your book more than just by chapter, then you have a built-in easy spot to add some time passing. In fact, I think most readers expect it? Anything that interrupts the narration is the perfect spot to write in a passage like the example above, or even something like “Three days later, Ella found herself in the woods.”
If you don’t have anything but chapters separating the parts of the book (raises hand), try to keep significant time jumps, like anything more than three or so days, corresponding with chapter breaks. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, obviously, but too much jumping around within chapters can be confusing.
Post-Action Time Lapse
Another good place to insert some lapsed time is after an action sequence or big reveal. You don’t want to have a ton of these super close together anyway, because they won’t make as much of an impact if they’re one after another with no time to sink in, for the characters or the reader.
So if you have a huge action scene, and then a chapter break, that might be a good time to slip in some time passage narration. Or after an emotional reveal, when there’s going to be some character internalization anyway.
Really, the most important thing is that you know how much time passed, and you can communicate a sense of it to your readers. You don’t have to militantly give them an itinerary, but they should have an idea of how much time is elapsing between plot points. Deciding at the outset how much time should pass over the course of your story should help you keep things organized and figure out a fairly solid timeline.