Made in America

Show Don’t Tell: Time

One of the more abstract concepts to include in your story is the passage of time. Jumping from one time in your protagonist’s life to another is a complex thing and, if done wrong, it can leave your readers feeling confused and disoriented. The passage of time is something that you may directly mention to your readers as to make things more clear and concise. You can link back to the previous events and give your readers a specific number of years through dialogue or thought. Time does, however, change us in many ways and those changes should be shown rather than told to your readers.

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1) Holidays

If you’re working with a short time-jump, holidays can be a great marker to show how much time has passed. Let’s say, for example, you’re working within a year of your character’s life. Let’s say your story opens with the ball dropping on New Years’ and you want to jump between this moment and the following fall the next year.

Create a birthday in September that your character is preparing for so that the reader can know where they’ve jumped to in time. Or simply have the characters discussing that Halloween is coming up and what their plans are. Having a significant event on the day that you pick the story back up will also help answer questions as to why this is where the story resumes.

2) Physical Appearance

Another way to clearly show your readers a passage of time has occurred is through changes in the various characters’ appearances. For example, perhaps your protagonist got a haircut or started dressing with a different style or got a piercing. Perhaps one of their friends has lost weight or started dressing more extravagantly. These noticeable physical changes indicate to the reader that enough time has passed for appearances to alter to a significant degree.

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3) School or Work

Where a character is with their school or career is also an excellent indicator of the passage of time. We go through life entering into different modes of school and then different jobs so switching up your character’s current circumstances would make sense if years pass over the time jump you’re creating. Perhaps they’ve finally finished school and entered the workforce or maybe they left the job they worked in the beginning of your story for something new.

4) Location

As time passes we oftentimes change our locations as well by moving around. This could come in many forms though depending on your character and their circumstances. The change here could be as simple as a character moving to a new apartment or buying a home. It could be that they move to a new city than they were previously located in the story. Or it could even come in the form of your character suddenly being more worldly, having traveled a lot during the time that is being skipped over.

5) Friends and Relationships

Friendships and relationships will also change as time goes on over the years. This can mean some friendships slip away and a character that your protagonist was previously close with is no longer their friend. It could mean the nature of the relationship has changed as well. For example, a friend has a baby and now your protagonist doesn’t see them as often. It could also mean the reverse and a previously strained relationship could have been reconciled over this time. They could even have some new friends that the reader hasn’t met before, though you’ll have to provide believable circumstances as to how these friendships formed.

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6) Personality, Habits, Mannerisms

People’s personalities also deeply change as time progresses. Think back on who you were ten years ago and you’re likely very different from the person you are today. This will happen to your characters as well. Consider the length of the time jump you’re attempting to write first. If it’s only a year your character likely won’t be unrecognizably different, but if it’s something drastic like five years we will see more dramatic changes. Consider the events that happen between the two moments in time and how those moments will change your protagonist. How will they shape their personality, habits, hobbies, and mannerisms for the remainder of the story?

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