Q&A

How Can I Write a Tight Story That Takes Place Over Years?

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Is there a way to write a tight story which takes place over many years? (How?)

I’ve recently realised, most of the books I’ve read don’t last more than a year, many lasting only a few weeks. As I’m planning a series where each book is anywhere between four and ten years long, I’m worried in case that is unfeasible and I should change it before I go any further.

Considering a lot of what I read is young adult since older fiction often disturbs me (just because I’m old enough to read sex and gore doesn’t mean I’m willing to), it is possible my choice of books is the only issue here.

Bryony

Hi Bryony,

Having your story take place over years will make writing it a little trickier, but it’s completely doable. To judge whether it’s too much, I would look over the rest of your story and see if there’s anything else that’s especially complicated. If there isn’t, and you don’t mind taking on one element that adds a little complication, I would go for it. If your story already has five viewpoint characters, numerous plot twists or reveals, or other elements that make it extra complicated, then all of it together may be too much.

The technique for covering more time isn’t a lot different from the way many stories fast-forward. Look at all the changes that should happen to characters, plot, and the world during the time frame, and try to condense it into a series of specific turning points. Those turning points will be your real-time scenes. Between them, you’ll summarize how time passes as well as the general condition of characters and the world during that time frame.

Make sure your transitions clarify for your audience how much time has passed. Don’t use dates alone to mark the time, because those are hard to remember. If your central character is growing up, their age can be a good marker of time. If you have an important event like the apocalypse at the beginning, the number of years since that event can help people conceptualize how time passes.

Keep your story tight despite the large time frame. It should have one main plotline and one primary character (not all stories will have just one, but in this case, we’re trying to keep it simple). Avoid including anything in the story just because it happened between important point A and important point B. You can reduce years to a single sentence if nothing of note happened in them.

While I haven’t read it myself, the Hornblower Saga has been recommended to me as books that take place over a long time period, and they do so without confusing sensitive readers.

Harry Potter is also a pretty good example. Each book takes place over one year rather than years, but the transitions aren’t that different.

I hope that helps. Happy writing!
Chris

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Comments

  1. Dave L

    >see if there’s anything else that’s especially complicated

    Check out Scriptshadow, Screenwriting Article – How To Manage A Complex Story
    http://scriptshadow.net/screenwriting-article-how-to-manage-a-complex-story/

    >Don’t use dates alone to mark the time

    I usually skim over dates. I don’t mean to; they just don’t grab my notice like the actual story events.

    >older fiction often disturbs me

    Maybe people can suggest some adult fiction that doesn’t overindulge in sex and violence?

  2. Elfine

    I think a very good example would be “Assassin’s apprentice” to “Assassin’s fate” written by Robin Hobb: over 20 years in real life and 5 or 6 decades in the books…

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