Somehow, jokes about the linear nature of time became part of our schtick here at Mythcreants, but time is no laughing matter! At least, not when you’re trying to convey time in a story, which is often trickier than it sounds. This week we’re talking time jumps, time stamps, and all manner of time shenanigans. With luck, you’ll learn how to properly explain when things happen… just in time!


Generously transcribed by Elizabeth. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. 

[opening theme]

Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is… 

Oren: Oren. 

Wes: And… 

Chris: Chris. 

Wes: Open page, episode 413, colon: Conveying Time and Narration. Thursday, December 8th, 7:02 PM. 

Chris: Wow. 

Wes: I did it, right? I’ve established time? 

Chris: Yeah. 

Wes: [intensely] Am I done? 

Chris: It’s amazing how tense you made that sound. 

Wes: [still intensely] Nothing’s more gripping than knowing the date and the time at the top of that first chapter because you know that when it goes on to some other date and time, things are going to get real. [laughter] 

Oren: Am I the only one who doesn’t ever notice or remember those? People will put timestamps at the start of chapters and they just don’t enter my brain. Then later in the chapter it will talk like I’m supposed to know what day it is and I’ll be like, what? What are you talking about? 

Chris: No, you’re not the only one. It is the absolute worst way to convey time. No, no, actually, sorry. There’s one way that is worse: it’s to do the same thing but with a fictional calendar that you made up for your world. [laughter]

Wes: Ah, there you go. Yep. [laughter]

Oren: Ah yes, the third day of Beelzebub. 

Chris: Lies of Locke Lamora, I may be talking about you. 

Wes: Oh boy. 

Oren: Oh my god. 

Wes: The funniest thing about that is everyone ignores it, and I’m sure writers agonize over it, which is kind of what we’re talking about today. Conveying time is an important part of storytelling, because it helps your readers follow the timeline of your plot to gain a better understanding of your characters, their motivations, and ideally maybe help create a sense of continuity, maybe structure. So yeah, we were just going to talk about the importance of conveying time appropriately, how you can do that, and yeah, let’s jump into it. 

So pull out your world building pants and make a fake calendar and make everybody memorize it first, and make sure that you’re operating on not a 24 hour clock because that’s boring. Go to something else that’s much more manageable, like 10 hours, and then people only sleep like five. 

Oren: Brandon Sanderson. 

Wes: Yeah. [laughs]

Oren: Gosh. Every once in a while I’ll be talking about Way of Kings and we’ll be having a very normal Way of Kings conversation. And then someone will pipe in and be like, well actually that character you’re talking about is four years younger than their stated age because of the way time works in the Cosmere setting. So actually, what you’re saying doesn’t make sense and I’ll be like, I wish the earth would swallow you. 

Wes: Oh my gosh, I love that. So yeah, we probably aren’t going to spend a lot of time talking about that because I think it’s horrible. And an unnecessary way to confuse people, especially – if you want to put weird timestamps at the top of your chapters, go for it, but no one will pay attention. And if we have to thumb back to look at those, no one’s going to do that, especially if it’s an audio book. Also, if it’s an audio book, it’s even more confusing. 

Oren: Yeah, it’s even worse. In audio there’s no way to easily go back to where that date was. If you’re very lucky, they might only put the date at the start of the chapter and so you can go back to the start of the chapter but then how are you going to go back to where you were before? I always tell my clients that if you want those, okay, but don’t expect anyone to read them. You have to do your in-text description of time as if those didn’t exist. 

Wes: Epistolary works, obviously, they’re letters, there’s going to be timestamps, but again, they’re more flavor. They’re like surrounding fluff, because usually someone will say something like, it’s been a while, or sorry I’m late getting back to you. The text itself still conveys the passing of missed time instead of noticing, oh, this letter from this person is arriving three weeks later than the previous correspondence. Something like that is unnecessarily technical and doesn’t really serve a narrative purpose. 

Chris: I think if you’re going to use contextual clues like that to show time passing, you have to be extra careful to be clear as opposed to relative time and date stamps. Also, it has to be soon enough. That’s the other trick. If you don’t put it up front and you let people get their own idea of the new scene or chapter, thinking that it’s the next day, and then they find out a long time has passed, that’s just very jarring. 

Oren: The only thing I really know about conveying time in narration is that the more lines of text you have, the greater amount of time you are implying has passed. 

Chris: Yeah, let’s talk about that. The micro-time passage in narration. 

Oren: I just know that if you’re in a fight scene and you have your character think for an entire paragraph, it gives the impression that they’ve stopped in the middle of a fight to have a nice ponder. 

Chris: Now, to be clear, this is assuming that you’re writing in unfolding events narrative premise, as opposed to omniscient or if you have a character retelling where the character is clearly like a future version of themselves, they can just go on a rant in the middle of a fight scene. But possibly most works are in unfolding events where the whole premise of the narration is that the viewpoint characters are actively experiencing events unfold and so then the time passing has to reflect what they are experiencing in that moment. And in that case, every word makes it pass just because it takes time for the reader to read those words. 

Besides the fact that if you have, of course, a character think a whole bunch in a fight scene, the believability that they can strategize that much between a sword swing starts to fall apart. 

Wes: Can’t you just end the thought paragraph with “It flashed through her mind in a moment” or something like that? [laughter] Obviously just a real fast thinker. 

Oren: Let me put it this way. There’s no law against doing that yet. 

Chris: I do think that if you put in your narration “and a whole bunch of things happened at once,” I think that’s better, honestly, if you’re not in unfolding events, because it’s still easier for a retelling character to say that. But I do think it gives you a little more leeway. But when you’re at the point where it’s just no, it’s just impossible for that character to strategize that much in that little time, it doesn’t really help at that point. If you really need to describe lots of things happening simultaneously, it’s a little heavy handed. It’s not my preferred tactic, but I’m not going to say you should never, ever do it. 

Dialogue is the other one because characters are supposed to be going back and forth. And especially with dialogue, the thing that happens is if you wait too long, not only is it unrealistic – have you responded to that person yet? But then when they answer, a lot of times the reader forgets what they’re responding to, because they can’t hold the previous line in their head for that long. And so then they have to go back and look back several paragraphs to see what question they are answering. 

But it’s still possible to have this weird time dilation effect, even if you’re not in really key sensitive passages. For instance, Crescent City has this exposition dump that happens between when a character grabs a doorknob and when she walks through the door. [laughs] It’s several paragraphs and wait, she hasn’t crossed the door yet? 

Oren: She’s been hanging out, you know, just thinking about the setting and all the things that are in it. 

Chris: It is occasionally, though, useful if you have a really tense moment, to extend it a little bit for more emphasis and dramatization, even in an unfolding event. So you have a fight scene, you keep most of it very nicely, tightly paced. You don’t want to have too much description, and usually you don’t need to because you don’t need to describe the way every single body part moves, which is a mistake that people make in fights. But if you have, oh no, the blade is about to chop off somebody’s head and it’s swinging in, sometimes it actually is useful to just extend that a little bit so you can kind of get a little more drama out of it. Just do it purposely. 

Oren: Then of course you get into questions of where characters are and what they’re doing in fight scenes, which is related to time. You don’t want it to feel like one side has just stopped because it’s not their turn yet. You have to consider, if the heroes can do this in this amount of time, the villains also can do a similar amount in that amount of time. 

Chris: Right. Does it feel like they were standing around watching when they should have been helping? 

Oren: This particularly tends to come up in escapes, I’ve noticed. It’s not super common that a hero will defeat the villain via turn-based combat. I think most authors know that’s a bad idea. But I have read a lot of stories where the heroes are surrounded and they’re going to be captured and then their best friend rides up on some fantasy animal and they all scramble on board and ride off. And it’s like, what were all the bad guys doing while that was happening? That took time. If you’ve ever tried to get on a horse, it’s not instantaneous. 

Wes: They’re in awe of the majestic horse. 

Oren: Yeah, it’s a very cool fantasy horse. Giant leopard or whatever it is. 

Wes: But I think a lot of that is really good advice around just showing things happening prevents you from getting maybe obsessively wordy with time language. Like, ‘and then this happened, followed by this a moment later.’ ‘And then after the battle was done’ – you don’t need to hit every piece of action with a time adverb like that, if you’re simply conveying things in a sequence of events and showing that things are changing. Pepper a few in, but I think there might be a sense, especially with blow by blow action, to get a little too nitty gritty on how time is passing when it’s just really unnecessary. People will help you if it’s well written and focuses on meaningful plot and action. We’ll be forgiving if you suddenly say that it’s raining and it wasn’t before. 

Oren: So if it’s badly written, then I should really consider the amount of time passing and very careful measurements. 

Wes: Probably, yeah. 

Oren: I think that’s what we’re going for. I think that’s the lesson here. [laughter] 

Wes: Sure. Just write better. God. 

Chris: Speaking of which, the word ‘suddenly’ is often one that’s overused a lot. No, you don’t want to say it’s ‘suddenly.’ You want to make it feel sudden. And saying it’s sudden does not make it feel sudden. You have to just pace your narration so that something feels sudden by having not a lot of contextual clues, or foreshadowing, or lead up. It just happens. That’s how you make it feel sudden. You don’t say it’s sudden. 

Oren: Ironically, the word suddenly often makes it feel less sudden.

Wes:  I think ‘suddenly’ also is guilty of showing up in a lot of internal thoughts, like “Suddenly, a thought popped into her head.” So how do you do that if someone is just in their own head thinking thoughts? 

Chris: I feel like that’s a replacement for “Somehow, something popped into her head.” What you actually want to do, especially if it’s important, is you want to have some outward stimulus that makes the character think about something. They get a clue and they observe something that’s relevant. And it can be something that’s just a reminder of something else. They see somebody do something that reminds them, hey, maybe the villain could be doing this behind the scenes or what have you. You have a source for any epiphanies instead of just, I randomly had an epiphany. 

Oren: It just happened, as one does. 

Chris: One thing that I found interesting that I want to mention in audio again is talking about transitions. A lot of times we want them to be clear and relative time, not calendar dates. But I’ve noticed in audio, we use a specific tone of voice for transitions. If an audio narrator just speaks transitions in a normal voice, it sounds really jarring and kind of sudden when the time changes. So if it’s just like “A week later he went to the store,” that’s not how you say it. You say “A week later, [pause] he went to the store.” You use a specific voice that indicates that transition, which I found very interesting. 

Oren: I always have a problem when I’m writing any kind of, “And then some time passed,” because it always feels weird. It’s like, “Two weeks passed,” and I was like, what happened in those two weeks? This person’s a different person than they were two weeks ago. What happened? How are they different now? It’s like, I don’t know, nothing. There’s nothing interesting in those two weeks. I can’t describe it in any detail, it’ll just be boring, but it feels jarring to just jump two weeks ahead. I don’t know. 

Wes: Oren, they just performed their downtime activity. [laughter] They had their success or their failure, and they acquired whatever boon or harm that accrued, and it’s over. 

Oren: Yeah, there you go. It’s solved. 

Wes: Time passed. You’re done. 

Chris: Having the relevant amount of white space and break is also good. So if you just move to the next paragraph, and it was three months later, that would be very jarring because it’s just a paragraph break. Whereas for a time transition that large, we would actually expect a chapter break. So that could be part of the issue, where if it’s the next day, we would probably expect a scene break that has an extra empty paragraph, maybe some asterisks or something like that. And I think in audio, there’s a longer pause, there’s more silent time for those. It’s subtle, but there is for those different transitions. And so I think that having that white empty space is also important in preparing for a time jump. 

Wes: And time jumps are a good way to just convey passing of time. You can just do that. You don’t really have to explain it. But I think how you leave things before the time jump should probably not raise a bunch of questions. Kind of to Oren’s point, like, well, what were they doing during that time? It’s like, I don’t know. Maybe they went home. They’re just with their family. 

Chris: Okay. Let me go over the expected trend rule, which is useful here. This is a basic rule of thumb that governs whether you can just skip over time. Basically, everything you skip over must follow an expected trend. So if you show your characters get into a fight, you can jump ahead and show that things have gotten even worse between them. Because after they fought, that would be an expected trend. But they can’t be getting along again unless you actually show them resolve their differences in a scene. Maybe if they make tentative steps, and you feel like they’re the first steps to them getting along, you might be able to jump forward then and show that they’ve repaired things the rest of the way because that would be an expected trend. So basically, if it’s the first or instigating instance of something that starts a trend or changes the trajectory of the story, you can’t skip over it. If it’s anything important, whether that’s your character arcs and your character change, your relationship arcs, whether people are getting along or how close they are, or whether it’s the external plot, anything that’s important in the story. But the thing that people get really caught up on is travel. 

Oren: It’s me, I’m people. 

Chris: The reason is because travel, in a lot of our fantasy settings, is supposed to be arduous. And so can we really skip it? And the answer is yes. Some summary can be helpful, but a lot of times even people put in too much summary of traveling. So this is how you skip travel. First, you focus on the destination and not on the journey and setting expectations ahead. You don’t want to make the journey sound dangerous because that makes it sound like it’s eventful and that will set expectations that you will focus on the journey. So keep the narration focused on the dangers of the destination, not on the dangers of the journey. Don’t make it sound dangerous. And then you just do a scene or chapter break, depending on how big the travel is. Then you narrate the characters arriving at the destination. And then you can put in exposition after that to briefly fill in a summary of their trip. Then just show the effects of the trip on them, like they’re tired. All the expected things that you would think after traveling. Unless you actually have events happening during your travel, which is different, that’s really all you need to do. You don’t have to go through the entire travel sequence. 

Wes: I like the focus on danger means events need to happen. I like, too, how travel’s nice because you can convey passage of time with the setting changing depending on how far they go. You could be experiencing different weather, maybe different climates, and that can convey a sense of not only time but distance as well. If you really want to get into some worldbuilding chops, you can definitely focus a little bit more on that. 

Chris: Summarizing speeds time up, so it’s similar to jumping in its principles. If you feel like information has to be filled in logistically but it’s still not exciting and it’s not a pivotal point in the story, then it’s a good candidate for summary. But you don’t need lots of summary to make the journey feel long, for instance. Only a little bit so that people have an idea of what happened. 

Oren: Mostly I think that would work fine. Maybe I’m looking for problems here, but if you were in a low tech fantasy setting, it’s not unreasonable that some trips could take a year, or two years. And it would feel weird to me – even though a lot of those trips would be perfectly routine and there wouldn’t be anything interesting happening during them – I would feel weird jumping ahead a year in a character’s life because that was how long it took them to get across the ocean or whatever. I don’t know what the solution to that is. 

Wes: The solution is just the Game of Thrones approach. [laughter] You teleport. You just teleport places. Time and space jumps. 

Oren: Nice. Good job, everyone. We solved it. 

Chris: I really do think it’s about setting expectations. If you think that travel is dangerous in your setting and they should have an adventure, you can do that too. But you also have to set expectations for that, that we’re going to have an adventure on our way. I think another option is that you can have a starting travel adventure that shows your character adjusting to travel and then following the expected trend rule. After that, they just get more confident and then you jump ahead. They had trouble at first. They overcame a big obstacle. And yeah, there were more obstacles, kind of like the first. But after that, it was more routine and we would expect them to get more confident and experienced during the travel sequence. 

Wes: Yeah, I like that. You’re showing how time is passing through your characters, changing and growing over the course of the story. I like it too for some things that might be a little bit more relatable than learning magic, sadly. Like learning how to work on a ship or something like that. We can understand that it is challenging and that learning it would take time and mastering it would take even more time. So I think there’s something there with how your character is changing can convey, just through that, a nice sense of passage, or at least justify those longer periods that you’re talking about, Oren. It’s been a year and this person suddenly… [laughs] Suddenly! This person was adept at boat maintenance. [laughter] Watch out Cthulhu! 

Oren: I guess it should also be a good reminder. You don’t see that many professional authors make this mistake, but I see it in a fair number of manuscripts, is that you don’t want to institute a time jump if you’ve just opened up an urgent problem. Or, really, if you have an urgent problem. And you could say that that’s already covered by the expected trend rule. But if you find out that, oh hey, our school is going to get attacked by vampires tomorrow. You don’t want to jump two months after that most of the time. 

Chris: I mean this is good to cover because you also wouldn’t want to be like, vampires attack tomorrow – two months have passed and the vampires still haven’t attacked. Because that would just totally destroy the urgency of the situation and you would lose your tension. That is the other thing that time jumps can sabotage. You don’t need all of your problems to be so urgent they’re going to happen tomorrow. What you need is a sense that time is of the essence and that the protagonists have to act promptly. Sometimes that means things take a long time but they need all that time. Sometimes it means things are happening tomorrow. But in many cases it’s at least implied that the heroes need to act promptly. And then suddenly three months pass, the heroes haven’t been doing anything. That certainly tells readers that, nope, none of this was urgent. They have all the time in the world. And then your tension is gone. 

Oren: Don’t worry, it’s fine. Everything’s okay. [laughter] 

Wes: I thought time jumps were done well and poorly in Moon Knight. The worst one was certainly how we skipped how he beats the big bad at the end of that season. Which is exactly what we’re talking about. Don’t do that. That’s horrible. 

Chris: It was not an expected trend. 

Wes: No, definitely not. But early on when we’re just with Steven, close POV with Steven, and experiencing his loss of time and waking up in different places. And that I thought was actually interesting because he’s also at a loss for what’s happening and why things are happening. That is wrapping you into the mystery of missing time. It doesn’t last forever because that would get old. But I think that a close narration like that where the character also can’t account for time provides a little bit of novelty, a little hint of mystery that also gets at how things are passing. I don’t think you necessarily want them to do a Rip Van Winkle, but I think you can make decent use out of that. Trying to account for lost time is an interesting way of picking up the pieces in real time, not just flashbacking. 

Chris: No, then it gives you the same experience as the character, which is great and makes it into a mystery. That’s something I’ve actually been a little disappointed in with Severance. There have been situations where they had the opportunity to cut the scenes so that we would see people’s experience based on their memory, and they just decided not to do that. That’s too bad. That’s a lost opportunity in my opinion. Should we talk about moving backwards in time? 

Oren: Oh boy. 

Chris: Yeah. 

Wes: Oh boy. How? 

Chris: We’ve talked before about the fact that we don’t think flashbacks are justified most of the time. One thing that I think is worth mentioning is that moving backwards in time is simply less expected than moving forward. So if we’re talking about things like conveying time with contextual clues, I’m not sure that’s going to be enough. For instance, if you just show, hey, look, the time is different because it’s snowing outside and it was summer before, the default assumption is that we’ve moved to the closest winter forward. And so I guess I just wouldn’t recommend trying to use contextual clues when we move back. 

Oren: We make fun of movies that use a sepia tone filter when it’s time for a flashback. But we’ve been watching Magia Record, which is an anime that has lots of flashbacks and it does not use any visual cues to indicate it’s a flashback. And my God, it’s confusing. I’m just like, I don’t know. When is this? When has this happened? And I don’t know. I’m never sure when anything is. I don’t like it. 

Wes: More confusing than Witcher season one? 

Oren: Oh my God. [pained laughter] Thanks. Yeah, oof. That was not good. 

Wes: That was not good. 

Chris: [joking] But wasn’t it clever? Wasn’t it so clever?

Wes: [also joking] Yeah, so clever. So clever. No timestamps. You just have to pay attention to how old people look. 

Oren: Except two of the characters are immortal and the other character, who should be aging, isn’t. [laughter] They definitely did not make Jaskier look 10 years older. 

Wes: Oh man. I didn’t even put that in my show notes. That just jumped out from the recesses of my brain. 

Oren: It’s probably because in terms of TV and movies, the only sign of aging is that a character’s hair turns gray, or if they’re really old, they get wrinkly skin. Beyond that, there is no sign of age; and Jaskier’s not old enough to have gray hair yet, so he basically looks exactly the same as he did 10 years ago. 

Chris: The one thing that could be flavored differently that I can think of is narration. If you are in present tense, you could go to past tense. I don’t think that’s clear enough by itself, though. I still think you need labels. But that could help as a signifier. It could get to the point where if you do it consistently enough times – you’d have to have a premise that supports that, which almost certainly wouldn’t – then people might know, oh, hey, it’s past tense, so we’ve jumped back in time. But in a lot of cases, I wouldn’t even count on readers to notice. Sometimes they’ll notice, but especially if you do a chapter break, they might come back the next day and if they’re totally used to both present tense and past tense, just not realize that the narration is different. 

Wes: I think that hits on an important thing about this whole discussion. When you’re conveying time in your narration, in your stories, the point of it is just to provide continuity. Don’t try to do something clever. We just want to know what’s happening when. Clarity wins the day in this kind of conversation. There are interesting ways to do it, which we’ve hit on, but trying to do something clever with manipulating time in weird ways for the sake of some kind of reveal; the payoff is not worth the confusion at all. 

Oren: I just want to know what’s happening, okay? 

Wes: Yeah. 

Chris: Yeah, it has to be in the story. The story has to have interesting things in it, as opposed to just the way the story is conveyed. 

Oren: Now that we have gotten the time out of our systems and we now know all about time, it’s time to end the podcast. But in the present, not in the past. We’re not doing that. And we’re not doing any time jumps. Although I suppose for us it’s kind of a time jump since we’re going to record the next one immediately after this, but you guys won’t hear it for another week. Whoa!

Wes & Chris: [incredulous] What? Oh no.

Chris: So if you found any of our tips useful, consider allowing us to continue making podcasts by going to and becoming our patron. And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First there is Callie MacCleod. Then there is Kathy Ferguson, a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at We’ll talk to you next week. 

[closing theme]

Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Coulton.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

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