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Marking Time with the Viewpoint Character

April 7, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 18, 2013

Showing the passage of time is one of the easiest ways of dealing with setting and moving a story forward, but more than a few times I’ve read manuscripts with no time markers, no indicators for either the when of a story or to show how much time has passed from one scene or one event to the next.

Without adequate time markers, readers may be lost to the timing of story events, how quickly those events come upon characters and how much breathing time characters have between those events.

References to time and day (or month or season or year) are necessary to keep readers linked with story events and hold them deep inside the fiction. Without enough time markers, readers may be confused and find themselves turning back to earlier pages to try to figure out when they are in that story.

People are almost always aware of time in their daily lives—time of day or month or year; time in relation to a job or task that needs to be completed; time in terms of religious holidays or seasons; stages of life such as infancy or teenage years, school years, years of fertility, and old age; era, such as the Roaring Twenties or Regency England or the frontier years on Mordant Five; or time as it relates to anticipation of either a dreaded or an eagerly anticipated event. Readers stepping into a story world should also step into the time reality and expectations of that world, at least the reality of the major characters. At least of the viewpoint character.

Unless the viewpoint character is blind to the passage of time in a way that serves the story, readers should know when that character is in every scene.

Time and the passing of it is an easy element to blend into scenes. Yet as a writer gets caught up in the action and dialogue and description of setting, time markers can be overlooked. The simple fix? Check the beginning of every scene for a time marker. If there isn’t one, add it. Do the same for the body of a scene. If nothing marks the advancement of time as a scene unfolds, if the length of an event or passage of dialogue hasn’t been made obvious, add a time marker. You can show the passing of time throughout the scene or give readers an indication of how much time has passed at the scene’s end. At the end, you can also set up how much time will pass before the next story event or scene, or at least the next one mentioned by the current viewpoint character.

Okay, that’s the general way it should work, but what are the specifics for how to show time and the changing of time?

Scene Openings and Middles
The opening of every scene, especially if one of these elements changes, should indicate setting—where and when the scene unfolds—and the identity of the viewpoint character.

So if Bertram was the viewpoint character in the last scene and now Felix has viewpoint duties, Felix should be named almost immediately in the new scene.

The same is true for place and time. Where does the new scene take place? How much time has passed since the last scene ended or since the reader has last been with Felix? This information should be revealed almost immediately at the top of the new scene.

Keep in mind that Bertram’s awareness of the passing of time may be different from Felix’s. So what one character uses to keep track of time—the countdown toward a deadline—may be different from what another uses—the anticipated arrival of a long absent lover. You can use these differences in time as one way to bolster the feel and unique characteristics of the scenes in each character’s viewpoint.

So when we’re in one of Bertram’s scenes, we should always be aware of the clock ticking away toward the deadline, whatever that deadline might be—the required completion of a job, a deadline set by his wife to make a decision on their marriage, the need to find a bomb before it explodes, the race to prevent a deadly strain of disease from wiping out all humans on the planet. In Felix’s scenes, time is used to underline his yearning for his lover or maybe his fear that she isn’t the same woman she’d always been or that he was no longer the right man to capture her love.

These different ways of looking at time could morph into the same one as the story unfolds if, for example, the arrival of Felix’s lover has an impact on Bertram’s ability to meet his deadline. Such a blending of story elements that had seemed separate is a great way to increase tension and conflict and raise the stakes.

The differences in the way these characters look at the passage of time, in the way the anticipated events affect them as what they anticipate draws nearer, will color their scenes. The viewpoint scenes of different characters should feel different to the reader because they are different.

Characters look at story events from vastly different viewpoints and the way they deal with the passing of time, the way they experience and feel time and what it means specifically for them, will depend on their own interest in story events and in the other characters.

This is one reason why jumping from the head of one character to the head of another character in a single scene does not work well and why using nearly unlimited characters as viewpoint characters keeps readers at a distance. Every time a reader is pulled out of a character’s head and is thrust into the head of another character, the reader must adjust to the new character’s viewpoint. And that means so much more than only what the character sees and hears in a particular scene.

The Viewpoint Character’s Baggage
A character’s viewpoint includes experiences and coping mechanisms and emotions. It includes every action and reaction that brought the character to this moment and place in the story. It includes the character’s sense of where he is in time and what that means to him.

As we’ve already seen, his understanding of time and how story events relate to time will be different from any other character’s experience with time. If time doesn’t mean the same thing to characters, doesn’t drive them in the same way or toward the same goal, the feel of a scene told in their viewpoints will be different from that same scene experienced by another character. And that difference in feeling, added to differences in experiences and motivations and expectations and goals, can be quite jarring for the reader who unexpectedly finds himself reading a different character’s viewpoint. By the time the reader adjusts to a new viewpoint character—by the time he gets back into the flow of the story, a flow that changed immediately with the change of viewpoint character—the story may well have advanced to a new scene and even one more viewpoint character.

You can see how this makes it difficult to keep readers inside the fiction, feeling as if they’re part of the story. Being yanked from one character’s being, with all that that entails, and thrust into another character with competing or simply different aims and experiences and emotions and concerns, is tough on readers. Yes, readers can adapt and they do. But the smoother the changes and the less frequently they happen, the easier it is to keep readers inside the fiction and tracking with the story.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have multiple viewpoint characters. But you should use as few as necessary to tell the story, the story you want to tell, as it should be told. And you should use change viewpoint characters in ways that are the less intrusive and in places where readers have learned to expect that kind of change.

Deep in a scene, when one character is experiencing an emotional epiphany, is not the time to pull readers out of that character’s viewpoint and drop them into the mind and emotions of another character. Let the first character and the reader experience the full range of the character’s reactions and emotions to the events of a scene before introducing a second viewpoint character. Let the reader absorb every emotion and process every thought of the first viewpoint character without you interfering to abort any of them. Only when character and reader have drawn everything vital from the events and actions and reactions should you change viewpoint characters.

This, of course, presupposes you’re not using an omniscient narrator who can see into every character’s mind and emotions at any time. That type of story, from the very first pages, makes it clear that readers won’t be as emotionally close to any one character. And that does work for certain styles of story. But for most genre and literary fiction of today, the ties to only one or a only few major characters is the norm.

Could you write a different style of story, dropping readers into head after head as often as you want? You know that I’ll say of course you can. You can try anything. Keep in mind, however, as always, the limitations of that approach and the strengths you give up by making such a choice. Distancing readers from characters creates a cool story, one that may be academically pleasing and a triumph by many measures. But it may not bring readers flocking. Yes, some readers may like a cooler story, may not want to get caught up in the emotions and problems of a single character. But many come to fiction for that very purpose, to get lost in the emotional and mental world of a fictional character.

Okay, let’s return to time . . .

You’ve limited yourself to only one viewpoint character per scene; so how do you establish time and then show it passing?

This is where the easy stuff comes in. Marking time can be done in many, many ways, all recognizable to readers and all easily inserted into your story.

A story’s opening should always provide setting details, and time is one of those details. Unless the character who opens the story has no idea where or when he is, establishing the when of your story right away is vital. And you can immediately clue in the reader without having to write long passages to convey time.

Time of day can be conveyed by reference to sun or moon or to the absence of either.

Last night’s storm clouds were long gone and nothing marred Chet’s view of the sunrise breaking over the lake.

It can also be approximated by the mention of any recognizable event, something such as breakfast or happy hour.

A specific minute or hour can be relayed by a glance at a clock or a character thinking or speaking it.

“Lee, go find your brother. It’s five till six and your dad’s gonna be home any minute. Tell him if he’s not here when we sit down, the dog gets his dinner.”

Season can be conveyed by a reference to setting props, such as carved pumpkins on a porch or a dried-out Christmas tree awaiting pickup at a curb or store displays. Christmas carols on the radio or a weather report of a winter snowstorm or summer tornado could be used to identify a season. Anything recognized as related to a season needs only to be mentioned and readers will pick up on the season.

Era, too, can be made clear through props. Consider items such as cars or machines or the presence (or absence) of a particular type of building. Keep in mind, however, that you may need to include more details than those that simply show the presence of an object. A Model T in your story might indicate that the year is 1910. But a character might be looking at it in a museum in 2015 or digging it out of the ground in 2135. Remember to give not only detail but enough detail to truly convey the era.

Season and era can also be conveyed by character behavior, such as kids running happily home on the last day of school before a long summer break or kids running home from a one-room schoolhouse, downing milk from a tin cup and a piece of homemade pie handed them by their mother, and then running out to help their dad pull a plow through a field.

A mention or description of clothing can establish the when of story, but again keep in mind the need to indicate whether or not the clothing is current or retro by the way it’s introduced.

Marie stood determinedly still as Jenelle and Simone slipped the Worth gown over her head and Mama watched, lips pursed but eyes alight. Charles Worth did not make wedding gowns for just anyone, and Marie was fearful of ruining the exquisite material.

Marie stood determinedly still as Emma worked the Worth gown over her head. The material and stitches had to be over a hundred years’ old, and Marie feared ripping the fragile material.

While you might not set a clock ticking on page one to start a countdown toward a deadline imposed on a character, you could show that character’s indifference toward the passing of time as a revelation of his personality. So you could show Sam putting off his wife’s request, the fifth in a week, to get him to fix her car while she’s gone for the weekend, because he thinks it’s only a pity job contrived to keep him busy after he’d been furloughed.

You could show him prowling his house all weekend, unconcerned that the hour of her return is approaching. When later in the week her car is found abandoned on the side of the road, the hood up but his wife missing, and Sam receives a message from a serial killer warning Sam he’ll kill his wife unless Sam solves a series of riddles within an allotted time, then you can set a clock ticking and show how that ticking clock changes and drives Sam.

A simple way to convey one time element is to report a character’s age. No, this doesn’t necessarily establish time or date. But if you report a character’s age throughout a story, especially a story that spans years, that recurring report of his age will indicate the passing of time. The best way to start this style of showing time passing is to report a character’s age right away.

NOTE: In addition to simply stating a character’s age in numbers, you can report life events that show the passing of time. Such events include entering the teen years, learning to drive, getting a first job, the first sexual experience, graduating from high school or college, celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah or quinceañera or first communion, getting married, having a child, buying a first home, going to college reunions, death of a parent or spouse or friends, and retirement.

You can use time in the opening pages to set the mood by showing a character’s response to a coming event. When Flo hears that an old lover is returning, does she start clearing her calendar or does she look for ways to fill her days so she can honestly tell him, when he arrives, that she doesn’t have time to meet with him?

Indicating how much time is to come before an expected event, good or bad, and filling that time period with actions and other events will allow you to direct a character’s responses and emotions as well as the reader’s tension level.

Time in Scenes Beyond the First
While you establish time in your story’s opening, you have to indicate its change as your story progresses.

We’ve already seen that you should do this at the top of every scene. And when a scene changes, you can use the same techniques you would use at a story’s start to identify the when of the scene.

But you can also use other techniques.

Use character dialogue and thoughts in a direct way to show time passing. One character can ask another why she’s ignored his phone calls and texts for a week (or maybe it’s only been a couple of hours). If both characters were in the last scene, this is an easy way to show how much time has passed. Or even if they weren’t involved in the most recent scene, this conveys how much time has passed since these two last connected.

~  Or you can set up a passage of time at the end of a one scene that is only resolved in a later scene. When you reveal in one scene that some event will occur a week later, when that scene ultimately unfolds, readers will know a week has passed since the moment this information was revealed.

You should also show time passing as a scene unfolds. Use meals and sleep and repeated or common events—such as going to work—to show time passing. Use unusual events as well.

For example, if firemen are dealing with a fire, how long are they on the scene? Does the sun go down or rise? Does a firefighter miss a special event? Do they grow tired? Have hunger pangs?

If characters are talking, what happens outside their setting? If they only talk for what seems to be moments but you reveal some major event that happened at the same time, an event that took hours to unfold, something is wrong with either your depiction of their dialogue or the duration of the other event.

This is one of the time anomalies I frequently find in manuscripts, that time which transpires in a scene unfolding in what feels like real time—that feels like the present for the reader—doesn’t match what’s reported to take place off the page at the same time. Typically this simply requires adjusting the scene that plays out rather than changing the off-scene events.

Try including motion and not only dialogue. Move talking characters to other positions in their setting or have them step into another room. Indicate a passage of time at a meal by briefly mentioning the food of a different course or show characters slowly sipping coffee as they enjoy dessert. If you restrict a scene to dialogue only, without action or a report of what else is happening in the scene, that scene can seem to pass too quickly and not be realistic in terms of the time it should take.

Keep in mind that while a scene doesn’t have to take as much time to read as the story time that passes during that scene, the reader has to feel that the necessary amount of time has passed. You have to purposely convey the passage of a specific amount of time.

~  And there’s nothing wrong with simply reporting the time. Do it when doing so serves the story. But don’t do it as the only way you indicate time passing. You don’t want to baldly report day and time at the opening of every scene. Your readers definitely don’t want you to do it. As with any writing element used too often, this bores the reader.

You could, however, use a scene header that reveals place and time. Thrillers with scenes that span the globe often use such a device. But because the information is not in the story text, the reader doesn’t have the same aversion to the information as if it were revealed by a character in every scene.

Use summary at the top of a scene or even in the middle of a scene to show time advancing. This can be as short as one line or as long as several paragraphs.

Yes, you can advance time without adding a chapter or scene break.

“I’ll file divorce papers in the morning.”

Caroline watched Zack storm from the apartment, watched him get into his car, and then she watched the bedroom grow dark. Slumped on the floor next to the bed, clutching the stupid floppy dog Zack had one for her twenty years ago, she even watched the sun top the buildings across the street.

________________________________

This was another long one; I’m sorry for that. But there was a lot to cover.

While there are many simple ways to convey the passage of time, what’s truly important is that you remember to do it. Remember to show hours or days or years advancing and show characters changing and maturing and growing old.

Use time to give the reader a sense of place and the story a sense of motion. Use the time sensibility of each viewpoint character to set the mood of his scenes and advance the story for that character.

Mark time clearly in your stories. Put time to work for fiction.

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6 Responses to “Marking Time with the Viewpoint Character”

  1. sohaib says:

    this is so incredibly helpful. thank you!

  2. You’re most welcome, Sohaib. I hope you find lots of useful information here.

  3. Nadia says:

    Beth this is wonderful insight! thank you.

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