Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
In honor of the arrival of the sixth season of Game of Thrones, I wanted to address a problem issue with the TV show. The creators and producers do a marvelous job—outstanding, actually—with most of the show’s elements. But timeline issues do exist. I want to focus on the time elements of Game of Thrones as a way to remind writers to maintain accurate timelines for their own stories and to convey time elements to the reader.
I haven’t yet read A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), the book series that Game of Thrones is based on. But I wonder if George R. R. Martin, author of ASOIAF, didn’t have problems with timelines in the books. It would certainly be easy and understandable for timeline errors—or just lapses with timeline markers—to find their way into a series that spans so many locations while dealing with so many, many characters over several years.
And yet, including time markers in most stories is quite simple to do. Remembering to include them and making time work properly for all events may prove difficult, but actually including time elements should be a basic part of every writer’s practice.
Create a story calendar for each of your stories. Whether you plot one out before you begin writing or you add details to it as you write, make yourself a calendar of story events.
Include all events that take place from page 1 to the final page and note events from the backstory as well.
Backstory events can include births, deaths, school graduation dates, weddings, arrests, and important meetings between characters or between a character and someone related to another character.
The same details can be included for events that take place during the story’s timeline, but you’ll likely want to include even more details from the unfolding story.
Include all noteworthy events and note which characters were present. Note which characters were not present and note which could not have been present.
Pay attention to overlapping events and keep a record of them so that you remember which event caused another or which events grew out of the same impetus.
Include time of day (and weather details) for each event. You wouldn’t want to report on the uncommonly early darkness that preceded or caused an afternoon event only to later have a character recall that she’d been sunbathing midday when the event took place. (Allowances for lying and faulty memories, of course.)
Keep the Reader Informed
Don’t make readers guess when an event is taking place or how much time has passed since another event. This is the major problem I have with the Game of Thrones timeline—I simply don’t know how much time passes between events.
The show’s producers purposely changed the age of some of the children for some events; I’m not quibbling with such choices. It’s the absence of time markers that has me trying to figure out what’s going on and when.
When a day passes between events, you have a certain feel about those few days. When a year passes, you wonder what else has happened during that period. You wonder what hasn’t been mentioned or explained. You wonder what characters have done or learned in that time period.
And when you don’t know the length of the time period, you likely have lots of questions. And find yourself spending way too much time on the time issue.
When time markers are included and they’re clear, readers can pay attention to the events and characters without trying to figure out how they fit together. Without time markers, readers lose one element that shows how events and characters fit together.
With the Game of Thrones TV show, it’s possible that I missed a time marker or two. In a book, we see the detail on the page and if we forgot what it said or read too fast, skimming, we can always go back to find the time marker.
Yes, we can forward and reverse through TV shows as well. But if you don’t know which episode to search, you could waste a lot of time.
And why should you have to search for such things? Time markers are a part of storytelling and should be included as a matter of course. They should be clear enough that they’re noted, at least subconsciously.
Types of Time Markers
Options for time markers are many and varied.
Event Related. Use birthdays or countdowns to an upcoming event to show how much time is passing. Use references to any event—past or future event—to remind characters and readers of clocks and calendars.
So if everyone is preparing for the town’s yearly festival, which takes place three weeks after the first announcement of it on page 4, readers will know that once the festival day arrives, three weeks have passed in story time. You could make additional references to the event two weeks, one week, and even one day before, and readers would have no trouble keeping up, no trouble places events into the context of their relation to the big festival.
Transitions. Transitions, short or long, are great tools for conveying the passage of time. So whether you say three hours later, one week after the ball, or exactly thirty-six hours after Nanette delivered her ultimatum—or you include three paragraphs about what happened since a particular character was last seen—readers gain a sense of the passing of time.
For long time periods between events or between scenes featuring a particular viewpoint character, provide enough details to convey the sense of time having passed. When a lot of time has passed—and presumably a lot of events in the life of your characters—a single sentence about three years going by probably won’t suffice. Readers won’t feel the passage of time with such a brief reference. They likely won’t feel the fullness of that much time having passed when they can’t fill in the gap with events.
Seasons. You can use seasons to easily mark time. The change from one season to the next—marked by mentions of temperature or weather or seasonal events such as holidays, the blooming of certain flowers, or the smell of the first wood burning in a fireplace when the weather goes cold—allows for a wide variety of time markers.
Even references to sports—professional or school teams—can relay a seasonal time marker. When you report that it’s baseball’s opening day in the U.S. or when sixteen-year-old Jason switches from cross country to indoor track, you’re including a time marker.
Harvest celebrations and monsoon season and a saint’s feast day are all seasonal time markers. And by simply mentioning them (if characters and readers are familiar with them), you’ve likely provided all the references to passing time that are necessary. In such cases, you wouldn’t also have to baldly report: three months after the drowning on the last day of summer . . .
Seasonal time markers aren’t too easy for Game of Thrones to handle since it’s always cold and snowy in the North and warm and sunny in some of the southern cities, but not all scenes take place where a season seems to be permanently fixed. Still, when you can’t use one means of conveying the passage of time, you need to find other ways.
You could go as far as having a child mark off calendar days as a lead-up to an anticipated event.
Clock Time. In any contemporary book, you can use actual clock-time markers freely. Everyone has a phone or iPad or other device with a clock on it. We have clocks in our cars and on our computers. Some of us even wear watches.
Clock time may not be important to all stories and therefore not as easily discerned in stories from some eras or locales. So rather than report a clock time, characters might refer to the movement of the sun. Or soldiers or a village’s night watchman might refer to the hour of the watch.
When you report time, you could have a character say what time it is by the clock, or you could show characters engaged in behavior that they typically perform at certain times.
You could show characters eating breakfast before the sun comes up.
You could have a character fighting rush-hour traffic, thus relaying that it’s late afternoon or early evening.
You could include a reference to characters watching a favorite TV show or running to pick up Chinese takeout before the restaurant closes for the night.
You could show a mom getting up to feed a baby at the proverbial 2 o’clock feeding but mention only the darkness and the fact that the mom had only been asleep for a couple of hours after having fallen asleep waiting for the weather report on the nightly newscast.
You could use kids getting on or off the bus as a time marker.
You can link any event to other events that happen at approximately the same time every day or on certain days. So you wouldn’t always have to mention clock time. If you mention events that have a regular time, you’re linking to clock time without having to mention the actual time.
Dateline. The actual clock time, however, might be a vital detail for your story. So if characters are faced with a countdown to some tragic event, consider including a dateline as a chapter subheading. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with including date or date and time as a subheading for some stories.
For international thrillers where characters criss-cross the globe or for suspense stories that feature a ticking clock, datelines may be necessary. Yet for many other stories, a dateline might get in the way and confuse rather than help readers.
Character Maturity. A child’s changing size, changes in the type of school a child attends (elementary, middle, high school, college), and the progression at a skill (playing the piano, speaking a foreign language, playing on a sports team) can all be indicators of the passage of time.
For adults, time markers could include a man or woman going gray or bald. The changing length of hair or a beard would also indicate the passing of time.
Objects. Even the condition of objects can reflect the passage of time. A home or car may deteriorate over time, allowing you to use references to their conditions as time markers. Wood exposed to the elements grows weathered, so you could use the condition of lawn furniture, a boat, or a beach house to show that time has passed.
The presence of certain types of bugs near a decomposing body can reveal the passage of time (CSI mined this time marker well.)
Even trash or mail or newspapers piling up can be time markers, can show how long it’s been since a character was around or was able to take care of maintenance.
Time and Distance
Time and distance make a great couple in fiction; references to distance can help pinpoint how much time has passed. So if characters and/or readers know how far apart locales are, they may be able to figure out how long a trip takes.
I say may because sometimes distance isn’t enough. We also need to know the mode of transportation and the typical speeds for that transportation method. We need to know what impediments might have slowed characters. One problem I have with Game of Thrones is that I never know how long it takes for characters to go from one city, village, or castle to another.
Are characters cranky, tired, and stinky because they’ve been traveling for months, or have they been on the road only three days? It’s often hard to tell on Game of Thrones. But in your stories, you could reveal passing time by showing your characters’ reactions to it. Children on a road trip—in the present or in some other era—may be excited for the first hour or two, maybe for the first day or week or two. But after two months on the road (or trail), children may lose interest in new sights. They may be cranky. They may whine. They may whine a lot.
One more way to indicate the passage of time (as well as the efficiency of communication methods) is to show the speed at which news or rumors move through the story world. News seems to travel impossibly quickly in Game of Thrones—characters in far flung areas of the world know who’s doing what and who recently died. Apparently communication channels in Martin’s world rival our current telecommunications for speed and accuracy.
Yes, there are some highly efficient spy networks in Game of Thrones. And they’ve got those ravens for passing messages. But still . . . How would Wildlings north of the wall learn that Ned Stark was dead? And why would they care?
And just how fast can ravens fly? They seem to be able to fly a thousand leagues in 10 or 12 hours. The TV show implied that Bran and Rickon dreamed that they saw their father in the crypt below Winterfell right after he died. The next day, a raven conveniently carried the message of Ned’s death to Winterfell. The timing of the arrival of the raven and the dreams seem to indicate that Ned had died when the boys dreamed about him and not days earlier. But if he’d just died, how could a raven have arrived so quickly over such a great distance?
When your characters find out about events, make sure you’ve allowed enough time for them to hear about such things given the setup and limitations of your story world.
And remember to consider how long some activities, including travel, take. In Game of Thrones, some characters seem to have the ability to travel thousands of miles in a month without benefit of motorized travel. Such inconsistencies in your stories will have readers assuming that locations are closer than they actually are or assuming that you’ve made a mistake.
Without accurate and frequent time markers, you could drive your readers mad wondering how long travel takes and just how much time passes between events.
And you definitely don’t want readers thinking that you’ve erred in your story world’s facts. Once they lose trust in the underpinnings of your world, they’re likely to start doubting story events. And then they’ve lost the suspension of disbelief. And then they stop reading your book.
Three major points related to time in fiction are inclusion, accuracy, and consistency. Include time and date markers. Include them more than once. And make sure to not only include accurate facts regarding time but ensure that your characters can achieve what you say they can during the time you give them. Ensure that time references match other story elements. And be consistent with time markers. Don’t include one in chapter 1, one in chapter 3, and then forget them for the balance of your story.
Include time markers—a variety of them—throughout the story. As you wouldn’t forget to identify the location of a scene or events, don’t forget to identify the time at which those events take place. If that means clock time, use clock time. But use references to events in the lives of your characters as well. Both kinds of time markers work, and both can be made to fit seamlessly into your stories in ways that won’t have readers scratching their heads and searching for information that you didn’t include.