Time Markers in Fiction

Have you ever run into a book where the time became wonky?  Like the writer forgot that time was actually kind of important to the story?

Melting clock over a stack of hard-backed books.
Time Concept. Distorted soft melting clock on the old books. With dark toned foggy background. Selective focus

Photo from iStock Photo.  Image by Zeferli

My own experience was reading an urban fantasy.  I was reading through and then it suddenly hit me that the characters had a 72 hour day!  The writer had lost track of the timeline entirely.

It’s easy to do.  At a convention I attended, an editor talked about continuity for middle-grade books.  He reported that it was very common for characters to get up each day and go to school.  No weekends for the kids!

Establishing Time Markers

Time markers are elements that identify the time frame the scene happens in.  It can include:

  • Seasons: Since it’s winter in Virginia, mentioning that it’s February and maybe a late winter snowfall.  Or the first buds of spring popping on the trees (which I’ll probably see in March).
  • Time of Day:  This can be done in a variety of ways.  Your character’s stomach growls and he realizes he missed lunch.  Or describing the light in some way: The rays from the rising sun painted the horizon pink.  You could even hit the basic version: That night; at nine a.m.; it was nearly dinner by the time…

The markers should happen at the beginning of a scene, like an establishing shot in a movie.  It’d be kind of bad to have the reader think the scene is in the morning and then halfway through, one of the characters starts talking about the stars in the sky.  Just takes them right out of the story, and annoys them besides.

How do you establish time in your scenes?

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