Novels aren’t movies – how to handle passage of time in prose

nail your novel passage of timeDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles translate well between the two story media, others don’t.

I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters and shifting point of view  , dialogue   and description. Today I’m going to look at passage of time (modelled here by Dave).

When is it?

One of the key questions when we come into any scene is this: when is it happening?

Movies and prose handle this in different ways.

Suppose your story features a man who’s refurbishing a derelict bar. In a movie, it’s shown with a sequence of scenes. In one, he is getting to work, pulling old cupboards off the walls and uprooting obsolete appliances. In the next scene, it’s clean, the floorboards are sanded and he’s opening for business.

Because film is an external storytelling medium (we watch it from the outside) we accept that this cut is telling us several days or weeks have passed. We know we don’t stay with the characters for every second of their experience.

But in prose, a cut like this might feel too abrupt. Because prose is internal, and we walk in the characters’ shoes, a sudden jump in time can feel like too much of a lurch. We need a linking sentence or two to ease the way, drawing attention to what’s changed. Many writers who are weaned on movies leave these details out.

A sense of time

As well as evidence that time has passed, we also need a sense of it passing. If you have other characters or storylines, you can cut away to them, then return to your bar, which is now finished. This might create the gap you need.

But if your story follows just one character, you need to create the passage of time in your narration.

If we watch a movie we’ll do this ourselves. We’ll assume the character spent a week or a month working on the bar non stop. In prose, we need you to add this element, even if it’s only two lines, saying ‘I had no time to worry about anything. I was sanding, sawing, painting, ordering crockery. I flopped into bed at night and rose with the dawn.’ Indeed this is the prose version of the movie technique of condensing a sequence of events into a montage. (See, there are some techniques that translate well!)

Filling gaps

Prose fiction has to fill more gaps than a movie does. In prose, we need to keep the connection with the reader’s mind, rather than chopping the experience into pieces.

What examples of passage of time have you liked – both in movies and in prose? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by Debbie flint on October 26, 2014 - 1:12 pm

    Groundhog Day and Bridget jones diary!
    Both had fabulous passage of time sequences.
    Groundhog Day, one of my fave movies in the world, has the sequence where he learns incrementally as the same day repeats itself over and over, every new day, doing something a tiny bit different.

    Bridget jones film (the first one) has the ‘new era’ montage incl falling off exercise bike, throwing out self help books etc.

    Love it!

  2. #3 by Cassie on October 26, 2014 - 2:12 pm

    As almost all stories turned into a movie, the readers may enjoy the movie but will usually say the book was better. I feel the rational for this is in a great story your movie is in your head for all the pieces and details you’ve latched onto. Also with a good writer who shows versus telling, the reader develops their own assumptions to the story, making it a great read for them.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 26, 2014 - 7:47 pm

      Hi Cassie
      I’m one of those people who’s always insisting the book was better – probably because I like the intimate, close-up view – as you put it, the version that I’m making in my head. There are things we assume that we don’t even realise, and when a movie has to make them real they can’t match up. Perhaps that’s it – the novel version is our personal version.

  3. #5 by symplysilent on October 26, 2014 - 5:02 pm

    I thought Hemingway nailed it with his Iceberg Theory. If we know what our story is, we don’t have to write it all out. We can leave stuff out and readers will get it.

    With your remodeling example, we need to ask ourselves, what are we trying to do? Is it really important to show it at all? Is our bar symbolic of something, or are we like Agatha Christie and our story key is buried somewhere in that list? Unless it propels our story forward, it shouldn’t be there.

    But, if we decide remodeling is important, we have lots of options.

    We could use our SCENE – SEQUEL construct, and create our SCENE where our MC finally buys her bar, a dream come true. In our SEQUEL, she could express her joy at landing it, imagine what it would be like to remodel it, and then decide to do it. Our next scene could be opening day, and maybe we toss in some one liner reflections as she stands behind the bar and remember stripping it and refinishing, or ringing up her first sale on that old cash register she found in a junk shop, etc.

    Another way might be to describe her renovation in one paragraph, maybe in sentence fragments.

    Or, we might write several one paragraph scenes picking one thing to concentrate on each time.

    Or, other things.

    But…this must all propel our story forward. Because, unless we are writing for all the Stephan Fanuka (whoever he is), people are as likely to skim this section as not. They might even put our book down.


    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 26, 2014 - 7:49 pm

      Good points and nice examples, Silent. We can condense a lot, only showing what’s necessary to create the effect we want. We can highlight symbols, as you say, or hide clues in plain sight. Because prose isn’t as literal as film, it has this great flexibility to be played in subtle and multilayered ways.

  4. #7 by jennifermzeiger on October 27, 2014 - 12:22 am

    Loving this series, Roz. I’m realizing I’ve learned a lot of bad habits from movies=) Thanks.

  5. #9 by emmakwoods on October 27, 2014 - 1:50 am

    Reblogged this on A while in the woods and commented:
    Interesting post on creating a sense of time in your writing. Thanks Paula for sharing it with me.

  6. #10 by bardotbarbiturate on October 27, 2014 - 11:02 pm

    Reblogged this on Bardotbarbiturate and commented:
    Ah yes, something I’m having an itty bitty problem with.

  7. #11 by PHS on November 1, 2014 - 8:13 pm

    Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    Time passes differently in the world of fiction writing. See these tips to handle the passage of time. Re-blogged on Archer’s Aim!

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