Episode 137: When did that happen?

On March 13th, we continued our month-long discussion around time in the story. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

When did that happen?


  • Time as a topic — new month!
  • Setting your story in a specific time
  • How to show the passage of time in your story
Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Link to podcast

Segment 1

Last month’s “theme month” inspired us to see if we could string together another set of episodes with similar ideas. We’ve talked about setting before and that had a “time” component so we’ll be leveraging that episode a bit. You can read those show notes here. But we’re also going to talk about how time passes in your novel. Some ways to indicate time has passed, some ways to shrink or expand the elapsed time as needed.

Should be fun.

But first, housekeeping:

Did you know we have a YouTube channel? Check us out, dudes! Our second Featured Author Interview with Patron CJ Heigelmann is up to over 3,000 views on YouTube. That’s waayyyy more than any of our Behind the Scenes vids. Not that we’re jelly. We adore CJ. 

CJ’s debut novel An Uncommon Folk Rhapsody is an ambitious Civil War saga stretching multiple generations in one family. His second book, Crooked Fences, is a deep dive into PTSD, military-to-civilian life transitions, and a specific character’s struggle with his own racism and bias. Buy the books here.

Thanks to our patrons who continue to support the show and our efforts to bring writing craft lessons to the airwaves. If you’re ready to support the show, go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC and join at the $5, $10, or $18 level to get access to behind-the-scenes footage, exclusive courses, and promotional work like Profile Pages and author interviews on the YouTube channel.

AND we have a BIG announcement on today’s show but you’ll have to keep listening … er … reading to find out what it is.

So, time as setting.

When we think of setting, we can imagine a play or a film where the set designer’s job is to fill the stage with the relics of the era. So in a kitchen the stove, refrigerator, furniture, wallpaper, even the clocks and utensils will tell us what era it is.

One of my favorite kitchen sets is in Fences, the Oscar-winning film with Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. It’s based on the August Wilson play and it’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. Viola Davis spends a good bit of her scenes in the kitchen and there’s this great compact-ness to it. It’s small. The items in it are efficient and the design is purposeful. But the size of it, the cramped space of it tells us so much about her role, her life, and the constraints she’s living under.

That said, the size of the kitchen and the appliances in it are consistent with the era of the film, which is set in the 1950s. Well before architects had gotten smart about the kitchen being where everyone gathers and deserving of more space than stupid rooms like formal living rooms.

All right, I’m tangenting a bit. Let’s get back to the topic at hand: time.

Why does Wilson set Fences in 1950? He was born in 1945, so this was the era of his childhood. There’s a kind of artistic compulsion to tell stories that recreate the era of our childhood in fiction and film. 

As this blog suggests, the hardest part of writing historical fiction is authenticity. So what’s the best way to get authenticity? You write about an era you remember. Vividly. Childhood fits that description. There are historical fiction purists who will identify the incongruent details and assault your story for them. Be aware. These folks might miss the literary device of anachronism which is intentionally putting something out of place in an era. But whatev.

Segment 2

What questions should we be asking about the time in which the story takes place? First, is the era important?

Each time period has its own PESTEL analysis. Here’s episode 115 when we talked extensively about setting and leaned slightly in to the “when” as setting conversation. And here’s episode 116 where we talked about fantasy authors focusing on setting using PESTEL. It’s cool we’ve done so much work we’re referring to ourselves, right?

Anyway, PESTEL is: Political, Economic, Sociological/Cultural, Technology, Environmental, Legal

You can use this to define the world or to understand the era in which you’re writing. It’s a great way to generate extra content for your blog, too. I used PESTEL to expound on the world of the 90s for Brian and The Crew on AfterDecember.com.

So ask yourself, “What’s happening in the world at that time? How do people treat one another? What are the expectations of people like my characters?” This will determine if you have a college education in play, whether there’s a job or lack of work, whether there’s money or lack of it. All the suchnesses.

This “When to set your story?” question is less interesting to me right now than the “How do you use time in your story?”

In my revision of Before Pittsburgh I’m working with how to condense three years into the the 90k words of the book. I also want to show time passing, but I want to show it in patterns and cycles, too. I thought about structuring the book with Brian’s passage through the stages of grief. But I realize that those stages can sometimes go out of order and double back on themselves so I wanted to show that, too.

I also liked the idea of so many places: Barcelona, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Tucson, etc. With the After December title and the five days story structure, I wanted something that looked similar so Before Pittsburgh and cities as sections. But cities aren’t time passing so I needed to figure out how to make the time pass, too.

Finally, Brian is a counter. It’s how he handles stress, he counts. So if he’s been counting the days since Tony’s death, when does he stop that?

How we process time in the story can keep our reader on track or it can make them disconcerted, disoriented, and frustrated.

Segment 3

Here are just a few ways to organize time in your story:

  • Chronological – what happens happens in order, the occasional flashback might be used for exposition, but mostly it’s a forward march
  • Alternating chronology — Songs of Willow Frost does this where we get two timelines – William’s story and his mother’s story before his began. The alternating timelines is another way to deliver exposition and works best when there are two view points.
  • Dual timelines — this worked very well for me in The Night Circus but it was difficult to get used to it at first. Here’s a blog with 10 other titles that attempt the same feat. The Time Traveler’s Wife makes the list and we talked about that one last week. Seems like a time travel book would have to mess with chronology of the story.
  • Extended Flashback — this structure typically starts with what amounts to a prologue set in the most recent era and then falls back in time for sometimes the entirety of the novel. This works in The Orphan’s Tale where the opening of the book is an old woman who survived the war and then the extended flashback introduces us to two women, either one of whom might be this survivor.

Because book people love lists, Barnes & Noble has this one called “7 Novels with Chronologies that will Break You” including Cloud Atlas and Catch 22

So maybe we can talk about where this fucking with time thing began? Why do writers do it?

Segment 4


So we agreed to be a Sponsor to the SCWA’s Annual Conference being held April 16-18. As the Digital Livestream Sponsor, we will be providing supplemental content in the form of livestreams throughout the weekend. You can catch those livestreams on the Write On SC YouTube and Facebook pages as well as the SCWA YouTube and Facebook pages. It’s going to be a TON of fun and I’m looking forward to emceeing the event and interviewing attendees, presenters, and other assorted guests. The full livestream schedule will be available a little closer to the date, but for now, just know we’re BIG TIME into this conference. It’s going to be awesome.

Keynotes from Patti Callahan Henry and Jeffrey Blount and workshops from Belle Boggs, Cinelle Barnes, Ray McManus, Len Lawson and visits with agents, publishers and more. It’s everything you’d expect from an SCWA Annual COnference and you can attend in your jammies. So we’re excited to be the Digital Livestream Broadcast Sponsor for this and will be excited to bring behind the scenes stuff to the masses. Register here.

So back to that list of questions (link):

  1. How old are your characters when the story begins?
  2. Where are the characters in the story?
  3. Why does the story start? …
  4. What are your main characters’ story goals?
  5. Who are their co-stars?
  6. How old are your characters when the story ends?
  7. Where will it end?

And then, considering your reader and how much you need to tell them, here’s a video on it. Basically, the rules are:

If time has passed, tell the reader.

Provide a summary of what has changed or happened since the previous scene

Don’t bog down in details, just what we need to know to keep up with the plot(s)

Five basic ways (a list! Thank God!):

  1. Summarize: Hide summaries within the scene (like one character bringing another up to speed); Give amusing details that provide interesting aspects to it — something other than “days went by” 
  2. State the time: Use transitional time words
  3. Master flashbacks: Verb tense shifts
  4. Trigger your time jumps: Think sensory — smell, artifacts, etc.; Don’t trigger without actually jumping
  5. Separate time periods: Use chapters, sections, etc. to separate

Want to learn more about Short Story Basics? Click here to get the class.

Ready to support Write On SC? Go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC to become a patron!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s