Although this is an article about how to show the passage of time in stories and comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about my dreams (of all things) for a while.
Trust me, there’s a valid reason for this – although if you’re the kind of person who is bored by hearing about other people’s dreams, then you might want to skip the next few paragraphs.
Anyway, the day before I wrote this article, I had two of the most spectacular dreams that I’ve ever had. The first dream seemed to last for three months and it revolved around me going to live in a strange secret underwater city.
The second dream only seemed to last for three days and the only way that I can really describe it is that it involved me living in a strange parallel universe which was somehow both better and worse than this universe.
Of course, in actual terms, each of these dreams lasted for less than three hours (I know this because I woke up in between each of them – and because REM sleep phases are only something like twenty minutes long). But, in retrospect, I can understand how my dreams created the illusion of lasting for longer than three hours or just twenty minutes.
Basically, my dreams just did what most films and TV shows do and only “showed” me a few interesting moments from a much longer chain of events. They just showed me the “exciting” moments from a much longer series of events and let my imagination fill in what happened between these moments.
And, well, this made me think about storytelling and time.
You see, one of the great things about both comics and prose fiction is that, unlike film, they don’t take place in real time. You can describe two centuries in a few sentences (or a couple of comic panels) and you can spend twenty pages showing what happened within a single minute. In general, you are in complete control of how fast time passes in your story.
This is both a great thing and a terrible thing. On the one hand, it means that you can show everything in far more detail than a film ever can – but on the other hand, it also means that you have to be a lot more conscious about the passage of time in your story because, if it goes too slowly, then it will bore people and if it goes too quickly, then it will confuse people.
So, what do you do?
Well, if you’ve read enough books and/or comics, then you’ll have probably have already picked up an instinctive understanding of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to showing the passage of time in your story.
But, if you haven’t, then it’s important to remember that you should only show time in a “slow” way when something genuinely interesting is happening. The more boring parts of your story should be skipped over as quickly as possible or, if they’re not important to the story itself, left out of your story entirely.
I mean, if a new chapter of your story begins a day after the previous one, then most people are going to assume that nothing interesting happened between these two chapters. Their imaginations are going to “fill in the gaps” and imagine that your characters just went about their ordinary everyday lives in between the events of these chapters.
But, at the same time, try to make sure that the “gaps” between the interesting moments you show in your story aren’t too long. Whilst it’s ok to skip several years or months a couple of times in your story, if you do it in literally every chapter, then it might get kind of confusing after a while unless your story is exceptionally well-written.
Finally, and this probably should be fairly obvious, it’s always a good idea to signpost when your novel has “jumped ahead” in time. Usually, you can do this in a fairly subtle way – either through background details (if you’re writing a comic) or through a brief description like “later that afternoon…” or whatever.
Sorry for such a basic article, but I hope it was useful 🙂