The Intricacies of Time in Story

By Edie Hemingway, Writing for Children & Young Adult Faculty

As we enter not only a new year, but a new decade, I find myself thinking a lot about time. How unsettled these times are. How fast it flies by. And what does the future hold? When I looked for a simple definition of time, this was the first of many I came across: “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.”  An endless progression!

We all live at the mercy of time. And so do our stories. I decided this is the perfect time to take a closer look at the far-reaching role time plays in the stories we write.

First and foremost, all stories take place in time, whether it’s the present, the past, or the future. Then there’s the duration of the story, the span of time it covers.  And decisions: Will you choose to tell your story in a chronological time, from start to finish as the plot unfolds? Will you jump back and forth in time in a non-linear format? Or will you tell it in retrospect from the point of view of an older, wiser, more experienced character than she was when the action actually took place? What kind of transitions will you use to signal to your readers a change in time? 

Moving beyond the story, you must also consider both author time and reader time. When did the author write the story, and how long did it take to complete? Was it necessary to take extra time to research a specific historical era or to imagine some sort of mystical future?

As for reader time, consider when the reader will read the work. Is it a story to be read in one sitting or to be read intermittently in snatches of found time? Or one that must be savored over a long period? Will it be reread time and time again as the reader grows older? The characters inevitably become immortal, forever frozen in time at the ages they were when the story was first told. But will the reader see and understand those characters differently when revisited at a more mature age?

And, if you want to dig deeper still, how does time affect your characters? 

For example, in my recently completed middle grade novel, A Smudge of Smoke Against the Sky, there are two timeframes—that of 2015 and 1929.  One character’s story (that of my contemporary 12-year-old character, Garrett) covers a span of approximately 2 months starting in October when his Army sergeant dad suffers a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan and continuing until mid-December 2015. Garrett bemoans his dad’s slow, uncertain recovery and wonders if and when Dad wakes up, will he realize how much time has passed? Or will he think it’s still the same time at which he was injured? Will he know that Garrett and Mom have been visiting and talking to him on a regular basis? Or will his time spent in a coma be simply a black hole in his life? 

Also during that same two-month time period, Garrett discovers and reads Piper Sinclair’s diary, which covers a span of nearly a year (February 12, 1929, to the end of January 1930). The two braided narratives take place eighty-six years apart. Yet Piper’s story in 1929 has a profound effect on Garrett’s story in 2015. Garrett comes to think of Piper as a girlfriend of sorts, someone his own age who has revealed her intimate thoughts and experiences as if they were hidden messages meant for him alone. In Piper’s diary, as she adjusts to life aboard a Chesapeake Bay steamboat with her father, the captain, she marks the passage of time by counting the number of days/weeks/months since her mother died, as well as by following the phases of the moon (a form of time which has an ever repeating pattern in its waxing and waning).  

The impact of time on my story continues, but I will stop here for fear of giving away too much. However, I have included this photo of the S.S. City of Atlanta that sailed the Chesapeake Bay from 1906 until it was put out of commission in 1930. My inspiration for writing A Smudge of Smoke Against the Sky came from my own Maryland home, a 1930s log cabin whose doors, complete with their antique keys and room tags, were salvaged from this very steamboat.

I did not plan in advance the intricacies time would have in my story, though it did become rather complicated as I pulled all the threads together into one plot. It was one of my readers (Spalding MFA alum Betsy Woods) who later pointed out to me that time itself becomes an omniscient character and part of the theme of the story. Incidentally, it took me six and a half years of researching, writing, and revising to complete the manuscript, though I am still tweaking it here and there.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this tool of the craft of writing. What role does time play in your story?


Edie Hemingway lives in Frederick, Maryland, and teaches writing for children and young adults in the Spalding University low-residency MFA in Writing program.  She is the author of three middle grade novels.  Road to Tater Hill, her creative thesis in the MFA program, later earned a Parents’ Choice Gold Award and was named to Bank Street College’s Best Books List, as well as several state lists.  Edie can be found on the web at https://ediehemingway.com/.