The passage of time in writing

Recently I picked up a book by a new-to-me author (no one who reads my blog). I was excited to begin because it was a genre I had an interest in writing but had no idea how to start. This would be research!

I quickly learned that would not be the case and I should have read more than the blurb rather than relying on the bestseller list on the publisher’s website.

The thing that bothered me the most was how the author addressed the passage of time.

In the very beginning I was guilty of making these same mistakes. So I decided to write a post because I suspected this is a common issue among newbie writers.


Allow me to craft an example of what I mean (It will be an approximation of the line that made me close the book and leave it closed). I’m going to use the most ridiculous names I can think of off the top of my head for this.

Ricardo hauled Mitsy into his massive biceps. He shoved through the bedroom door, and then tossed her onto the bed. Mitsy bounced for a minute. She turned to find Ricardo had left her.

I’d like to know on what planet a full-grown female could bounce on a typical spring mattress and box spring set for an ENTIRE minute. I’m not certain a full-grown female could bounce atop a trampoline for an entire minute before gravity would have other ideas! Does this story take place on Mars where John Carter can spring fifteen feet into the air merely by walking? No. It took place in the U.S. during the present day. Therefor the laws of physics should have applied.

Any one who has ever nuked a frozen meal in their microwave and watched the passage of time on the digital read out understands a minute is a frustratingly long interval of time when salivating for Portobello mushrooms over pasta.

If you don’t know what I mean, go to your microwave this instant. Type in one minute. Press start. And stand there. Do NOT read. Do NOT listen to music. Do NOT refresh Twitter. Stand there doing nothing for an entire sixty seconds.

It’s an amazing amount of time when you get down to it.

Similarly, a second is far longer than you think. The common adage here in the States is to speak the phrase “One one-thousand” and “two one-thousand” to correctly time a full second. You can do more than you think in that stretch.

I’ve seen writers claim: “She blinked for a second”.

What does this mean?

Try it. How many times can you blink in one second? It’s not merely once.

In order to blink for a second, there’d be more than two movements of the eyelids. Why are we describing it this way and not stating the girl fluttered her lashes? Doesn’t that paint a better image?

If fluttering lashes doesn’t give the correct connotation for your scene, think of something else. If she’s confused, perhaps she squeezed her eyes shut and then snapped them open to fix on the object of mystification.

Those descriptions carry implied intervals of time you don’t have to explain. But if you’re still not convinced, and simply must tell the reader how long your character spent doing something (this is a definitely a case of telling, not showing), then you could do something like: She squeezed her eyes shut, leaving them closed a nanosecond before snapping them open to fix on the object of mystification.

I don’t know about you, but I think that has more power than “she blinked for a second”.

And that interval in which silence between two people typically becomes uncomfortable? It’s not a minute. It’s not a second. It’s more like seven seconds.

In closing, be aware of how long a minute and second really are when writing. If you’re not certain how long someone spent doing something, research it! Do the action. Have someone time you. Your readers will thank you for the realism.

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