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My novel takes place in a big world, with MANY POVs. Although I know when things are happening, I am afraid my reader doesn't know, due to the aforementioned fact. I do not want my reader to be confused, and become unfocused on the story because they're constantly wondering when this is all happening. It's bad confusion in my opinion, simply impractical (unless it's intentional like in the movie Memento).

So, the first solution I thought of was making my own version of the weekdays, months and some random year, and featuring them as a subtitle to every chapter. This would work terrifically (in a practical sense) to keep the reader completely aware of when everything, from the many events happening within a small time periods, to the larger plots taking years.

But is this organic? Is it good story-telling, or is lazy. And lazy in an unacceptable way? Does it take the reader out of the story?

I also thought of just writing in the characters sometimes mentioning what day it is, though this seems like it could very easily become unnatural and inorganic.

So, what is the widely used alternative, and what alternative has worked best?

  • This is not an answer, but a comment on the idea of adding dates as subtitles. If there are loads of chapters, then loads of dates might become bewildering. As time passes, I notice authors don't mark this in an obvious way -- unless there are epochs worth noting, or there's been a big jump in time they want you to pay attention to. I notice that when the POV shifts chapter by chapter and the passage of time is still moving, (or has stopped) the author links the events and characters between chapters so this is clear, and flows without confusion. I might of course, be wrong! – Stefan May 13 at 21:46
  • There are many consecutive chapters that shift from characters that are close to each other, and you can literally read the event unfolding almost completely linearly (maybe one chapter begins a few mins before the former one). But I believe there might be a problem in the very beginning. My first chapter happens after , only by half a day, but still, after about three/four chapters. But this all culminates in one chapter where that same night happens in another chapter, tying it in with another POV. Is this confusing? @Stefan – A. Kvåle May 13 at 21:49
  • I think the responses below are more useful than mine! – Stefan May 13 at 22:10
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    I don't think it can be generalized, so not writing an answer based on this, but Master of Formalities by Scott Meyers does this in an interesting way: the POV character is a bureaucrat (kind of akin to a herald) who begins all meetings with a formal greeting that includes the date and location. And he talks a lot. – Monica Cellio May 14 at 20:46
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    As someone who reads A LOT, putting dates/times as subtitles would not help at all. I would almost certainly forget the date by the time I finished the chapter. – Harabeck May 15 at 16:48
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It is probably not going to be possible to keep your readers aware of the time and date all the time, at least not in an organical manner.

However, with regards to telling the timeline, it doesn't matter until your plots converge. And then we know "what day it is" because your characters are in the same scene, or one character's actions cause effects for another character.

I heard of an author who accidentally created an eight-day week in her very contemporary novel. She tried to edit it but finally gave up, just to realize very few of her readers noticed.

So, the reader will likely not care about what day it is.

You could always pick up "Red Storm Rising" by Tom Clancy. I noticed, for all his date and time references, the story was too complex to be read as anything but a chronological account of WW III.

When plots converge, your characters will either be in the same scene, and we'll know the plots are converging.

Or, since there has to be a logic between scenes. Call it cause and effect. Spreading these scenes on several POVs will automatically dictate the time-relation between the POVs.

For instance; in a story with a king in one POV and a rebel leader in another. The king contracts some assassins to kill the rebel leader and the rebel leader defeats the assassins when they make their attempt on his life. We know what came first and what came after.

We can even mix up the timeline and have the assassins attack before the king gives them the contract, and if done right, the reader still understands what came first and what came after.

You can also use different clues to signal that the plots are "touching". For instance, in Ivanhoe, there's a church bell that can be heard in several POVs signaling that things are happening at the same time.

Other things you could do to signal the "time" across plots and POVs is to have one POV hear rumors of the events in another POV or have common events such as wars, coronations, plagues, news reports, etc.

But that's just something you need when you want to add extra spice to the story. Otherwise, you have one character's actions in one POV effect another character in another POV or you put the characters in the same scene and we know it's the day they meet, be that a Wednesday, Mittwoch or the Day of Odin...

Robert Jordan, in "The Dragon Reborn" have his POVs converge at the climax of the story. They are all, for different good reasons, on their way to the same place, so we're expecting it to happen, but before it does, we have very few clues as to exactly when things happen... more than that they happen before the climax.

Using dates and times, Stardates and "Years of the Unholy Dragon" is more there to give the story a specific feel, or following a specific genre (for instance, "Red Storm Rising" did gain atmosphere, if nothing else, with the dates and times).

I don't think you should count on the reader to keep track of dates and times, at least not to the level that it is required to understand the story. It could be an extra spice for your really observant readers, but it should not be required.

You should also be aware that the taste of different readers with regards to dates could differ (see discussion below) or that different stories have different requirements. I suggest checking what other authors in your genre has done with regards to dates or no dates and how, and/or use beta readers to see if your specific story gets a "the dates made me confused" or "I'd love to have dates to keep track of the events".

Keeping a strict record of the date is obviously also going to require more work from you and might make you less willing to reorganize the story in ways it might need to be reorganized because suddenly you have to rewrite that timeline and change the dates in two dozen chapters because of it...

Also, as per the below discussion, you should definitely keep track of when things happen, if you need it, but you could lessen your workload if you don't use it in your chapter headings if that information isn't needed there.

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    I have found this to be true in many stories--while in others I found myself flipping back and forth to chapter headings which mentioned dates to see what happened when. It seems to very much depend on the story. Time of day is less likely to matter, unless it is a very fast-paced story! – Basya May 14 at 16:57
  • @Basya: I'm fairly sure flipping back to chapter headings wasn't required for you to get the story? That it rather added an extra dimension, on top of getting the story? I think you can definitely have dates in chapter headings or mention them in the text, but they shouldn't be required for the understanding. E.g. it isn't enough to have two characters in the same location at the same time (using e.g. chapter headings). If one overhears the other planning an assassination, that plan should obviously make an appearance in both POVs. – Erk May 14 at 20:51
  • Keeping track of date and time yourself to ensure consistency does make for a happy reader base if they start creating timelines. Wheel of Time series is a good example where the fanbase got happy because of authors caring for consistency. They got tables for everything, from timelines to magic-user power levels. And it's all consistent. – Jacco van Dorp May 15 at 6:44
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    @Erk -- I'm sure I could have read the story without flipping to chapter headings. Not knowing what happened when, in respect to other things, sort of bothered me, but I'm pretty sure I could have understood the overall story without clarifying that. – Basya May 15 at 8:41
  • @Basya -- this is interesting. There are some readers that get bothered when there are dates and they feel they can't keep track of them and others that feel the same when there are no dates to keep track. But then again, you can't write for every reader, so it comes down to your target audience. What do they like? Dates and order or not so much fuzz with details? – Erk May 15 at 12:22
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I found using dates/hours gets hard to track for the readers. They get ignored and the reader gets confused by the time skip.

I believe the best way is to have an overreaching "loud" story arc in the sidelines, echoes of which are accessible from every single other arc. Election campaign with scandal events unfolding in news. Celestial bodies in the sky going through a sequence of events, like two moons crashing. War campaign progressing, battles and skirmishes, spies captured, infrastructure bombed. In general, an easy to follow sequence of events that will be known to everyone involved, regardless of their location and time, will appear in the backgrounds of their scenes, and as result provide the reader with an easy set of anchors in time to see which events happen in parallel, when we're doing a backwards time skip, and how the consequences of one arc influence another... never mind providing a wonderful opportunity to foreshadow big events of a different arc - as the current arc faces big echo of some unknown so far climax, and then you skip back to that other arc and bring it right up to the climax previously mentioned.

  • This is a great way when the stories are not converging. Contrary to my answer that in most cases requires direct interaction between POVs in some way. I tried using this in my current WIP (big "War of the Worlds" rumbling on the sidelines) but my characters turned out to be too meddlesome to keep out of it... ;) – Erk May 14 at 14:32
  • As a reader, I also very much dislike specific dates, even prominent ones like in chapter headers. Mainly this is because I keep having to flip back to the prior mentioned date to figure out how much time has passed. Just tell me how much time has passed, don't make me do the work. – BradC May 14 at 18:44
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Another option beyond was has already been mentioned in other answers is to employ the descriptions of the surroundings. The specific use will of course depend on your timeframe.

If your story spans several weeks or months, you can drop hints about phenomena such a changing seasons, weather, holidays, etc. Small phrases like "first snows has fallen the day before" or "the heat over the last weeks was unbearable" will help the reader realise the passage of time.

You can do the same thing with shorter timespans like a day, dropping hints about the first light, streetlamps turning on, etc.

Of course, you need to adapt it to your setting: you won't have descriptions of first cherry blossom if your story takes place in a desert, or of natural sunlight if it's set on a space station.

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It is very important to give your audience tracking data where keeping track of the order of events is a matter of serious difficulty and/or necessity. I can think of several series of novels, of which S.M. Stirling's Nantucket/Emberverse series is probably the best example, which use a chapter header with the date(s) of the action in that chapter, it works well, when the reader knows it's important and takes note accordingly. It works less well in eBook format than physical and I wouldn't want to use such a technique with an audiobook at all since going back for the information is so much harder.

The only real alternatives are to have a character who is obsessed with either:

A. the order of events if the characters are telling the tale to each other after the fact. That character will check in with "when was that?" questions regularly, possibly they're keeping a history or writing an epic and they want to know exactly what order things happened in so they know where to put them in order and where drama will be better served by some changes.

and/or

B. the current time/date if the narrative is told in realtime. I keep thinking of Simon Baker's Character in Margin Call who, under tremendous stress, keeps asking a subordinate "what time is it?". When people are under pressure sometimes small details like a minute or two, that normally wouldn't matter, become desperately important.

or

Have the characters each individually keeping time compared to an important event, this can work well to build tension as well as keeping the reader up-to-date with when everyone is acting in their personal timeline. Lets say all the characters want to attend this cycle's Mass Crossing, they have to get to the venue, they have travel time and things to do before they're ready to leave, time is important to them. They need to keep track for a reason, the reader will keep track with them.

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I have seen the Chapter Subtitle method most often used in novels with complex plots and many moving pieces. It seems to be the most common method used in my reading experience.

One unique method I recall was used in The Neverending Story, where depending in which world the action was taking place in, the color of the text the book was printed in literally was different colors.

It would be an interesting challenge to work it in such the the characters in the book simply checked the time and date often, though that seems to lend itself to CDO characters or an action-based plot line.

CDO stands for obsessive compulsive disorder, alphabetically arranged the way it obviously should be.

  • As a reader, and listener of audio-books, I find the chapter heading method really unhelpful. I don't know how common this is for other readers, but I really can't keep dates in my head from one chapter to the next, particularly if that information is lodged in a place I don't expect to get narrative-important information. If you want readers like me not to skip over the information inadvertently, it needs to be embedded in the narrative. It's even more of an issue for me in audio-books because I'm usually driving so can't easily skip back and forward to double check when chapters happened. – Spagirl May 14 at 9:44
  • @Spagirl While it helps me keep general track of who is where and when, you do have a point. I don't listen to audio books, due to reasons, so it's easier for me to refer to headings or jump back and forth at need. That is why I mentioned have one or more characters jerking track of time within the story. You make a good point, thank you. – nijineko May 14 at 18:29
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As of this answer, this question is marked as being "asked 19 hours ago". Is this a lazy way of SE to tell us when the question was asked? Should they have found a more organic way of telling us when questions are asked?

Books are full of numbers: they generally have page numbers in the corners, chapter numbers at the beginning of the chapter, etc. The show 24 started each episode saying which hour of the day it takes place in, and showed the clock throughout the episode. Star Trek peppered references to "star dates" throughout the show (albeit not in an entirely consistent manner). Flowers for Algernon starts each "diary entry" with the date.

This does depend a bit on the genre: constant reference to dates goes well with the science fiction genre of Star Trek. A constantly ticking clock goes well with the suspense genre of 24. If you're writing a medieval novel, having a chapter subtitle of "21/03/1421" might take away from the atmosphere, but if you're writing a steampunk novel, it would add to it.

You shouldn't rely on only chapter subtitles, though. If your novel makes sense only if the reader is constantly checking the subtitles, you should think about how it can be clearer. There are lots of ways of organically telling the passage of time: a character wearing the same clothes can mark that it's the same day, a different hair cut indicates longer time periods, ski trip can indicate that it's winter, an injury can slowly heal over time. Time can be given in reference to important events: a character has only three days to get a gift for their friend's wedding, or they're still learning the ropes after starting a new job a few weeks ago.

  • Your example highlights a important distinction, though: the site's times are relative, not absolute. How about doing that in the story? “Three days before that…” – gidds May 15 at 11:47
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    Your example doesn't really make sense in my opinion. This site is not supposed to be a thrilling reading experience, it's supposed to be informative, and so they should simply inform when the question was asked, not find an interesting narrative way to include it. It's not about lazyness, it's about practicality. – A. Kvåle May 15 at 13:04
  • @gidds Not all times are relative; only recent times are. Look at a post that's a week old; it will show a specific date and time, not "7 days ago". – a CVn May 15 at 13:25
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There are a lot of good answers above, and I'd like to reinforce what others have said: having timestamps around can be good or bad depending on the type of story being told.

I am now going to focus on the idea of timestamps as chapter subtitles. I say timestamps because, depending on the story, it can be hours, days (as in day 1, day 2, ...), dates, months, years, or centuries.

If the story has a 'countdown' feel to it, then it makes sense for every chapter to reinforce it. However, if one chapter is day 1, then all the events in day 1 should be contained in that chapter. If it's not feasible and each day will consistently require more than one chapter, then create the section day 1 and have all the chapters you might want with no more need for timestamped subtitles.

Stories that have a constellation of events happening in August, then a lull in action till December, then another lull and so on, may benefit from a similar approach: start a section titled 'August' then make no more time references.

I find that having every new chapter include a timestamp has two consequences:

1) the timestamp isn't really that important for every single chapter and the reader stops noticing it, so when the timestamp really is important, the reader will gloss over it.

2) the timestamp is important every single time it's given and not having them would diminish the tension (again, the story has a countdown feel to it)

In the specific case of organising lots of POVs within a large plot and its subplots, timestamps would probably be necessary only on occasion so having them at the beginning of every single chapter could be overkill and have the opposite effect as they'd become invivible to the reader.

You could add an in-universe reason for one or two characters to constantly obsess over time and dates, as @Monica Cellio mentions in a comment to the question, but they must make sense within the story and not be artificially created simply to be character-calendars.

Alternatively, have the narrator or characters mention time (seasons, months, celebrations, past events, etc) either at the beginning or the end of the chapter. I feel time references are more likely to be remembered then than in the middle of the chapter. If you do it always at the beginning of every chapter, it becomes unnatural, so it's important to mix it. Moreover, if the events of next chapter follow closely, a time reference at the end of a chapter might mean you need no time reference at all in the entirety of the next chapter.

If you have a chapter end with the general saying 'I have one week to prepare the battle' then the next chapter shows the troops advancing to the battle field, that's all the time reference you'll need. If the chapter after the three-chapter long battle (which required no time references) kicks off with the hero checking his bandaged arm and grumbling that the wound is still far from closing after five days, again, that's all the time reference you'll need.

But if there are spies infiltrating the battle preparation and trying to sabotage the fortress, then you can start each chaper with

day 7: the door must be reinforced and there's not enough material - quick! raid a nearby warehouse!

day 6: the door is still not finished and now the well has been tampered with - find the culprit and fix the problem

day 5: the door is fixed, but there's still no water

day 4: half the soldiers have diarhea from the tampered water - which is nearly purified - but will the doctor fix the soldiers in time?

and so on. In this scenario, avoid very specific time references within the text (narration or dialogue) because that would make the subtitle timestamps unnecessary, but do drop subtle time references. If the section was titled August, do mention the summer heat or the sudden shower so uncharacteristic for the month. It will remind the reader of the timestamp without actually having to repeat it per verbatim. While this isn't that dire for a month, having an actual date as a chapter title and then mentioning it again within the text makes the chapter timestamp completely unnecessary.

Also, avoid long chapter titles. If you want to go with the timestamp, let them be not the subtitle, but the title itself. Then they aren't an extra information in smaller font, but the element around which the chapter was written.

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