I have just finished a short story, set in what is known as 20 Minutes into the Future - a time frame that's only a little into the future from our own. There is a change from modern times, but it is sociological rather than technological.

I opened with the element that's different, set it and the process that led to it within the first page, and thought that it would be enough. More specifically, I took a conflict that's ongoing right now, and explored what happens after one side "wins". However, while the existence of the conflict is known, its current status, as it turned out - less so.

First question I get from a beta reader: "When is this happening? I looked through Wikipedia, it doesn't seem to fit anything in the past decades."

How can I establish the setting as "tomorrow"? I suppose I can mention a year, but that would make the work dated the moment the year passes. I can mention some event that had clearly not happened, like the monarchy in Spain being voted out, but that feels forced, too big to just be a timestamp. What other options do I have?

To make things more difficult, the story is narrated in third-person limited, following very closely a protagonist who is 16 at the time of the story, with the "change" happening when he was 5. So I need to establish that his "reference point in the past" is in our future.


5 Answers 5


I suppose I can mention a year, but that would make the work dated the moment the year passes.

I don't think it's really possible to do it without making reference to some time period. I would've thought the conflict you made reference to as having ended would be good enough, but I guess not.

You said there are no technological changes - just using technology from this era will make your story dated, I'm afraid. If you read a story now where the richest, snobbiest kid in school brags about his iPhone 4, the pinnacle of technology... well, you'd probably be able to identify around when it was written.

Your story will eventually be dated at some point if it's set in the real world, but, that being said, I think the methods you could use depend on how the futuristic aspect impacts the story. Are the sociological changes important to the plot? You could try something like :

It's been over two centuries since the segregation era, and waiters still seat my family at the far end of the restaurant, where prospective customers can't see us

That would set your story between ~2154 and ~2254, roughly. You could fit this to be about your characters and the conflict they're facing. You can make it even vaguer by saying :

Ever since 2018, the border to USA has been too dangerous to consider crossing. But I have no choice.

This makes the setting vaguely after 2018. Could be 2020, could be 2064, depending on your context.

You can also do this with something like :

"Oh, I'm staying home," said Milly. "Netflix has the 50th anniversary re-release of 'A New Hope' and I've wanted to watch it for ages!"

This sets your story vaguely after 2027 (ANH came out in 1977), but that depends on how familiar your readers are with Star Wars release dates. It does let you bypass references to political events, though.

I can't really see a way to do this without making reference to something, but maybe making that reference as vague as possible would help.

When Anju was five, [Change] happened. Her father always said it was all Trump*'s fault, and her mother would say that he was living in the past, that sometimes things just happen. Her elder brother would comfort her and they would watch 'Shrek 7 : The Musical'**.

*(some current politician)

** (some future sequel of a well known franchise)

Obviously, the examples you use depend on the tone of your story, but this is about as vague as I can think of. A cheat I like to use is history books. Having current events in them is one way to future-ify your story, but it can feel shoehorned in very easily.


I'm not sure what you want is possible.

You can set the time to be a bit ahead of right now. And do it by outright stating the date as the story begins, mentioning the date organically in the story, or, as you state, by alluding to events that haven't actually happened (yet or at all).

Or you can set the time to be a bit ahead of whenever the reader is reading it. You would have to say this directly.

Monday. Three months from today.

The disadvantage here is that any tech or cultural references or references to events all become dated after a time. Even names of countries change. 20 years from now, it's going to be really confusing.

Your best bet is perhaps to set the narration well into the future. Enough that it's obvious there's been a generational shift from now. Then be clear that the narrator is telling a story from the protagonist's (earlier) childhood.

You can establish the protagonist's time either by giving it as the story begins or with a reference to technology that doesn't exist yet. This gives the reader a hint as to how far in the future we're talking.

Another method is to refer to "the change." Our society hasn't had "the change" (or name it something a bit more interesting) and so it will be obvious that this is something yet to come.

Avi spilled through the front door, dropping his backpack on the floor. He stopped, turned, and picked it up, pausing for a second to let his fingers rest on the picture of his dad on the wall. Dad's frozen pose began to move. Arms pointing at something beyond the frame, Avi couldn't remember what. He made his way to the kitchen and, as he reached to open the fridge, a message from his mom glowed on the door.

You can give his age now or in the flashback, or both. You can mention 11 years have passed since "The Change" (or whatever you call it). And you can give the current year if you wish, but the tech mentions should set it in the future but less than 30 years (to give a guess as to what you're looking for).


All stories that are set in the near future will become outdated some time. Much of Science Fiction has this problem that predictions turn out to be false or history took another turn.

As the problem of most writers is to get published and read at all, obsessing about how readers will perceive your work in the future seems both presumptuous and inexpedient. Write for who might read your novel now.

And even if your writing will stand the test of time and become a classic, a date in the title of text won't detract from its quality. Orwell's 1984 didn't suddenly become irrelevant after that year, and we can enjoy works from the past although most of us no longer have kings or queens and light our houses with candles.

Having said all this, a good way to place your work in the future for the present reader is to

introduce a change that everyone will recognize,

such as everyone having a communication implant or a well-known part of the world having been fundamentally changed. For example, you could say that polar ice has disappeared and the gulf stream stalled. Or that many coastal areas and many low countries now lie under the sea. Or that Russia has annexed the Baltic states. Or refer to a colony on the Moon or Mars.

You could try to find something that supports your storyline, but that is not necessary. It can be completely unrelated (it just musn't contradict your tale). What is necessary is that your readers know that it hasn't happened (yet).

If possible, use something that people know might actually happen within the timeframe you want to write about. What that is will depend on your readership, of course. I have been told that some Americans believe that Hitler is still alive, so those folks will need other clues than those who are aware of the current political and historic situation.

You cannot usually write for everyone. Make sure your beta readers are representative of your target audience.


The best example of setting a scene like this that I know is from Children of Men (the movie). The movie starts with a news story headline along the lines of "Today, the youngest person in the world died at age 18." You instantly know almost everything you need to know about the setting, and how it differs from the world we know.

Note that I stressed that this is about what the reader needs to know. It doesn't sound like your story has actual science-fiction elements. Does the reader really need to know whether it's in the past or in the future?

I suspect that the problem is that you're starting with a real world conflict. This is quite naturally confusing to readers, who want to know if they are reading fiction or non-fiction. It also means your story will be instantly dated when the conflict is resolved in real life. The typical solution would be to invent a conflict based closely on the real one. This gives you greater freedom and latitude, isn't as confusing to the reader, and it doesn't commit you to the science-fiction genre --which doesn't really seem necessarily like a fit to your story --or to a future setting. There is plenty of work based on little tweaks of reality like that, from "ripped from the headlines" stories to autobiographical fiction, to mockumentaries.


I've seen some authors handle this sort of problem by using a quasi-poetic flourish, a nod to the reader, hanging a lantern on the issue so to speak. Opening with something to say: I know you don't know when this is--Don't sweat it.

Off the top of my head, brainstorming, I'd wonder about opening with something like:

Timeless--it's the nature of conflict, because in the absence of conflict there's no growth, and without growth, death. Big conflicts stand outside time. At least, that's what Ryan's father always said, and maybe the old man was right.


(It) could have happened tomorrow, or it could have happened ten years from now. Ryan never knew why (it) happened when it did, only that it defined the fight of his life.


Some said they lived in the twenty-first century, and they probably did, although the propaganda wars had thrown so many things into doubt--from evolution to the Holocaust to the reality of climate change--that the idea of a given year really made no sense, not anymore.

...Anyway, this probably won't work for your needs, but I have seen authors play around like this. Maybe you can add an epigraph up front that signals 'this is sort of now and the exact date doesn't matter.'.

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