I was re-reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone recently to get a feel for the way J.K. Rowling passes an entire year in a fairly short book that feels content packed, and I noticed something very common which I hadn't previously put any thought to.

With respect to the passage of time, the book's voice changes drastically here and there. For many pages it follows the second-to-second real-time actions of the character, e.g. a passage describing a conversation or a duel.

But at other times the narrator zooms out and passes hours in a sentence, like so:

"Hermione didn't turn up for the next class and wasn't seen all afternoon."

Maybe this seems simple, or obvious, but I think it's a tiny piece of brilliance, and something that all good writers can do and frequently do do but which does not necessarily come easily to new writers and which maybe many people don't think about.

I see this happen with days, weeks, months, even years. And it isn't trivial to just drop it in there. In fact I've found it's very easy to interrupt the flow of your writing by shifting the rate of time passage in anything less than the smoothest manner.

So the question is: how can you cleanly shift time scales and avoid making a somewhat jarring break in temporal continuity? How can you go from following a character second-to-second to briefly relating what the character did over the afternoon, the summer, the rest of his forties? Tips/Exercises for practice are always good, if anyone knows any clever ones.

  • I've attempted to clarify the title, but please feel free to roll back my edits if I've missed the point. Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 17:24
  • Yeah, like I said, it's a little tricky to describe in a single title. Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 18:38

6 Answers 6


"how to cleanly change time scale and avoid making a somewhat jarring break in temporal continuity?"


You are allowed to suddenly shift speed of passage of time only at * * * section breaks.

The speed of passage of time between paragraphs must be gradual, at least one paragraph per speed.

  • Paragraph of second-by-second,
  • paragraph of few minutes,
  • paragraph of an hour,
  • paragraph of several hours.

You may compress this process into a single paragraph of speed shift, but you must alliterate that speed shift, literally, expressly.

Let's shift from seconds to hours in span of three paragraphs.

Everything was lost. Gasping hard, he wiped sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, rested his back against the wall, and collapsed to the floor. The message buzzed in his head, repeated over and over. There was nothing left, no reason to move.

His breath calmed down to quiet sobs, as he held his head with both hands, expecting the search to find him any minute now. Rapid steps thudded in the distance. Sounds of dripping water filled the moments of silence.

Numb to the surroundings, unmoving, he awaited the inevitable. Distant alarms would break him out of stupor now and then. Dimming of corridor lights signified start of artificial evening, but the search continued through the night, gradually closing in.

And here I shift from second-by-second to years, within span of two paragraphs, but they give time passage literally.

Everything was lost. Gasping hard, he wiped sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, rested his back against the wall, and collapsed to the floor. The message buzzed in his head, repeated over and over. There was nothing left, no reason to move. Minutes changed to hours as he sat motionlessly, and hours passed, distant screams of alarms coming and turning back to silence, while he sat holding his head with both hands, numb to the surroundings.

He didn't even flinch when they came, took him away, locked in jail. The questioning, the trial, it all passed in a blur. It was only three years into serving his sentence, when...

Of course that's one of the "rules that exist to be broken". If you have a good reason to rapidly shift gears, do so. "He remained still over the next three seconds. Then he continued to remain still for another two centuries."

  • 1
    Very gratifying to get a satisfactory answer two and half years after asking the question. Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 13:58

If your concern is the how-to of changing perspective, you can do it a few ways, but the idea should always be that you finish one beat, and the next beat starts the different time-voice:

1) End the current chapter and start a new one.

That allows you to have a different POV, a different time-scale, a different location, anything.

2) End the current scene and start a new one.

Create a definitive end to Harry romping about in Rockefeller Plaza and a definitive beginning to the next scene. Two hard returns is a typical method.

3) This is the tricky one I suspect you're concerned with: End the current beat but continue to focus on the same character(s).

To use your own example, let's say we've just gone through another torturous Potions class, in typical detail — that is, we've sat through more or less every moment with the Power Trio. Now class is over, and they're in the hallway:

"What's next, Divination?"
Ron groaned. "How are we supposed to make it up to the old bat's tower on time from down here in the dungeon?"
Hermione gasped. "Oh! I just remembered! I have to go get something. I'll see you in class." She hurried off, leaving Harry and Ron to stare at her retreating back.
But she didn't show up to class at all, and they didn't see her for the rest of the afternoon. In fact, Hermione didn't materialize until well into the evening, climbing through the portrait hole into the common room with an armload of books. "I found all these at the library," she said breathlessly, dumping the books on the floor between Harry and Ron where they sat curled up in their favourite squashy armchairs.

In that snippet, the "time voice" moves from immediate to one remove back to immediate again, on the beats. It isn't necessary to explain what happened all afternoon, at dinner, and after dinner, because, as Schroedinger's Cat notes, nothing important happens during that time period. But we've stayed with Harry's and Ron's point of view — they didn't see Hermione during that time, so we're skimming the afternoon along with them.

You scale the time-voice in and out depending on how important the action is to the plot of the story. At the end of book 6 (I'm going to assume I'm not spoiling anybody here...), Rowling describes the few weeks Harry and Ginny have together as kind of a golden haze. She doesn't go through each afternoon, but blends all the days together as one large beat. What's important to the plot and the characters is that Harry and Ginny have time together to be happy and build their relationship, not single specific incidents, so that's the level of detail Rowling provides.

  • Yes, correct, #3 is the tricky one. Your example is perfect. I find that a little challenging to do at this point in time. And I think you have a typo in the sentence right after the example. Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 18:37
  • Oh, and also, while your #3 identifies the question perfectly, I'm still hoping to get some better advice on how to actually do it. Most of the answers so far have focused on why rather than how. Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 19:27
  • 1) if you can identify the typo, I'll fix it. 2) I both showed you how and explained how. What did I not cover? What is unclear about the example? The beat ends with Hermione leaving. The next beat is the time between her departure and her reappearance, and that part is "one remove from immediacy." The beat after that is when she comes back into the common room. You shift time-voice as the beat changes. Is that more explicit? Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 19:32
  • Oh, now that you say it again I see what you mean. It was the "one remove back" that threw me in that sentence. And no, your example/answer is excellent...I guess I'm just still hoping someone's going to come along with some fantastic tips for consistently pulling that off as smoothly as is seen in that example. Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 20:01
  • Just to be extra-clear, it's really the wording which I'm contemplating with this question, rather than the when/why. I'm thinking about how to craft such a sentence/passage in the context of a different time scale than its own. Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 13:23

What you are talking about isn't "voice", but a scene change.

If something is important to your to your scene, you need to describe it in detail. This is especially true in scenes with danger or suspense. So if your heroes are entering a dungeon, where you know there is a monster hiding, you may describe the dungeon in great detail, making the characters jump at the smallest noise. This will make the reader tense with anticipation on what will happen next. Of course, the more suspense you build, the greater must be the threat and resolution. You cannot then end the scene saying "There was nothing there but a grumpy fairy in the dungeon." The reader will feel cheated and throw the book.

At other times, you need to show a great time has passed, without boring the reader with all the trivial details. So you can just say "3 days passed, and Hero X was too busy to see his friends about the grumpy fairy they met in the dungeon".

As another example, if a child moves to a new school, you can describe his first day in detail, as he will be lost, confused and scared. He will be taking a lot in, and the reader can share his fears/hopes. But if you then start describing every day hence, it will become a boring journal, and the reader will rightly throw away your book.

So you can skip past the boring parts with the words "And five years passed in the blink of an eye, before Sam heard about the scary dungeon where people vanished. He made a plan to check it out with his friends. 'Golly gee, I hope I find something more dangerous than a grumpy fairy down there' he said to himself".

So to summarise: Scenes that matter, describe in detail, but only if it is relevant to the plot, or to increase suspense. If you then want to move to the next important scene, you can do so in 1-2 sentences, and expect the reader to understand that some time (hours or days) have passed.

  • See my comment on Schroedinger's answer. I edited the question. Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 8:29

Firstly, while I like HP, I am not sure they are the best style guide for a writer. They are not all especially well written. The stories and concepts behind them are superb, which is what captured the readers imagination.

Secondly, the writer is describing the critical events, and giving the timescales around them. The time for Harry to put on the owl costume, and walk to the centre of the plaza are irrelevant, and so ignored - you get a sense of immediacy. The more detail you put into your descriptions of events, the more closely you will appear to be following them:

"Harry walked slowly to the bathroom, and started to put on his owl costume. He lowered the main part over his head, and let the straps rest on his shoulders, feeling the weight, balancing the costume. Carefully and slowly he tried moving like an owl would - slowly, but purposefully...."

You get a sense of every moment being described, and the sense is even slower than your example.

Then, if you brush over events or times - this can be an afternoon, or weeks or months, then they will pass quickly. But make sure things are happening - don't leave your characters in limbo. So:

"Hermione studied hard, attending all of her classes that term, and spending most of her spare time doing homework"

You have most of a term taken, not doing nothing, but doing nothing that is specifically relevant. So making sure that you know what your characters should be doing when not progressing the plot is important, and varying it, or tweaking it to reflect their emotions. This is their background, their core persona, and there can be something useful in this for later....

"Suddenly, Hermione remembered something she had studied last term - something about the Burberry tree." - her constant study provides the justification for her knowing some obscure piece of information.


Edit - so, to take a previous example, you may do:

"Harry walked slowly to the bathroom, and started to put on his owl costume. He lowered the main part over his head, and let the straps rest on his shoulders, feeling the weight, balancing the costume. Carefully and slowly he tried moving like an owl would - slowly, but purposefully. Harry took an hour, maybe more to don the costume and become happy with it, before starting his afternoons rampage around the square."

OK, a little stilted, and I would write the first part differently if I was doing this, but the concept is there.

  • I have to disagree regarding JK Rowling's writing-- it's simple and perfect and brings the world to life splendidly. But these are just opinions, so we'll leave them aside. Regarding the actual question, I should clarify: I know of course how giving something more time gives it more focus. What I'm thinking about more with this question is the actual technical pulling-off of switching time scale in mid-page, mid-chapter, mid-story. How to make it flow? I'll edit the question. Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 8:22
  • We can agree to disagree! The change is done by giving less detail - letting the character continue what they were doing, as long as the character continues, there should be no jarring. Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 8:53

I thought (taught long ago so foggy here) that the simple use of * at the end of a chapter showed passage of time.

Of course the actual writing (when done properly) is better.

Just wondering


This site is fantastic, and I think it'll give you the answers you are looking for. http://www.caroclarke.com/transitions.html

  • Link only answers are discouraged here, and although that seems to be a good reference, I don't think it is quite the right answer for this question.
    – hildred
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 0:30
  • Hi. What does it say about this question? We're looking for answers, not pointers to answers. You might want to check out our short tour. Thanks. Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 1:54
  • Regardless, the linked article shows how to present time skips - transitions between scenes that take a long period of time apart, and how to anchor the new scene in the timeline; show the reader how much time passed. It tells nothing about shifting speed, time resolution; story telling the events second-by-second vs day-by-day, and transitions between the speeds.
    – SF.
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 9:24

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