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Short story writing: time in a short story, part 1

The time covered by the action of a short story should be short, and preferably continuous. Generally speaking a day or two, a week, or at the most two weeks is enough. We should be focussing on one single incident in the central character's life, and it should take place in as few episodes as possible. More time can be brought in by the use of flashbacks, but trying to cover a longer period in the action of the story can bring problems with maintaining suspense and continuity

If you find yourself wanting to use phrases such as 'a month later', or 'a year later' this is a sign that there is a problem to do with the time scale. Often the solution is to open the story at a more advanced stage than you had originally planned, and indicate what has gone on before in the form of a flashback.


A flashback is a section of a story in which the forward progress of time is temporarily broken while we look back to the past. Like every other aspect of the story it is governed by point of view, and thus represents the central character remembering.

Flashbacks should only be used to bring in material which is relevant and essential to the story, and which cannot be brought in any other way. For example we might have a story about a woman who had a boyfriend when she was a teenager, then lost contact with him, then five years later received a letter from him inviting her to go and visit him. How would we organise the time scale here?

The way not to do it would be to open with her first meeting with the boy, show how the friendship developed, and how they parted, then have 'Five years later . . ', and continue the story with her going to visit him. This would be a rambling episodic plot with little or no suspense to hold the reader's attention.

Much better would be to open the story with the woman on the train on her way to the reunion, and to show the past in the form of a flashback, then, when the train arrives at its destination, bring the story back to the present. Journeys are opportune settings for flashbacks, because they break continuity of place just as memory breaks continuity of time, they evoke the idea of connections being made, and they are occasions when, with little else to do, we are apt to drift into memories and daydreams.

A trigger is often helpful to set a flashback in motion, and a letter is an ideal trigger. So we can open our story with Janet sitting on the train, watching the countryside drift past the window. She is excited and apprehensive about meeting John again. Will he have changed? Will they still have the same feelings for each other? She takes his letter from her handbag and starts reading, and remembering . . . and we are into a flashback as she re-lives events of five years ago. Then the train pulls into the station, bringing Janet out of her reverie, and we continue the story in the present.

This way we will have opened the story on a note of anticipation and suspense, and set up a structure in which the immediate action can take place over a short and continuous period of time.

Time part 2 >

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