The Time Element in Telling a Story

July 21, 2016
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Your first goal in telling a story is to give the time of its happening. The time anchors your story in place, and starting from this anchor you weave the chain of events that follows.

The opening sentence or paragraph also might locate the events geographically, and in logical order answer four questions already in the mind of the reader: Who? What? When? Where?

Why the Time Element is Important

The overused way of beginning a child’s story provides a good example: “Once upon a time, in a magnificent castle, there lived a beautiful princess, who was very lonely.” The opening paragraph answers all four questions in precise order. The reader knows that the story will continue to tell us what happened to break the loneliness of the lovely princess.

It doesn’t matter if you are writing a novel or a sentence, or any form of writing between the two. The reader is lost at sea until you have revealed the who, what, when and where to anchor your story in place.

As a skilled writer, you can (for whatever reason) conquer and evade the rules of writing, and choose to lead your readers through an interesting labyrinth of storylines before you answer these four questions. If you choose not to reveal the element of time in the opening paragraphs, it must follow soon after.

What are some examples of time in stories?

For example, let us take a few novels at random, and quote the opening words:

  • “When Jennifer was 15 years old…”
  • “Ten years after the Gulf War, my brother was still having nightmares.”
  • “More than three hundred shoppers waited in line to grab Black Friday’s discounted specials on HD TVs.”
  • “Rome had passed the summits and stood looking into the dark valley of fourteen hundred years.”
  • “On a lovely spring morning in the year 1989….”

Let us try some popular novels by relevant authors and read a few first lines:

  • “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”—Samuel Beckett
  • “From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office….”—William Faulkner
  • “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”—Stephen King
  • “The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.”—Douglas Adams
  • “The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.”—William Goldman

In many English composition books, you can find one or two of the paragraphs used as models. They begin as follows: “I saw an old friend this morning”; “About noon we came”; “Years afterwards”; “Robinson was eating dinner.”

In a sentence by itself, you should provide the word or words indicating time. To add variety, unity, and thought, you can sometimes break this rule.

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