Is okay to be ambiguous about time?


Well-Known Member
Jul 14, 2021
Hi everyone,

There's something that has bothered me a bit in my novel and I ignore if it's a no-go or it could actually work. Do being ambiguous about time work in the context of a long journey?

I've thought that maybe to put things in "weeks and months" or "hours and minutes" would transmit the phenomena of losing actual awareness of elapsed time during a long and hard journey, but also maybe that would just make the opposite, making the harship less clear by not showing how long the trip has been in reality.

I wanted to know your opinion about this. Thanks!
Hi Flaviosky.

The short answer is yes, it's fine. The long answer is: Many writers telescope the length of a journey, preferring to write only the key elements or scenes relevant to the story. However, readers will, at some point, need to be orientated so they can understand what is going on, even if the characters don't. This may not be until the end or specifically described - but they will need to have an indication of how much time has elapsed, but you don't need to be specific about it.

One of the most famous uses of disorientation in relation to time passing is Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner where Coleridge uses exactly the type of effect you're describing to underscore that a long time has passed. Robbed of any indication of time passing (such as the seasons or a clock) bar the character's thirst and position of the sun, Coleridge creates a sense of stasis to indicate the Mariner's state of mind and his disorientation being stuck on a windless, flat ocean.

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
'Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

You can do the same, but on a journey you'll need to bear in mind what external indications of time they can use to measure their progress - the movement of the sun, the changing seasons, weather, temperature, etc.

I can imagine on a spaceship travelling vast distances - many lifetimes until the destination - that this disorientation might well arise - particularly if the crew lack any immediate referent to mark the passage of time - such as being in intergalactic space and dependant on instruments to track their location - or travelling very fast so that time dilation becomes a factor.
A couple of things come to mind, apart from the excellent examples given above.

If you show a dreary long day (or hour), and then show that there were days or months of repetitive periods of time, the reader is going to upscale that. They don't necessarily need a specific, so much as a framework to hang their comprehension upon. That would also work for losing time, as most people have lost track of the date, as one day rolls into another.

And you have measurement issues. If historical or fantasy, are there accurate clocks, or are you tracking the sun and stars? So what happens in fog, bad weather, when you're under cover? If science fiction, then you could well be outside the normal day-night influence, or on a strange planet where you've yet to adjust to the different day lengths. Give a reason for the loss of awareness, and people will (I suspect) understand.

There is a related thing, and that is time being relative to the beholder. Your day passes fast, whilst another person's day drags. Sequences of events might be distorted in memory, or perception. Both sides of the coin can make the witness/narrator unreliable -- at least in terms of time.

Try writing it, and see how it works for you. Welcome to the Chrons! :)
I cannot say much more than those who posted before me. But if its easier, in simple terms, you as the writer determine the significance of time in a story. If time isn't significant then don't focus on it. Your concern is based on the fundamentals of storytelling. So ask yourself, does it help my reader understand my story, or doesn't.
I'd say it would depend on your POV character and their awareness of/concern with exact units of time.

If your story is set on a longship, the characters probably measure time in days but have little reference in terms of longer times unless they're tallying. "Hours bled into days, days trickled away over the side and were lost in the endless ocean. We bickered over how many had gone; some said less than they had fingers and toes. Others claimed more than the fingers of the whole crew together."

If on a spaceship, there is probably an onboard computer with very exact time measurements easily available. "We had been in one G burn for seventeen years, two months, twenty-four days, ten hours, thirty one minutes and a handful of seconds. The viewscreen on the bridge, showing images from the nose of the ship, looked exactly the same as it had for the entire acceleration. It was my birthday again."
Use time as with anything else in your story to serve the plot. My book, Hand of Glory, events took place in one year over a few weeks in the first section, then jumped forward and took place over two weeks. I had to be careful to interlink the characters actions, what was going on, and the outcome of various actions, both as a result of the plot, and the world in general where the story was set.
Thanks for your opinions! I'll give a look on how I treat time within my story, because after reading your answers, I feel that I haven't been very creative in giving time the weight it has
If you don't want to put in things like "weeks and months" or "hours and minutes" then couldn't you just describe natural changes that take an equivalent amount of time?

Forests of deciduous trees were first bare, then turned green and finally orange, red and yellow before bare again. Weather was hot, calm and dry, then storms came and rain, then cold, ice and snow, then began to thaw again. Young fledgling birds seen. Deer rutting. Birds migrating.

Or, sunrises and sunsets, high and low tides, phases of the moon, a river level rising and falling. A spider spinning a web.

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