The passage of time that a novel spans can vary wildly, anything from a single day to an entire century. And yet those novels might have precisely the same word count - 80,000 words, say.
Which begs the question: how precisely do you deal with the passing of a lot of time in fiction?
If a novel covering one day and a novel covering one hundred years can both be told in three-hundred-odd pages (and they can), what technique do you use in the hundred-year novel to deal with that huge passage of time?
Remember scenes and interludes from the section on Writing the Plot?
This ability to deal with a few hours or a few weeks or even a few years in very little space is the tool that allows a writer to make an 80,000 word novel span one day or one century.
What do I mean by scenes happening in "real time"?
A typical scene in a novel might involve two people talking - or, better still, arguing - in a restaurant. The argument, together with all the associated action and description and character thoughts might take a dozen pages to write.
It will take a reader ten minutes or so to read those pages, and they will have the sense that the argument itself lasts for about the same passage of time.
Some scenes will move faster than real time - with an hour's activity taking twenty minutes to read, say.
In other scenes, where the character stops to do a lot of thinking, it might take twenty minutes to read about just five minutes of activity. (A character's thoughts, by the way, are known in novel writing as interior monologue.)
The passage of time is effectively frozen when characters pause to think, like in this example...
"How's the chicken?" Stephen asked.
The meat was dry and tough, but Mary wasn't going to admit it, not after it had been her idea to bring them to Franco's tonight and not their usual cheap steakhouse on Montgomery Street. She had known Stephen was mean when she married him, but in twenty-one years she had never known him pick anything but the cheapest main from the menu. "Delicious," she said.
The readers of this scene will understand that there is virtually no pause at all between Stephen asking the question and Mary answering. It just seems like a long gap because it takes much longer to read a person's thoughts than it does for that person to actually think them.
But whether twenty minutes of reading time accounts for one hour of story time or five minutes, the fact remains that they happen relatively slowly.
This is a good thing, of course. Scenes are the heart of a novel, the parts readers love to lose themselves in. They don't want a key scene to be written like this...
Stephen and Mary went to Franco's for their twenty-first anniversary dinner. Mary hoped to re-ignite some of their old passion, but they ended up arguing when Stephen moaned about the steep prices.
That is pure telling and doesn't constitute a scene at all.
What readers want is to be shown the scene - to hear the argument word for word, to smell the food and sip the fine wine, to feel Mary's despair and embarrassment when her husband raises his eyebrows at the prices.
And you can't do all of that in a paragraph or two.
Now, the point is that you can only fit a limited number of scenes into an 80,000 word novel.
If an average scene is 10 pages, say, and the whole novel is only 300 pages, that gives you 25 scenes maximum, plus 50 pages of narrative "interludes" to tie the scenes together.
(Don't take any of those numbers literally, by the way. A scene can be as brief or as long as you choose to make it. A typical novel might have six "key" scenes plus dozens of smaller, less consequential ones.)
But to keep things simple, we'll say that your novel is going to contain 25 scenes at 10 pages each...
The interludes linking the scenes in the one-day novel will not have to account for the passing of very much time at all...
The interludes in the 100-year novel will have to account for the passage of plenty of time. This is simple to accomplish...
Show a young boy playing with his friends in one scene, and show him shaving in the next scene while he argues with his wife, and the reader will understand that many years have passed.
What you will also need to do, though, is account for any significant developments that have occurred in those passing years - how the boy graduated from school, how he met his wife, and so on. These things might not be central to the story being told, but they nevertheless need dealing with, however briefly.