Weekly Writing Memo: A Matter of TimePosted: August 10, 2016
Something that almost every story deals with is the passing of time. It’s natural, and to be expected. What every writer needs to focus on is how to show the passing of time, and when to skip time in a story. These two things can be a huge pitfall in a story. If you tell too much of the story and don’t skip time when you need to, then the story can feel sluggish and boring. If you skip too much time the audience can feel like they’re missing things, and you can take away from the tension of the action. There’s a careful balance to time in every story, so the key is finding it for yours.
When to Skip Time
In general, you should skip time when nothing is happening in the story. Any time you have huge chunks of time passing with no conflict going on, you need to get the story moving and skip ahead if possible. There should always be some form of conflict going on in your story, so whenever it’s lacking you’ve either missed a plotline, started in the wrong place, or need to find a way to skip ahead. Look at this time period and see what happens in it that you absolutely need to show your reader, then find a way to show it elsewhere or to compress it down.
Sometimes you can also skip time when you are telling a story in a nonlinear way. Some stories work better if you can jump ahead and then go back to a flashback or something, so look at your conflict and see if it is best told linearly, or if skipping around in time can help you create more tension within the story. You want to maximize the tension and conflict, so if you can do this by telling the story in a new way, then you should try.
How to Skip Time
There are endless stories to use as reference for skipping time (Time Traveler’s Wife; Looper; Lord of the Rings). One of the key things to remember when skipping time is that you need to find a way to show that time has passed. In films, this is usually done with visual elements such as scenery changes, characters aging, seasons changing, etc. In fiction, this can be shown through some of those elements as well, but you can also use words that help show this. Mention the time passing, or use cueing phrases that help guide the reader (Ex – Months later; Kiera was 16 when she finally returned to the village…). Whatever you do, always find a way to show the time change unless you have a reason not to.
Sometimes in stories the writer will skip time by using a montage to show the key moments that happen during the transition, ending with the characters at the point in time where the story continues. Other times, the writer will just skip ahead and start the story at the point in the future where they want it to be. The method to use depends on what happens during the time skip. If something vital happens, then try to find a way to show it either in a flashback later, or before skipping time. As long as there is a key story element, then it needs to be shown. So figure out what matters to the story, and where the conflict is, and you’ll know which elements to show and which to skip.
Obviously there are a lot of moments in a story where exciting action isn’t happening that are still important, so don’t think that you need to skip all these. Those moments can still have character development and conflict. Internal conflict is just as important as external conflict, so make sure you aren’t skipping all that. If you find yourself skipping a lot of time in your story, it might also be time to look at if you’re starting in the right place. If you start your story later, can you still show all the information that you’re skipping over in some way? Usually the answer is yes. Whatever you decide, just remember that you can always ask for a second opinion if needed. Overall, just remember to consider the conflict, the character development, and how your story will change if you skip time. If you do those three things, you should be able to figure out what you need to do.