We’ve all wanted to fast forward parts of our lives, i.e., the boring parts: working, sleeping, commercials, chores, migraines, even intimate (or awkward) moments with our partners. There are no special remotes or fast forward buttons for life, and if there were, we’d probably find that the simple, mundane moments are what compose our lives. However, these moments should not compose your book. But how should you skip time in your novel, or should you?
This tip was inspired (provoked) by a discussion (argument) I had with my knowledgeable (know-it-all) sister. For my series, I need several time gaps to get to certain events. She said I can’t do this because it’s jarring. I agree that time hopping can be jarring and confusing (probably why I don’t watch “Dr. Who”), but sometimes it’s necessary.
What to skip
The same thing you would skip in your regular life, the boring stuff.
- using the restroom
Bare in mind, you should keep these scenes if they are essential to the plot. For instance, the dinner scene in “Oliver Twist” where Oliver ask for more food is necessary to the plot. You may also want to show your character working, like in “House of Cards,” a memoir about an ex-greeting card writer.
Do you need a time jump or just a page break?
Time advancements should be used to move the story forward to another plot moment. For the most part, time progression should be linear, but you will run into situations where an hour, day, even a month just won’t be enough time to forward your plot. For instance, if your story is going to have several generations of characters, you will need to insert time lapses.
Rule of Thumb: If a month or more goes by, a page break might be too jarring. Consider a new chapter, even another book to show the time difference. Make sure you skip only non-pertinent information.
How to mark time gaps
Gaps larger than a few months should be marked. There are several ways to do this. If they aren’t clearly marked, you risk being jarring. Likewise, too much narration dedicated to the time gap can be boring, and the purpose of skipping time was to avoid being boring. Consider the following.
Example: In ten years, not much happened. It was a wonder the newspapers kept coming. Nowhere did time seem to crawl more than at the Inn. At fifteen Christine imagined her life leading up to this point would be filled with excitement and adventure, but she could only recall endless days of working at her mother’s inn, sweeping floors and washing dishes . . .
Maybe this isn’t the most boring passage I could create, but it isn’t all that exciting. Plus, it’s just an entire paragraph dedicated to set up. It doesn’t really connect plot points or even advance the plot. It could be condensed so that we could rejoin the plot sooner. On the other side of the coin, consider this story with no set up. The character would go from being five to fifteen in a blink. Talk about whip lash. Always be upfront about the passage of time and immediately establish it. don’t wait several chapters, even paragraphs, or your reader will be confused.
Prologues and epilogues
It seems like a lot of people are against prologues and epilogues (I guess they’re going out of fashion), but they can be used to separate passages of time. When a reader sees the words “prologue” or “epilogue” they automatically assume they are in the past or future. J.K. Rowling uses an epilogue to show the passage of years.
You can be blunt by simply putting the year at the beginning of the chapter or “10 years later.” This isn’t exciting, but it’s safe. It can also, however, be jarring. Consider easing your reader into it with dialogue or narration.
Example: There was nothing left after the fire . . . that was almost 10 years ago, and everything from the house still smelled like smoke.
Journal entries or time logs
You can also change the format to a journal entry when going to past events. I believe Mark Lawrence uses this technique in his “Prince of Thorns” series. He also starts his chapters with either current day or four years prior. He is an example of an author who has a great idea, but doesn’t execute it well. I didn’t mind the story going back and forth from current day to four years prior. The problem was he might spend three chapters in the past, go back to the present, trap the characters on a mountain in the middle of battle, and then go back four years for four chapters. By the time the story returned to present day, I’d forgotten they were on a mountain, so I had to re-read the last chapter to get back to speed. The idea was good, the execution, in my opinion, was poor.
I recommend not overusing these. If the present events are occurring in the summer, establish the time gap with descriptions of snow or falling leaves, or simply have your characters constantly lament how “winter is coming” like George R.R. Martin.
I hope you find that helpful. Let me know what you think. Who are some authors who have done this well or poorly?