Skipping Time in Your Story
Some stories take a lifetime to tell. Well, they would if we didn’t use narrative pacing to make sure we hit the best parts while not leaving out important details.
Consider trying to tell the story of a person. Biographies would never be able to chronicle every moment of a person’s life. Often, they don’t even address every year. Fiction can span centuries. In order to successfully cover this much time, narratives often skip over some things. No matter how much time you’re skipping, there are a few challenges to avoid.
The reader gets lost. This is the worst thing to happen to any narrative. For some readers, being lost by a time skip is a complete deal-breaker. The last thing any storyteller (no matter their medium) wants is to lose their audience’s attention. Look for ways to make sure your reader knows where they’ve come from and where they’ve just arrived. Keeping characters in common between the past and the present can help ease the transition. A common setting, too, can help show time has passed and help ease the audience into this new place. It could also be a common topic of interest. The Canticle for Leibowitz leaps over long stretches of time, but connects them with a common topic; the work of a long-dead scientist.
Skipping over the good parts. While the reader may keep up with the jump, it could be that they want to know what happened in that gap. If something drastic happens that has apparently changed the characters from how we knew them before, then the logical and powerful question is: What happened?! If you have a flashback planned, and are delaying it for dramatic effect, then go for it! If you’re saving that material for the sequel, you’d better make sure there’s a good narrative reason to skip over that part – and the changes in the characters shouldn’t be a distraction for too long.
I recently came across a complaint by a fellow writer who was reading a zombie story. The main character was fighting zombies, great stuff, and then right at the peak of a fight when things are going well for the character there’s a time skip. When the story picked up again, the character was a zombie (smart zombies, so character was a lead zombie for the zombie cause). This particular reader was so jarred by this she skimmed ahead to find out how this could have happened! No flashbacks, no explanations further in the book. Just suddenly: ZOMBIE! If someone were sitting with this zombie captain at the bar, what do you think they’d ask him? “Dude, how’d you get turned into a zombie??” Yet this was exactly what was skipped over. Rule of thumb; if it would make a good bar story, don’t skip it!
Leaving your conflict arc. Yes, we just said don’t skip good parts, but you can go overboard including every single interesting detail about your characters. So moderate what you skip by sticking to your solid conflict arcs. This is one that gives me hives just thinking about it. Narratives have conflict arcs, and we look forward to some kind of escalation, complication, and resolution. None of these has to be conventional, but at least they unify the tale into a recognizable body of events. Some writers take time skips as an excuse to shake up their conflict arcs. Sometimes it comes around, sometimes it doesn’t. More popular series use a large conflict arc, but each book tends to begin and end with its own portion of the arc.
We’re going to play with The Lion King’s famous montage to demonstrate how a good time skip can easily become a poor example. After the Hakuna Mattata montage, Simba is huge and Nala is all grown up, but they get immediately down to the business of addressing the same conflict that was present when they last saw one another. Now if they came back together and Simba says, “Hold up, Nala, there’s this villainous jungle panther I’ve got to fight with. We’ll get Scar in the next movie…” then there’s a much bigger chance people aren’t gonna take it well. Some might, all readers are different. That doesn’t mean that whole villain jungle panther didn’t happen (I’d totally watch that!), it means that the movie was about Simba vs. Scar, not Simba vs. Jungle Panther. Know your arcs and have the time skips serve them.
There are any number of poor ways to write a time skip, just as there are innumerable ways to make them operate in your story’s favor. These are just a handful of pitfalls to avoid. Share with us what you’ve found works well (or what you’ve found doesn’t work) with time skips in narratives!