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Skipping Through Time: The Whys and Hows

Most books proceed through a chronological version of events at a relatively regular pace. An author might jump forward a few hours, or even a few days, but skipping over months or even years of the narrative is somewhat less common. In my current manuscript I ultimately decided upon a two year time jump near the beginning of the story. I decided upon this jump because I did not want to spend the first fifty or so pages trying to explain complicated backstory with conversations and internal dialogue. I tried. It turned out it was much more efficient, not to mention interesting, simply to show the events as they happened, then to jump forward to the inciting incident.

A time jump can be useful for avoiding repetition of similar incidents. Perhaps your characters are on a journey. While narrating a few key incidents along the way can be interesting, reading a detailed narration of every step of a long journey (especially in a pre-industrial world, wherein travel could take months) can easily become tedious. How many campfires can your characters sit around before they all start to read a bit the same? I have several points in my manuscript in which characters are traveling from point A to point B, and they all make use of time jumps to some extent. On the last leg of one journey I cover three days in one sentence: “we are on the road another three days before we arrive, just before nightfall on the third day.”

An author might also find a time jump useful if your character matures over the course of the novel, growing from a child to an adult. My two year time jump starts off with events that take place when the main character is a teenager, and when we rejoin her story, she is a young adult. The thing about growing up is that we all do it, and while a coming of age story has its place, if your intent is not to tell one, then there is not a lot of reason to recount the character’s whole childhood or adolescence. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series does this well, starting off when Phedre is a young girl but skipping over great swaths of her childhood, only giving us select glimpses of important moments. We pick up the true thread of the story once Phedre grows into adulthood, although the backstory provided by the sections dealing with her childhood are integral to understanding her character.

So if you’ve decided you need a time jump, how will you execute it? When reading Kushiel’s Dart I was particularly impressed with the way that Carey handled her time jumps. Carey masterfully employs telling when telling is necessary, breaking the “show don’t tell” rule when telling is the best way to move the story forward. When Carey wants to avoid describing her main character’s encounter with a patron that would likely be much similar to a previous encounter, she writes “Of that assignation, perhaps the least said, the better. Suffice it to say that D’Essom’s ager had not cooled, and I was glad of it, for it suited my mood.” Sometimes a brief summary of the events skipped is enough so that the reader does not feel lost, a few lines, even a paragraph, depending on how much is skipped.

Other times, a more abrupt approach can work as well. If you’re skipping months or years, summarizing the events can take up too much space with little payoff. For my two year time jump I started the first post jump chapter with the header two years later. Occasionally I refer back to events that took place during those two years, just to give a sense that time did in fact pass. However, for all intents and purposes the intervening two years are fairly uneventful, so there’s no real need to linger over them (that’s why I skipped them in the first place after all).

Regardless of how you decide to execute your time jump, it is important to let your reader know that one is happening. Jumping forward in time with no warning is disorienting for the reader, even if you are only jumping forward a few days. Make sure that you find a way to signal the jump, either with a heading, a summary, or some combination of both. However, don’t be afraid of using time jumps. Many beginning writers make the mistake of over-narrating each and every detail, forgetting that readers are generally not interested in the minutiae of your character’s every day existence. A sure fire way to exceed your planned word count, not to mention slow your book’s pace, is to show the parts that you should be telling and recount the parts that you should be skipping.

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