Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, August 8, 2014

When to Skip Time in Stories

For inspiration for this blog, I frequently turn to whatever happens to be going on in my writing or life. So, this week while working on the first draft for a new book, I came across a dilemma that led to the exploration of when and how to skip significant periods of time in a story.

In this particular story, the main characters are separated for a year, and for one of them, a lot changes. However, I felt that writing out the events of that year would bog the story down and distract focus from the main plot. But I’ve rarely skipped more than a few months of story time before, and I’ve read few books that have done it.

In my quest to decide how to handle the situation, I ran across some good articles.

Time Skip: Do and Don’t from Story Addict says, 

“if you’re going for longer time skips, make sure you catch up the reader with what happened as soon as you can. Avoid time skips where too much has changed to connect to the present.”

K.M. Weiland points out on her blog that skipping time has perils. On the one hand, we risk boring readers, but on the other, we risk confusing them. A balance must be struck, and she suggests, 

“Tell the readers only what they need to know when they need to know it.”

No matter who you talk to, significant time skips are a tricky business. But before getting into the best method of doing them, we should first ask if we actually need one. How can you tell if you should even consider skipping a significant period of time in a story?

Story Purpose:

Every story contains a centralizing purpose. It can be the growth of a certain character from one point to another. I can be the achievement of a specific goal. It can be the resolution of a romance or the solving of a mystery. Regardless, there is a singular point to every story. When considering if time should be skipped, ask whether or not the events during that time play a crucial role in bringing the story along its path to resolving the story’s main purpose. If those events are important, don’t skip them. If they’re not, then that time might indeed be eligible for bypassing.

Potential to Engage:

Are the events during the time you might skip boring? If so, yes, skip them. Are they tedious? Would they drag on or distract from the main story? If so, skip them and summarize. However, if those events are fascinating, if they have great emotional impact, then reconsider including them in the main story. Readers should always be engaged, and if the events dull their interest, the chances of them continuing to read drop significantly.

Maintain Focus:

Sometimes, story asides are fascinating. Many times, they’re not. Would detailing the events of this time period detour from the story? Or do those events act as important stepping stones toward moving the plot and characters forward? Every story needs focus from the largest structural level to the very word choices on each page. Skipping time, whether you do it or avoid it, should occur only because it keeps the focus of the story.

Time and Word Count Considerations:

Some authors, like me, come up with complex, dramatic, and vibrant worlds and stories. We could happily explore and detour and fill volumes doing so. However, most books around about 100,000 words, and most readers have finite patience. Sometimes, skipping time, even significant periods of time, is necessary to keep a story from waxing long. This should, naturally, not be the main determining factor, but it is an important consideration.

Boring vs. Confusing:

Which is a greater threat? That depends on the story and the moment skipped. Ask yourself, which is more likely a danger in this particular instance: boring readers by detailing the events of the potential time skip or confusing them by skipping time? Whatever you decide, you should attempt to mitigate both boredom and confusion, but if uncertain, consider these factors and decide which is a greater risk.

There are, of course, numerous other considerations, but these form a basis. If you answer all these questions for yourself and are still uncertain whether to skip time or not, get a critique partner or beta reader’s opinion. Better, get several opinions. And if that fails, go with your instincts.

How to Skip Significant Periods of Time:

As for how to skip time, be sure to address these elements:

Advertise It:

Set up the time skip so it doesn’t come as a shock to your readers. In Ben-Hur, when Ben-Hur is placed into slavery, we know as the audience that we’re likely going to see some sort of time skip. In Gone with the Wind, we know that, as the story covers a period from before to after the Civil War, some time will be glossed over. But you can advertise the jump with more than just event or setting context. It can also be implied within the narration itself.

Make It Blatant:

Don’t assume your readers will figure it out, not on this one. Make the skip and how much time has passed extremely obvious. Mention it in the dialogue, give an obvious clue. If the readers know that a bridge will take three years to build and a scene ends with the agreement to build it and the next begins with the ceremony declaring the bridge ready for use, readers can easily understand that three years have passed. Even more obviously, put a notation at the beginning of the chapter, “Five Year Later,” or something similar.

Catch Readers Up Immediately:

This is not the time to withhold significant information. It’s not the time to risk losing reader interest. Immediate confusion will set in at a time jump of multiple month, years, decades, or even centuries. Orient your readers at once with clues and direct information in dialogue and narration. Don’t resort to a boring rendition of past events, but identify the most significant changes and highlight them immediately. Give readers landmarks, literally and figuratively, so they know how to navigate the next pages with confidence.

Don’t Get Bogged Down in the Time Skip:

With all these things you need to be careful to include to create a smooth time skip, it would be easy to get bogged down. No matter how you handle the technique, remember that all normal story rules apply. Info dumps are still boring. There must still be conflict and motivation. Things must still happen in the present context of the story. Treat skipping time with care, but don’t let it overwhelm the riveting tale you’re composing.

Do you have any other tips for how to successfully skip a significant period of time in a story.

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