Elmore Leonard once said, "don't write the parts people skip." Great advice, but what happens when not writing those parts leaves holes in the story? When time needs to be dealt with and things happen the reader needs to know about, but not necessarily needs to see happening.
Recovering from injuries are a common time passage situation. Readers aren't going to believe a character who gets shot in one chapter and is up racing around in the next if there's no mention of her recovering. But showing that recovery is likely boring. Travel from one spot to the next is another common area that slows stories and bogs down scenes. Or simply going to bed and waking up in the morning, when it's important for those characters to stay together as time passes.
You have several options to show that passage of time.
Ending a chapter and starting a new one is the easiest fix, as it allows a break readers are familiar with, and an opportunity to change gears/locations/time in an expected way. Going from night to day? A subtle remark about the time or clues that time has changed could be enough to keep readers with you.
"Fine," she said, crossing her arms. "Stay if you have to, but you're on the couch." -end chapter-A smooth transition, enough details to make it clear time has passed, and without any clunky "the next morning" type lines.
-new chapter- He made her omelets for breakfast. Real, honest to God omelets.
(More on transitions here)
Break the Scene
Scene breaks are great when a chapter ending just doesn't work. If you have a situation where you need to jump ahead in time--say, if the character is hurt--try ending on a good hook, then starting the next scene with a line that states time passed and what happened.
She limped back to camp. Johnson was never going to let her hear the end of this. -end scene-This lets the reader know the story has moved forward and catches them up without you having to explain it all.
-new scene- It took her three weeks to heal, but two days to get sick of Johnson's ribbing.
A word of caution: make sure you're not ending the scene on a cliffhanger, and then skipping over something important the reader actually wants to know. For example, ending with, "the knife sliced through her chest and she collapsed in a heap" then starting the next scene with, "Three weeks later she left the hospital..." risks angering your reader, as they'll probably want to know what happened to her immediately after she collapsed.
(More on moving from scene to scene here)
Scene breaks also work for longer periods of time, and quieter moments where there might not be a large enough hook for a full chapter ending.
I kept staring at what was left of him. -end scene-A big jump ahead, and you basically pick up where you left off without having to shove a boring summer down a reader's throat. The story keeps moving and time keeps passing.
-new scene- Summer passed, but I still couldn't get the image out of my mind.
(More on scene breaks here)
Summarize the Time
A summary paragraph can work if you don't want to break the scene. This is useful for smaller passages of time when a full break would interrupt building tensions or the story flow.
It didn't matter. He was dead and there was nothing she could do about it.Time passes, the reader is caught up, and few words are used. It also transitions nicely into whatever she does after she straps on that gun, which is the goal of the next scene.
For the first week she cried. The second she stared out the window in a funk. By week three, she'd thrown back the covers and strapped on her gun.
Do a Montage
For a longer, more descriptive feel, you could do a quick montage of what happened. This works for events when you want to show a character learning/doing/struggling, but staying with that person for very long in that activity will start to bore readers. You don't want to show the same thing over and over, though you want to show what she learns or does in some way.
Lead into the montage, then do a quick paragraph of what happens while time is passing, and finish with something that pulls the reader to the next scene where time picks up again normally.
She hefted the sword again and glared at the sword master. Even if it took her all summer, she'd figure this out.This is riskier if the summary isn't interesting to read, as it'll likely appear as a "stuff you can skip" paragraph. Try keeping it in the voice of the character and infusing it with personality to keep the reader all the way through.
For days she parried. Forgot to parry and bled. Parried badly and landed face first in the dirt. Sometimes the mud, which made her classmates snicker. Days turn to weeks and her swings grew stronger, the snickers shorter. By the end of the first month she could hold her own. The second, she was wining half the time. After three months, she owned them all.
The sword master smiled down at her on graduation day, rubbing his bruised jaw, the faint indentation of her sword hilt still visible in his chin. "Not bad," he said. "Not bad at all."
(More on montages here)
Reminder Readers Time has Passed
Sometimes all it takes is a reminder that time has passed. A quick line that slips easily into the narrative and doesn't take up a lot of space.
"You've been at this two weeks now, girl," the trainer said.It's clear two weeks have passed since the character started, and the reader didn't have to suffer through it.
Drop Readers Off and Pick Them Back Up
Skipping past travel is one of the easiest time passes to write. Simply state that your character is going somewhere, then skip ahead to when they get there.
"Guess we'd better go talk to Bob, then." -end scene-There's no need to describe the car, the ride over, the small talk in the car as they drove. Readers are right there with you and will just assume they got there in the usual manner of travel.
-new scene- Bob didn't invite them inside, just glared at them from his cheesy apartment. His eyes narrowed. "What do you two want?"
Skipping ahead in time is a handy way to tighten up a manuscript and cut out scenes that don't need to be there. And get rid of the ones that readers skip.
Do you jump ahead or do you sometimes struggle through scenes that show time passing?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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