Friday, January 04, 2013

Time Marches On: Dealing With the Passage of Time Between Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.

Change Chapters 

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-

-new chapter- He made her omelets for breakfast. Real, honest to God omelets.
A smooth transition, enough details to make it clear time has passed, and without any clunky "the next morning" type lines.

(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-

-new scene- It took her three weeks to heal, but two days to get sick of Johnson's ribbing.
This lets the reader know the story has moved forward and catches them up without you having to explain it all.

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-

-new scene- Summer passed, but I still couldn't get the image out of my mind.
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.

(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.

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.
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.

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.

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."
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.

(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-

-new scene- Bob didn't invite them inside, just glared at them from his cheesy apartment. His eyes narrowed. "What do you two want?"
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.

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? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book 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.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Thanks for this article! I'm dealing with the passage of time issue when revising my nanowrimo story and this is very timely. Love your blog and I find the articles you tweet about very helpful. Thank you!

  2. Trademare, thanks! Glad I picked that one from my list of ideas then :)Good luck on those revisions!

  3. Great post; great examples. Thanks, Janice!

  4. Thanks Robyn! Got to get back into the swing of blogging after the break, hehe.

  5. Thanks for this great summary - I'm going bookmark this and keep it handy.

  6. I'm going to look at my WIP right now and see where I can make some changes based on this post. Thanks!

  7. Yay for examples! My first drafts always have way too many scenes completely played out because I need to keep it straight in my own head, but I know that not all of that needs to be inflicted on the reader.

  8. Janice, I've been reading your blog for a few months, and it has helped me so much! I especially love how you've organized it. Whenever I'm stuck or need inspiration I just hop on over :-) This article is particularly helpful. I find myself starting in on some of these more boring scenes and then realize, "Oh, I should probably skip this." This article is a very helpful reminder and gave such great advice. I especially appreciate your use of examples, thank you so much.

  9. Thanks for these examples! This is an issue I'm dealing with in my current draft, esp. because my character goes from one country to another and back again--I've been wondering how to show that time has passed because my readers don't need to know she order a coke on the airplane.

  10. Awesome post! I always struggle with these. Thanks! :) e

  11. Andrea, most welcome!

    HCRaglin, hope you find some great spots to tighten. Or not, since that would mean it's good already!

    Angelica, I love examples :) You don't have to worry too much about this in a first draft, because sometimes those scenes needs to be written to get something straight in the author's head. But it's a nice habit to get into if yo can.

    Lauren, welcome to the blog! Good to have you here. And I love that it's one of your go-to blogs, thanks!

    Kelly, glad I could help :) Sounds like a perfect situation to drop them off and pick them back up again.

    Elizabeth, my pleasure, chickee :)

  12. Thanks for the great examples (you always summarise so beautifully).

    I need to remember it's okay to use transitions. Often I'll write and write and think this just isn't working at all - when I nice easy transition was the answer all along.

  13. Janice, your posts on writing are the ones I love the best. Again, you've made transition writing sound so easy.
    I keep a file of your posts. This year, I'll be revising my middle grade novel and I'll be referring to my thick file.
    Thanks so much!

  14. Nicely timed, thank you! Your last example, of moving from one location to the next, will come in very handy for my revisions :)

  15. Perfect timing as usual. I was just dealing with this in my current WIP.

  16. Raewyn, totally. There's nothing wrong with just breaking the scene and going where the story needs to go.

    Tracy, so glad I can help :) I'm always here if you have questions. Good luck with those revisions!

    Rachel6, glad I could help!

    Rubianna, I love it when the right post finds the right writer :)

  17. Great article. Thanks for sharing. And it gave me some ideas on what to do in a few dull places in my work.

  18. Blacklilackitty, great! Glad you found it useful.

  19. Ack! I don't know how I missed this post of yours for a month!

    Anyway, love this collection of tips. I especially love your caution in the second tip. That "ending on cliffhanger and then picking up LATER" technique drives me crazy.

    One person told me about a chapter that ended with a beloved character's death, and then picked up 3 months later, when the remaining characters had already finished their grieving. That left no time for the reader to grieve. Bad idea.

  20. Great examples. I hate "she got off the horse. She walked in the house" passages.

  21. Jami, hehe no worries! They're always here :) Yikes. That chapter ender would have made me crazy. Great point about giving the reader time to grieve. That just robs the story of the emotional impact the author spent time creating.

    Suzanne, they have their uses, but more times than not you just want the character to get on with it, lol.

  22. Thanks so much. I have completed the second draft of my novel, and am now going through it for the final draft before handing it over to an editor. I noticed that in the 345 pages, there are 45 time jumps. Some of them a few days, some of them a few years. Your advice will help me assess and fix them.

    1. Glad it helped :) That's a lot of jumping to keep track of. A spreadsheet might help you organize those.

  23. I had a question. When would you consider using a single line space to signal a passage of time? If a paragraph starts with "Twenty minutes later..." or "An hour later..." is that all the reader needs, or should the line space be there as well? I'm just wondering if all time jumps should have the space, or only certain passages of time. Does that make sense? Would love your thoughts.

    1. You could do either. What matters is making it clear to readers that time has passed. You might want the hard stop of a scene break for dramatic impact if the previous scene ended on a hook. Or you might want to just show time passed, so you wouldn't break the scene.

      A scene break (line space) has a different feel than just "X time later." It affects the pacing and impact of the scene, so you'd have to decide what you wanted. Are you breaking the scene, or just moving forward in time? Both ways have their uses.