Time Out

After my last post, Erin Edwards commented:

“How you do handle gaps in the time line, or resist showing what the character does every second of every day? I think I’ve almost got the day to day stuff figured out but I wonder how you cover it.

“Right now I’m working on describing a longer passage of time without being boring and trying to give some indication of what the main character was doing. I’m also trying to figure out how long a passage of time I should have this way too. So in a way, I guess my question is about deciding time lines in general.”

I struggle constantly with the long and short of time. I’ll start with the long and talk about the short next week.

For an absolutely masterly handling of time – if you’re a grown-up or in high school at least – read The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, which I just finished. The book spans about a hundred years, but always feels immediate. The prose is gorgeous and the story intriguing.

Some story structures make handling time easy: epistolary novels (novels in letters or e-mails), novels told in journals or diaries, novels in which each chapter covers a specified period (the first chapter may be March, the second April, and so on).

For other sorts of stories, abridging time involves telling, not showing, using such phrases as The next day, A week passed, A month went by. You can also accomplish this with a theme, like the seasons, as in, Winter ended, and mud season began. Mud season ended, and black fly season began. Or a school theme, like, The second graders filled the corridors with fallen-leaf collages. Fallen leaves morphed into jack-o-lanterns. Jack-o-lanterns became Santa Clauses. But however you do it, skipping a stretch of time inevitably pulls the reader out of the story a little, and you will probably have to fill her in on what she missed.

Here’s how I do it at the beginning of Chapter Nineteen in Fairest:

A week passed. The mood in the castle was bleak. The corridor troubadours sang of pain and grief. Whenever I illused for Ivi I was sure the word trickster would appear on my forehead, spelled out in glaring blush-red. I feared sneezing or hiccupping or fainting. I felt dizzy and feverish.

It’s all tell, no show, very direct. That’s okay. Notice that everything in my summary focuses on the tension that’s moving the story forward. Keeping the tension center stage will help your reader stay interested. Suppose, for example, your characters are preparing for a siege. You can enumerate the preparations that took place during the gap. Sheep were brought in from distant pastures. The armorers repaired damaged weapons. Townspeople packed to move into the castle. A string of five or six of these events will make the reader feel up to date. Naturally, if a siege is looming, you won’t update the reader about the progress of the castle seamstress on the princess’s ball gown. Stick to what the reader is worrying about, the siege.

Your break in continuity should be as short as you can make it. The lengthier it is, in general, the likelier you are to lose your reader. If the gap is years or hundreds of years, you have a challenge I’ve never dealt with, and I would try not to plot a story this way.

Still, it won’t be so hard if the main character continues at the end of the elapsed time, because the reader will still care about him – Rip Van Winkle, for example. If he’s in a time capsule along with all the other important characters, then time matters a little, but not much. But if only the main character remains, the reader will have to adjust to a new time and new people.

If even the main character is gone when the story resumes, I would approach starting the next section as if I were starting an entirely new book and would draw the reader in with a new beginning. A page that says just “Part Two” or “Part Three” will also help prepare the reader.

Isaac Asimov does a fabulous job with multiple long time breaks in his Foundation series about the death of a worn-out civilization and the birth of a vibrant new one. He sets up two groups to bring the next civilization into being, the First Foundation and the Second. Although the characters don’t survive each time jump, the Foundations remain, and the reader wants to see what happens to them. The lesson from Asimov: Build an overarching, impending catastrophe as your temporal bridge.

Everything in writing is possible. You will discover your own ways to manage extended time, or you may already know a few. Please comment with your ideas. Have fun, and save your comments!

  1. Oh! Very nice! I shall have to keep this post in mind when I smooth out my novel. I have one section when I have to cover a length of several weeks without it getting boring. Thanks for the advice!

    ~ Katherine Anne

  2. It's funny that "show, not tell" is drummed into a writer so much that it's hard to tell even when you need to. It makes it easier to "tell" when you get permission from an accomplished writer. 🙂 And that's a great tip to keep the tension up during the transition.

  3. I was looking through your book writing magic and i stumbled across a rule for writing
    "There's nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over. When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you've read only once can't."
    i follow this rule and have read ella enchanted and fairest so many times. And i do believe that the book has become a part of me in a way.
    THANK YOU for writing them

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