by Meg Dowell
Stories are different from real life in a lot of ways. One major difference is that stories don’t move from one day to the next in chronological order. Stories cover significant events, which sometimes occur days, weeks, months, maybe even years apart. You might need to implement a time jump into your story, whether you want to or not.
We’re not talking time travel here, not exactly. Some stories need to skip ahead from one scene to another and aren’t meant to cover only a short span of time, such as one day or a few consecutive weeks.
If this is the case for your story, don’t worry. It can be done well (smoothly and without using too many transitional clichés). Here’s how to make it work.
Just jump right into it
The key to a good time jump–a time jump your readers notice, but barely–is to continue telling the story after a chapter or other kind of break like a time jump hasn’t happened. There are plenty of cliché (not quite wrong, but not recommended) ways writers do this. You’re probably familiar with a few of them.
“The days/weeks/months/years passed…”
“Winter melted subtly into spring…”
“I watched as the pages of the calendar turned…”
“As time went on…”
“Skips months by writing November, December, January, etc. across consecutive pages” (Sorry Steph, I just can’t accept this.)
If you can find a way to twist these clichés into something new and less cringe-worthy, or can fit them into your story in a way that actually makes sense (like, if your narrator is actually sort of obsessed with time and calendars, so it would make sense for her to note the passing of time that way), go for it.
But your best bet is to just jump into a new scene. Reveal that time has passed through subtle hints, either through short descriptions of your character’s surroundings or through dialogue.
Show how your characters have (or haven’t) changed
This element is essential for any time jump, no matter how much time you have actually skipped. It’s hard to show big changes in characters and their environments when you don’t use time as a tool, which is why, if done well, time jumps can be extremely effective. Remember, character development, or lack thereof, can and will make or break the quality of the story you’re trying to tell.
I’ll use a bit of my story as an example here. My narrator, at the beginning of the book, starts out as a coffee loathing, self-conscious, taking-life-one-day-at-a-time kind of girl. Time skips at a critical point for a few reasons, but within the first scene thereafter, we see her, now busy and a little stressed, grabbing coffee before leaving the house. Later on in the chapter we learn a few more unexpected details, like forgetting to finish an assignment (so unlike her!).
There’s also the most annoying character in the book, who hasn’t changed at all, which makes his character stand out even more. On purpose? Oh, of course.
Keep the story moving forward
At points you will need to have a character look back on a small detail that happened during the time your story skipped over, but don’t dwell too much on those moments. You’ve skipped over them for a reason. The key to a smooth transition is to keep the story moving forward as much as possible.
Continue moving through characters’ conversations, activities and key events, revealing small hints to past events as you go along. If you have to spend a few pages going over things your readers missed, you might want to reconsider skipping them completely. It slows things down, which isn’t something you want to do in the middle of your story.
This isn’t always an easy storytelling methodology to pull off, but as always, if you learn and practice how to use it effectively, it does get easier.
Meg Dowell is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine, a guest contributor with Lifehack and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine. She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has also written for Teen Ink and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter or check out her blog.