Questionable: How Do You Move a Story Through Time?

Colognegrrl asked:
I am presently working on a manuscript that has been giving me hell. I know where I’m coming from and where I want to end, but in between are a lot of problems. The main challenge is to fill the time gaps, you know like “this scene is on Sunday and the next important thing happens on Thursday, but what did she do in between? She must have met the guy, she must have done this and that, it’s too boring to tell but how do you take the reader from Sunday to Thursday …?”

This is called a segue and it’s used all the time. The easiest way is to dump everything into a clause: 

“For the next five days, Jane tried to pretend she didn’t care, throwing herself into her work, but on Thursday . . . “

If stuff happens during that time, you may need a full sentence: 

“Jane snapped at her mother on Sunday, savaged a client on Monday, kicked a dog on Tuesday, wept helplessly at work on Wednesday, and then fired her assistant on Thursday when he said, ‘This has to stop.’ Except he was right, so she rehired him and then that afternoon went to see Richard.”  Worst case scenario: It takes an entire paragraph as summary.

The key is to find out if there’s any info in that five days that must be on the page.  If there isn’t, stick with the basics:

“Five days later, Jane . . . “

30 thoughts on “Questionable: How Do You Move a Story Through Time?

  1. I love your examples. They make it crystal clear and now I wanna know what happened when Jane met Richard.

        1. D’oh! I ruined my own Richard/Dick joke by nesting it in the wrong spot. This is what happens when you get cheeky.

  2. That helps me a lot as a writer.

    Also, when I’m a reader, I wish a writer would look at what’s really set up. If Jane and Richard are living together happily in all senses, but they have just arrived at a very basic problem with their relationship, I’m bugged when that problem is only talked about at the next convenient scene. They are sensible people — this issue would have come up in the time between Friday night bar scenes. Something should be added. Or, the Friday night bar scene is providing pace to the story instead of the relationship.

  3. Reading your examples, I’m thinking pretty much all week Jane is wearing the T-shirt Jean Marie mentioned yesterday with the dragon:)

    1. Jane is always a bad ass. Remember when she shot the pigeons and blackmailed her boss into getting rid of the body? I love Jane.

      1. Forgot about that. Jane sure gets around. She’d lose points at my house for the pigeon and dog things but the lady sure keeps busy. Richard could be in big trouble.

    2. The *back* of that T-shirt should read, “Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for thou art crunchy and go good with catsup.”

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you. When you do it, it looks so easy (like the other girls in PhysEd doing perfect cartwheels that I could never manage).

  5. A tidbit from the Leverage 3×01 commentary: “People should be entering a scene with information or exiting with intent, or it’s just exposition.”

    That is, the scene shouldn’t end without setting up the next one. Why does the next thing happen on Thursday specifically? If the character makes an appointment, then you can skip straight to it (or to the event that disrupts that expectation), with the assumption that nothing of note happened in between. The character continued on with their life, with that established intent.

    1. You do have to indicate the passage of time, though. If it’s Saturday, then you need to know five days have passed, and you can do that by saying, “Five days later” or “On Tuesday.” You just need the time marker.

      As for beginnings and ending of scenes, people enter with intent and exit with intent. Information can change the intent, but information is almost always exposition, so unless the info changes things, it’s not going to be plot.

      1. Yes, exactly.
        A makes the appointment for Friday. If the next scene is A walking into the office of her appointment, the reader can know that it’s Friday. But “Friday” has to established somewhere in one of the two scenes.

        Yeah, I think the assumption behind the phrase is that the person entering the scene has to change things somehow (with the information they have), or they’re a superfluous character.

  6. So glad to know Jane is still lurking in your basement, ready to pop up and appear in examples.

  7. There is time passage, and time passage. Does anyone read Grrl Power, a web comic by Dave Barrack? Today’s comic – it updates on Mondays and Thursdays – is about time passage.

    The first cartoon was in August of 2010. The next four were of the “later that same day” variety. The final panel of Cartoon number 004 stated, “Let me back up a few months.” Today’s cartoon is number 727, and we still haven’t reached the date of the intro from 2010.

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