Thursday, February 2, 2012

Dealing with chronological breaks in your story

Do time-breaks in your story ever drive you mad?

They do me. My current novel is on a very strict schedule - this event has to happen on one day, then this other event has to happen at a three-day delay, and then the next one at the same three-day interval, etc. etc. I get to a certain point and I realize, "I'm on the wrong day. More time has to pass than this. How can I get more time to pass?"

If I were using a more external narrator, this might be easier. I might just say, "The next day..." or "Three hours later..." and there we go. Well, okay, it wouldn't be that simple. The real problem with chronological breaks is that you have to maintain the story drive in spite of them, which means you have to create a sort of bridging effect across them.

So what kind of continuity links can make this work? There's quite a range. You can make an explicit reference to the amount of time passing, but this works more easily with a distant narrator; with a deep point of view, there would have to be a specific reason why the character was aware that this much time was passing. Besides which, I don't prefer to make direct reference to the amount of time if I can help it. I much prefer to use a topic link, or a psychological link.

A topic link means that you leave a cue in the last piece before your time break that you can then pick up again on the other side. I had a case where I was struggling with a break that looked something like this: Nekantor and Tagret were talking about their plans to contact the Sixth Family, and Nekantor said effectively, "No problem, we'll contact them; it'll be great to do this while father's busy talking to his friend Doret." Whereupon Tagret said, "Why is he talking to Doret?" I tried to move on from there to the meeting with the Sixth Family and it felt really awkward because I was feeling as if I had to show them getting a message off, getting a message back, sleeping on it (ugh!) etc. I thought to myself, "What did I do? Why am I feeling obliged to fill all this space with events?" And then I realized that I hadn't bridged properly. None of the message-sending stuff, or what happens in between, is actually relevant to their goals. It shouldn't be in the story. Where I turned off-course was in having Nekantor specifically refer to what they would do to contact the Sixth Family and when they would do it. That automatically sets up an expectation that we will see it as it happens, find out about Doret, etc. Not even explaining the amount of time passed would feel quite right.

So I went back and cut everything out that I had written, so that I stopped with Nekantor saying, "No problem; we'll contact the Sixth Family." The only expectation I set up there is that their next order of business is contacting the Sixth Family - and that allows me to hop straight across the time gap.  I can open the next section with "The Sixth Family took nearly a full day to reply, specifying an evening meeting..." and give Nekantor and Tagret's reactions to their slowness, thus orienting readers to the fact that time has passed and making it personally relevant to the characters and their state of mind. Because of the bridge, it doesn't feel like anything is missing.

The other kind of link that I like to use is a psychological link. Basically this means that instead of focusing on the flow of external events, which might make me feel obligated to include them all, I turn inward to the state of mind that my character is in when the time break is happening. I have a break of several hours that I'm going to be bridging today, between a morning event where Nekantor encounters a setback, and an evening event where he is put under significant pressure. I've already set up that he's got to wait until evening for the event; what I don't want to do is have him wandering around all day doing irrelevant stuff. My focus is therefore on how he feels about the setback he's just been dealt, and what he feels he has to do about it. The presence of the later event means that whatever confusion he's experiencing, he has to get through it before he's "put on trial"; I can therefore focus on him trying to find a way forward mentally, and refer to his various attempts to break his state of mental confusion without having to ground them in actual external time. He'll then make the decision to take action just at the time when the chronological flow of outer events has to resume, which will allow me to move back into the outer events at that point.

I'm sure there are more ways to do this, so feel free to share if you have any special tips. I just thought I'd mention these methods because they are particularly useful when I'm dealing with a time break in deep point of view.

It's something to think about.


  1. Time breaks are one thing I've never mastered, nor feel comfortable with. I feel like I'm missing the story if I write "three weeks later" or any other period of time between events. Like what happened? I'd rather fill that space with story and be done with it...

  2. J.R., I do topic leaps sometimes (that's my first example). I fill the space at other times (that's my second example). I guess it depends on what is most important to the progression of the main conflict and the character arcs. I don't want to waste any words saying that my protagonist hung out for eight hours before his next event started. Sometimes a story can flex chronologically and you can just eliminate the break; other times it doesn't work so well. This is the kind of thing that can lead to contracted timelines where the characters don't ever seem to sleep for periods of days (and that can be a bit of a different problem). One reason this particular story is challenging is that I *have* to stick to my strict timeline due to political requirements. That's why I'm having to face the challenge head-on at this particular time.

  3. I hate tracking time, personally, but when something needs to be on a distinct schedule, you don't have to go to a distant narrator necessarily to mention the time passing. Similar to your psychological link, make the passage of time itself relevant to the character. Something like, "the next two days stretched out endlessly in front of him, but then the meeting time arrived without warning, time contracting in an instant. This meeting determined whether he would remain part of the clan or be forever cast out."

    Okay, not a grand wording, but it should be enough to get the idea across :).

  4. I don't ever change narrators. That's one of my personal rules. I agree that it's good to get the person's reaction to the time gap, or some sense of the relevance of the gap to the character. Thanks for commenting, Margaret!

  5. I'm glad. Thanks for your comment, CM!