Tuesday, March 19, 2013

TTYU Retro: Dealing with Chronological Breaks in Your Story

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

They do me. My recently completed novel was 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 got to a certain point and I realized, "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 made a bridge for, between a morning event where Nekantor encounters a setback, and an evening event where he is put under significant pressure. I set up that he's got to wait until evening for the event; I didn't want to have him wandering around all day doing irrelevant stuff. My focus was therefore on how he felt about the setback he'd just been dealt, and what he felt he had to do about it. The presence of the later event meant that whatever confusion he was experiencing, he had to get through it before he was "put on trial"; I could 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 could then make the decision to take action just at the time when the chronological flow of outer events had to resume, which allowed 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. I have two kinds of time breaks I've had to learn to deal with:

    1) The kind of gap you are talking about, where the next scene occurs at a later time and you have to account for the 'feeling' the reader has, a sort of temporal disorientation.

    My solution is different from yours. When the next scene is NOT contiguous in time, I use a time/date/time of day header for the next scene - and trust people will figure it out. I keep a meticulous calendar (which also shows me when gaps in time are too large, and something needs to happen in between).

    But I'm relying on a sense of time - day/hour/month/year - that you can't assume in your readers, because you probably don't have a 24 hour day and a Gregorian calendar.

    I like that you carefully guide the reader to the next place/time.

    2) Lost time IN a scene. Such as when a character is doing something story-important, then spends time in-scene doing something I am not going to detail (writing, napping, singing...), after which the scene content becomes important again.

    Since I don't want/need to change the pov character or the setting (my usual indicators that time may have passed), I have learned to make short transition paragraphs to orient the reader.

    I find that since I work in beats - so many beats to a scene, each almost a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and end - the transitions naturally occur in the spaces between the beats.

    Do you have the same problem, needing to lose time without changing scene? If you do, how do you handle the breaks?

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, ABE. I have a tendency to want to keep away from scene breaks, so I do end up with the problem you mention. Waiting around is not exciting to narrate about. I typically like to find a psychological solution, relying on the expectations of the character. "We were in the middle of X when..." isn't a bad approach. Here's an example of me doing a time-jump in my most recent story:

      I put hands on my hips. "She's coming."
      That gets a reaction. Nobody round here likes checkerbobbies — plenty get pissed, but others don't wanna leave now that they've been disconnected. Turban-Daddy, Sugarboss and the Tangletown Maestra quick-sketch out a news-passing plan, messy but enough to get people on their way, so the Hub's mostly empty by the time Checkers Nayyar stoops in with two officers behind her.

      It's the reaction to the announcement of the police officer coming that causes the action that she can then describe and assess and give its result to link to the new time period and the action to come.

    2. Nice.

      "...but enough to get people on their way, so the Hub's mostly empty by the time..."

      Good way to eat a chunk of (boring) time with a little transition in the middle of a scene.

      Unless you're running a timeline (most readers don't), the time skipped isn't even noticed. And we get on to the good stuff.

      Oddly enough, though it must be a regular - if not a common - problem, none of the 30-40 books on writing I have mentioned it; I figured out how to handle mine last year.

      But then 'novel time management' isn't discussed, either.

      To keep the first two chapters of my WIP straight, I had a timeline correct to the minute, as two of the main characters were being interviewed on a talk show in NYC (EST), while the third was coming home from dinner in LA (PST). It was WORK - but I liked the feeling of simultaneity that I got. Though I may be the only person who ever notices, if you run the parallel timelines, every minute is accounted for.

      Thanks for an interesting discussion of the topic - and good examples.

  2. I write in sections, and when a section's finished I write the next from another character's point of view. I keep detailed timelines too, but they doesn't really show up in my stories. (I don't specifically write "Two days later" or phrases like that, though I think I might have the sentence "It took them three days to travel to place X" in one of my WIPs.) My stories tend to be dealt out in sections rather than in a continuous flow from one character.

    What I struggle with is trying to make it seem like a long (usually boring, tedious or anxious) time has passed for my character without writing a long passage on it.


    1. Riorlynë, thanks for your comment. Yes, that's another possible way that time passage can cause trouble. I generally approach those times by giving a bit of text to the change in the protagonist's state of mind. In general, more words suggest more time, and fewer words less, so I understand why that's an issue.

  3. Thanks for theses ideas, Juliette. This is exactly what I've been dealing with! Only I'm working on a saga and some of my scenes are years apart. Although I date my chapters headings, I give the reader clues to help make the mental jump, like "Thomas ran down the stairs, his three-year-old sister tagging along behind" - when Thomas was a baby in the last scene.

    1. You're welcome, and thanks for the comment! I think that chapter headings can definitely help, but they aren't enough without the kinds of cues you describe, to ground the reader in the setting. Very good point.