How to Handle Time Skips in Your Novel

Sat Apr 15 2017

Recently, a client asked me what I thought about her skipping over a period of years in her novel. Would it work, she wondered, if one chapter ended and the next picked up three or five years later?

My answer was, "It depends what's going on during that time."

Skipping time is a promise

When your story skips over time, you are making an implicit promise to your reader:

Don't worry. You're not missing anything important.

The reason for this promise is simple. Audiences have a right to know about anything that materially affects the story.

The big climax at the end of Return of the Jedi, for example, wouldn't have worked at all if audiences didn't already know the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. If George Lucas had held out on us about that, we'd have thought it was the dumbest plot twist ever. Or at the very least, we'd have been pissed at him for springing that on us at the very end.

So when your story skips time, it better not skip anything that readers would cry foul about later.

While the core promise is the same no matter how much time you're skipping, the reasoning behind the promise is slightly different for small skips versus large ones.

Small skips

The small skips between scenes or chapters generally don't span much time. Commonly, no more than a few minutes, hours, or days. For a small skip, the implicit promise is this:

You're not missing anything because there was literally nothing worth seeing.

A small skip is your way of not subjecting readers to stuff they'd have been bored with anyway. (Hint: pay attention to your beta readers' feedback on this, to know what you can safely cut.)

Large skips

A large skip--anything involving weeks, months, or years--typically corresponds to the divisions between major sections of a book ("Part I vs. Part II") or between installments in a series.

When readers encounter a big skip, naturally they expect to see changes. Over the course of years, surely something happened the characters or their situation, right? Thus, the promise you're making is slightly different:

You're right. Some stuff happened, but you're not missing anything because I'll catch you up later.

Readers' expectation of unseen changes is, in fact, is part of the hook: they're curious to learn what changed in the intervening time. A large skip is a way of shifting the reader's interest from what will happen, to what already happened.

Thus, to make good on the promise, you simply have to reveal what happened in a timely fashion.

If the stuff you skipped over is important but amounts to little more than the ordinary events of life--moving, getting a new job, etc.--then use the first scenes after the skip to reveal those things. Pick an opening scene that creates opportunities to show the new job, the new spouse, or whatever it is. No big deal.

But sometimes, the skip involves something major...

Breaking the promise on purpose

If you've skipped something critical to the resolution of your plot--something you're saving for a big, dramatic reveal near the story's climax--then you must take more care in how you reveal it. After all, skipping something important means you've broken the promise.

Breaking the promise to create mystery is fine, so long as readers can tell you have a plan. This boils down to foreshadowing.

Before the skip, give us some kind of clues that would at least theoretically allow us to predict or suspect the critical event might happen. Be subtle about it. Don't spoil the surprise. But give us something that, later on, we can point to and say "Oh, I should have seen it coming!"

After the skip, drop a couple of additional hints along the way to the climax, in order to raise readers' suspicions that something is coming, even if they're not exactly sure what it is.

Your goal is to mentally prepare readers to accept whatever you held out on them. Thankfully, this is easy: just don't hide the fact that you're hiding something.

So long as you don't blindside readers with it, you're fine. In writing as in politics, the cover-up is worse than the crime.

Orient readers after the skip

One last tip: for any skip great or small, readers enter the next scene not knowing how much time they just missed. The opening lines of that scene need to orient them immediately to the new scene's time and place.

For small skips, simply showing readers where the characters are and what they're doing might be enough. If the new events are connected in some obvious way to the old ones, readers will infer how much time has passed.

But the larger the skip, the more likely they will need a direct reference to the lost time. Maybe it's a sentence that opens with "in the morning," or some similar device. Maybe it's an italicized "three years later" right under the chapter title, before the actual opening lines of the scene.

Anything like that will work. But do orient the reader quickly, so they can focus on the scene itself rather than on wondering when the scene is taking place.