Tackling the timeline: Time jumping
About a month ago, we started talking about writing with a chronological timeline. We’ve discussed flashbacks within that timeline, as well. But what about those stories that jump around? The ones that go from one moment in time to something that happened a long time ago?
I’m not talking about flashbacks. I’m talking about time jumping. Stories that don’t exist just in the present time. Ever read something where your narrator talks about their past as if they’re sitting in front of you? Many times, you’ll read a story like this in first person. The narrator will share their life story or talk about a past event while they’re in the current time.
Another example of time jumping is a nonlinear narrative or simply a nonexistent timeline. This is difficult to accomplish, but it’s a great way to write a story where pieces don’t quite fit in a linear fashion. There are multiple reasons to write with a broken timeline like this:
- Multiple characters doing different things
- Two relatives with similar stories but different time periods
- A story where the end is at the beginning
- Flow of information doesn’t make sense in a timeline
- Character with multiple lives
If I created a list of all the reasons, it would need its own blog post, and I’d need some help thinking of them all. But, there’s a reason, always. Don’t do it because it’s easy or convenient. You need a good reason because this style of writing is not easy to follow, especially if it’s not done well.
Where to begin
Of course, your story will dictate where to begin, but there’s something you have to remember: Don’t rush to introduce both or all sides.
No matter what your story is, the part you introduce is equally as important as the second part you bring in. Give both of them all your attention.
You’ll start writing like you would any other story; don’t think you have to allude to your next perspective or time period. It’s okay. And, your readers will figure it out.
The time jump
Is it in its own chapter? Most of the time, this is the way to go. I’m pretty sure a few of you can prove me wrong in a good case, but this is the best way with exception. It’s a great way to tell your reader without saying, “20 years into the future” or “back in the past . . .”
You could also use a separator like the triple asterisk or a bar or whatever.
Transitioning to a time jump, even if it’s a new chapter, requires limited use of pronouns. I’ve edited many books where the chapter begins with “He . . .” This is fine if you don’t have multiple male perspectives. Don’t make your reader guess. What reason do you have for doing so? Use a proper noun.
Keep in mind the context of your previous chapter, too. If your character was about to get in a fight before you switched to Character #2, it might be confusing to open up with that character fighting. Remember, you will have two stories. Or more. But, don’t try to mix the two and confuse your reader. Make it clear whose perspective (or what time period) you’re in. Don’t end one chapter with someone looking at a dead guy and open the next chapter—in the next time period—with someone looking at a dead guy. Even if this person is dead for thirty years and your next character finds the bones, let them happen upon it. Don’t just stick them there. It’s a confusing redundancy.
Before I go off on a rant and say, “Don’t do . . .” with an unnecessarily long list of bullets, use these nicer, more friendly bullets to consider how you can transition smoothly when entering a new time period.
- Characteristics of the era
- Character’s personality
- Last action you left off from (in that character’s story)
- Returning to reality (if the time jump is a long flashback)
- A cue identifying time
I’ll elaborate on the last bullet a little because it’s confusing as a bullet. If Character 1 is a man married and unhappily so, and Character 2 is the unmarried man courting his future wife, the griping, mean lady of a wife could be a cue. Something characteristic of that storyline that immediately tells the reader, “We’re back here.”
Your reader will be connecting with multiple characters and will have to acclimate to more than one setting. This isn’t like a normal, third person limited serial novel where settings change from bedroom to backyard and characters consist of a tired father and his son. You have two completely different stories (possibly) and two completely different mindsets, beliefs, cultures, societies, and, really, worlds. You have to treat the stories this way because the characters’ voices are unique in a way that shows your reader two pieces (or more) of something they’d never expect in a normal story. It can be a powerful thing, but you need to treat it with the respect it deserves. And, I’m sure you will.