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I've been reading a host of old favourites, classics and authors outside of my usual reading pool, in an effort to dissect the writing (from plot, characters and environment to voice, pacing and dialogue) and hopefully learn both what to do and what not to do.

When rereading Raymond E. Feist's Magician:Apprentice, I noted that while clearly there was need (in terms of larger plot focus/tension and character growth and development), the increasing size of the clock ticks is a bit jarring.

In the first (at least) half of the novel, we get time that is pretty linear - generally day-to-day, skipping a few hours or a day or two if needed for plot pacing. Once we get around two-thirds in, the scale of the story is increasing (geopolitical impact) and we're now experiencing gaps of weeks and months. By the time we're approaching the end, say around four-fifths in, we now have skips of months, seasons, and then even years.

To be clear, I (believe I) understand using time effectively in story telling:

  • Zoom in close, add detail, use time linearly, when you're building the environment, character, or plot tension for the reader. I've noticed this to be especially prevalent in specific genres (horror, thriller, suspense).

  • Zoom out, skim-skip along as needed, when you're maintaining pace, plot course, and reader engagement. (epic speculative fiction or historical?)

But in all my reading-for-reading and reading-on-writing I've yet to come across any rules or guidelines for authors on when and how to use this, so have no idea whether this is a learned skill that each author applies dependent on their writing style, or if they follow specific maxims (and yes, I agree rules for writers can and should be broken when the occasion demands).

So, is there a set of commonly-used/respected rules/guides for deciding on time gaps between scenes/chapters in a written work of fiction?


Notes:

1. A search of Writers.SE on this topic only showed this question as even remotely similar.

2. No googling was done as I prefer to come to the best source I know. :)

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5 Answers 5

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Yes, there is a respected rule: Skip the boring stuff!

It depends on your story, on your style and what you want to show. If you have a gunslinger and you want to establish how good he is, you may want to describe in detail his fight against five other people which only lasts a few seconds to a minute.

If the reader already knows how good he is, just anther gun fight could be boring (even if it's the O.K. Corral). Then you can write

He drew first.

and end the scene. In the next he is sitting in the saloon or whatever.

Time gaps are used to keep your story thrilling. Skip the boring stuff and stress the excitement.

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Difficult to select an answer, as none directly address the learned skill versus accepted maxim, but this has to be the closest, since it concisely answers the what and how, and does imply that each writer learns and chooses dependent on style. –  Zayne S Halsall Jan 23 '13 at 18:17
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Time lapses, time advancements are used to move the story forward per plot situation, tempo, and cohesiveness.

If your story is going to span several generations of characters...well, then, you are going to move the story forward (skipping the non-pertainent boring crap) by time advancements.

If your story is going to stay in the moment, perhaps spanning only a week or a day (think Grey's Anatomy), then go breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

There are no rules. There is common sense and a wicked sense of time. Get into your plot. Know your plot. Know your character/characters/situations. Write down all the scenes you can clearly "see" in your mind, and put those down on some cards. Now take a deep breath and decide what scene you might have to add between these cards for the story plot to make sense.

You might end up with several scenes between these. You might end up with none---these will be your lapses.

If you don't need it, don't show it. And NEVER, ever, ever, tell it.

A good writer usually knows that when he's starting to "tell", he needs to say, "cut." He needs to have a time advancement.

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No rules. But some guidelines:

  • Try to stay consistent with the layout of the gaps. There are traditionally two allowed "zones of sparsity": Prologue and epilogue. Other than that, progression should be mostly linear.

  • Bigger gaps are allowed but mark them as such. Four months in a coma shouldn't be a three-asterisk break. It should be a start of another volume.

  • You can switch "fast forward" on by changing the format to that of a journal, a diary, a logbook. I covered three months of space flight under hibernation with a computer log. I covered thirty years of political developments with press headers.

  • You can switch to even higher gear by shifting the perspective to an eternal observer. A gargoyle on the roof. A sapling growing from a seed into a magnificent tree. A mountain carved by erosion. That way years or even millennia pass and the reader isn't alienated.

  • Don't be afraid to go in opposite direction. One of chapters of "Sum of All Fears" by Tom Clancy, not really short too, describes a complex chain of events over a span of three nanoseconds.

  • Instead of jumping with the storyline, use retrospection and prediction; instead of saying "30 years later" on beginning of next chapter, write "'...and that happened roughly 30 years ago,' said the protagonist closing the photo album. 'And now that leaves up with today's situation...'"

None of these is written in stone. But - as you said - violating them may be frustrating for the reader.

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There's certainly no rule on a specific time gap between chapters, like, "Every chapter must begin 32 hours and 12 minutes after the last chapter ended." It depends on the subject matter. If the whole story happens in one day, then the gap between chapters may be a few hours, or less. If the story spans the history of a family or a civilization, the gap between chapters may be years or decades.

If the gap is consistent and natural, it usually needs no explanation. Statements of what the characters are doing and the beginning and end of each chapter can help, like if chapter 1 ends with the hero turning out the lights and going to bed and chapter 2 begins with him having breakfast, I think the reader will generally assume it's the next day.

If the gap between chapters is inconsistent or otherwise unclear, just add a couple of sentences to clarify. That could be as blunt as, "After the war ended, George went back to ..." Or a few lines of dialogue could set the time frame. "'Have you been here before?' Sally asked. 'Yes, but that was thirty years ago,' Brian replied."

If your times go all over the place, then I'd just put times or dates on the chapters. I've read plenty of books where each chapter begins with a label, like "February, 1832: Paris" or the like. I know some people will say that's clumsy, but I think it's better than trying to work statements of dates into the dialoge at the start of every chapter. "Well, Harold, it really is hot this summer. Yes, this summer, 1938, will certainly be remembered as one of the hottest summers we've had around here ..." I've seen plenty of movies that try to establish a date by having some news program on a TV in the background, like as the characters are talking we see a reporter on the TV talking about the moon landing or Nixon's resignation or some such to tip us off as to when this is happening. Personally I find this annoying: they think they're being subtle but it's screamingly blatant. I'd rather if they just pop up a subtitle that says "1973" or whatever. A gimmick way to fit the date into background or dialog may work once, but if you do it all the time, it becomes too obvious it's a gimmick.

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I tend to write at the start of the next chapter/paragraph things like 'a few hours later' or if it's a longer timeframe, I specify that. I'm writing a novel set in a school and some chapters are just one day's worth of part of the classroom scene, and then the teacher on yard duty. For those I simply have 'the bell rang' (meaning the end of the class, so that the reader knows that. OTher times I specify recess/lunch breaks, to give a sense of time.

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