Time is an interesting thing in stories. Where in life we are constrained to move only in one direction and at a constant rate, stories give us a higher level of control. The author possesses the unique ability to travel forwards and backwards in time, to pause it, to speed it up. They can even break time if they so desire.
Consider Darren Aronofsky’s poetic epic: The Fountain. This film takes place across three different timelines, one in the past, another in the present, and another in the future. In each of these timelines different incarnations of the same man run into the same fundamental problem: the death of the woman that they love. Each one of them quests to save her in their own way, but each is missing a piece of the puzzle necessary to do so.
Then, at the film’s dramatic climax, the three timelines begin to reach through their own temporal constraints to deliver comfort and closure to one another. There has not been anything previous in the film to suggest that this is possible, but on the other hand there was also nothing to suggest it wasn’t. I think it works really well for that story, and it gives each arc a hefty emotional resolution.
It’s not as though this film was doing anything very extreme either. Every story breaks temporal rules, even when its characters never do. From the reader’s perspective flashbacks are time travel, switching scenes is teleportation, and knowing a character’s thoughts is telekinesis. One of the reasons we love stories so much is because they allow us to view the world in a way we simply can’t in real life. We sidestep all of the mundane time-and-space-constraints that otherwise define our world, and instead cut right to the chase.
But while authors can make sudden leaps of time and space in their stories, they need to have respect for the fact that this is fundamentally different from the reader’s regular life experience, and therefore inherently unnatural. Therefore one must take care to make that transition as smooth as possible, or else you’ll start to give your audience whiplash.
Over the years there has been a language of transitions established, ones that readers have been trained to understand and expect. They are so ubiquitous that its almost hard to even notice when they happen. One doesn’t know why the story they are reading works so well, just that it does, and they wish that they could do the same in their own work. Well let’s pull back the curtain and see what these tools of the trade are.
Change of Pace)
Perhaps the most common superpower an author uses in storytelling is the ability to speed time up and slow it down. Real life is comprised of sudden and significant moments preceded and followed by long durations of monotony. It wouldn’t do to translate this same experience to the page, no one would read a story that recounted every second that the main character slept at night. Every author naturally wants to blitz from one high point to the next.
On the other hand, those moments of intense significance might bear dialing the timelapse down to “super-slow motion.” The author dramatically captures the microsecond where the sword makes contact with the iron shackles, giving off a thunderous clang, a shower of sparks, and thus frees the dejected captive.
This problem of shifting between two different timescales was one I encountered in just my last post. In part three of Power Suit Racing I needed to cover a wide ground of character growth in as few words as possible. I needed to turn up the speed from giving the action second-by-second to week-by-week. If this were a movie I would have cut to a montage sequence, but this is a written story so a montage wouldn’t work…or would it?
The fact is that one form of storytelling can teach audiences new patterns which can then be translated over into another medium. We have all grown up watching movies and television, and most of us visualize the stories that we read as if they were being filmed by a camera. With that in mind the author can borrow some narrative tricks from the more visual mentality.
With my story I established a trajectory with the last scene of the slower timescale. Taki was determinedly marching off for his next race. Then I just continued that same trajectory with the following scenes of those races, it just so happened that they were brief glimpses separated by hours and days from one another. Hopefully because there was a shared through-line between the greater detail scene and the more sparse ones the transition came off naturally.
Change of Setting)
That idea of transitioning based on a shared through-line is going to show up several times in this study. It’s simply one of the best ways to keep the reader in a familiar context while the set dressing changes around them.
Speaking of changing the set, what about when an author wants to change from one scene to another, but doesn’t want to lose the thread that they were following? Do you remember that scene in Star Wars where Obi-Wan Kenobi rescues Luke from the Sand People? Luke has questions for Kenobi, but he suggests it might be safer to discuss them back at his home. The screen wipes to the interior of Kenobi’s home and their conversation continues. It’s essentially a continuation of the same scene as before, just divided between two locales.
And this transition is able to work because a musical cue begins at the end of the first setting and carries through to the second. It forms a bridge that the viewer’s subconscious uses to connect the two scenes. Stories obviously don’t have musical cues, and they don’t have the ability to softly fade from one image to another, but they can still provide bridges between different settings.
Consider this example:
“Please don’t leave yet,” he said. “I’d like to talk more.”
“I don’t know,” she sighed indecisively.
“You said you were hungry, right? Come on, I’ll show you where to get the best wings in the whole city! I promise you’ll be licking the extra barbecue sauce off your fingers.”
Well, he was right, she thought to herself while taking the last bite of wings fifteen minutes later. They were at a corner shop next to…
By finishing one setting with an item and then starting the next setting with that same item there is a bridge formed. It creates a natural continuation between the two, and once again both halves are sharing a common trajectory.
A Distracting Bridge)
There is another kind of bridge you can use as a writer, and this is the “distracting bridge.” In this one you want to join two scenes that don’t naturally fit together. The second scene isn’t such a natural continuation of the first, but you want to move to it quickly without coming to a cold stop in-between.
I wanted to do this exact thing in my first entry for Power Suit Racing. Taki had his heart broken by Rhuni, and then I needed him to appear in the underbelly of the city next to the racing circuit. I needed a way to connect the two scenes, and so I decided to craft a bridge that flowed from the first scene, twisted round, and then connected with the second.
So what did I do? Taki leaves Rhuni and begins wallowing in self-pity. This is the first bridge, and the reader is seamlessly transitioned from the actual conversation to his thoughts about that conversation. He starts wondering what is left for him in life now that all of his dreams are gone.
At this point the twist occurs. His thoughts take a subtle sidestep into reflecting about his finances. This is still related, because he is wondering what to do with all of the money he had been saving up for his future with Rhuni. Now that the question of what to spend his wealth on has been raised, though, we are able to touch down with our second scene. He hears a street vendor offering competitive prices on a Power Suit, and he comes out of his reverie to pursue his new future.
Sometimes your character is going to naturally come across a mire of unimportance. The next meaningful moment is coming up soon, but you need to get the reader through an idle moment on the way there. It is at these points you use the “distracting bridge.” It’s a magic trick where you wave one hand to capture their attention, and then use the other to stuff the rabbit into the hat.
Not a Transition At All)
This other trick of the trade is so obvious it’s easy to overlook. This is when you don’t need a seamless transition. It’s the full stop, fade to black, forget-about-this-last-scene-and-get-ready-for-the-next. For that the process is simple: just finish the chapter and start a next one. Reader’s have learned to see these large breakpoints as a signal to let go of their current context and start the next area fresh. It’s completely second-nature.
Every now and then it is import for an author to pause and review the fundamentals of storytelling. No matter how good your ideas are, you still need to know enough of the technical details to bring them to life. Management of time and place is one of those techniques that is one of the easiest to overlook because it is so ubiquitous. In fact you’re already doing it whether you were consciously aware of it or not. Usually the first time you realize that you were doing it is when you find that you were doing it wrong.
A movie could be comprised of the most phenomenal writing, acting, and filming, but if the man in the editing room doesn’t know how to weave these elements into a smooth and cohesive whole then the entire thing comes apart. Make sure that once every so often you don your own editor’s cap to ensure that your own transitions between time and space are both intentional and comfortable.
In my next post I’ll be publishing the last section of Power Suit Racing. It will open with a simple conversation in a single setting. That conversation and a second begins, which remain in the forefront while the characters walk to a different location, creating a seamless transition of space to a second setting. That conversation will end on a particularly charged note, one that will create an emotional and physical trajectory that carries clear through the last scene to the end of the story. See if you can pick out those moments when I publish the piece on Thursday, and until then have a wonderful time!