You’re writing a story in first person and you stumble onto a section where nothing much happens. You can’t help it; you want your story to be realistic, and in real life we have plenty of dull moments.
There is nothing else you can do to fill this time period—it needs to happen, but if you write it then you could possibly run the risk of losing the interest of your reader.
The question you now face is: Should you skip a section of time in your story?
Skips in time can be common when writing in third-person, perhaps in the seamless switches between multiple characters, or where a story spans a large expanse of years and it’s justifiable to skip a decade or two.
Time skipping gets tricky when writing in first-person, though, because you want your target reader to walk in the shoes of your main character and truly live their experiences with them through the duration of the plot. If you skip a moment or two in time here, you risk disconnecting your reader from your main character.
I first encountered this issue at a writers’ group years ago. I had brought a section of my novel for the five present writers to critique. In the section I had, without any thought, randomly skipped four weeks in time with the chapter beginning something such as: ‘Four weeks had passed since I’d found it.’
Four of the writers didn’t even mention this time skip, either because it didn’t personally bother them, or maybe they hadn’t connected with the section fully enough for it to be jarring. The fifth writer told me, very politely, that they didn’t like first-person perspectives with missing time, and I could see from their uncomfortable expression that it had ruined the entire section of the story for them.
If jumping forward isn’t an issue for you, then you can just jump. However, if you do need to skip forward, yet you do not want to break the ‘real-time’ feel of the novel, what are the options when you need to skip time?
Well, there are actually many, and a very good way of experiencing a variety for yourself is through reading successful novels in a hearty mix of genres, to give yourself a wide perspective of options and how they work.
As a starting point, I have looked at a six commonly-utilised methods.
1. Use structure reassuringly
If the moments you need to skip are frequent, utilise chapter breaks as routine markings. A reader will see a time-skip coming, because it happens with every new chapter and they have gotten used to it. Try to keep these time skips of similar length, so they form a sort of predictable pattern for the reader to follow. They have accepted this and will be prepared for it, and any disconnection from the plot resulting from the time skips will be avoided through predictability.
The downside to this method is that predictability can often lead to bored readers who may lose interest, so you need to keep anticipation building in other parts of the story to counteract this. Also, readers often quite enjoy a cliff-hanger chapter ending where they uncontrollably need to read the next chapter to find out what happens. This can still be achieved with skips in time, as the result of what happens might not be instant, but it does lose some of its power in keeping a reader’s attention.
2. A black-out
Take the main character’s consciousness out of the equation through some cause such as drugs, illness, or even just sleeping. Time can be skipped, but since the main character is missing out on this section of time too, the reader will not feel cheated.
Be somewhat wary as this can feel like an easy option, so it isn’t too advisable unless it’s absolutely necessary or done in a very clever way. Some writers use this method poorly, with characters being knocked unconscious or fainting—either of these would cause a maximum of a few minutes lost, most likely considerably less, as extended unconsciousness from either would bring about severe complications and medical risks. Even when done well, unless the cause of the black-outs is integral to the ongoing plot, you should only use this time-skipping method once in a story to prevent it from feeling like a cheat.
3. A partial black-out
An alternative and more creative technique to the previous one is for your character to only have flickers of imagery during partial consciousness, or by obscuring one or more of the senses. Your story is still going, and both your main character and reader are part of it—if only in a very detached way—through glimmers and glitches of detail. As some senses may be impeded, so don’t forget to include others to help a reader piece these fragments of information together, such as touch and smell. Since this fragmented information is being gathered by the character, but likely not processed by their brain into anything understandable due to their condition, it can be written quickly with only partial, fleeting detail. This can work as a great way of getting a reader further invested in a story, by only giving them breadcrumbs of information and making them use their own knowledge and imagination to work out what might actually be happening, and what could possibly be a side-effect of the injury or drugs taken by the main character, or even simply your character being blindfolded.
This technique can make the reader work hard and feel more engaged with the plot, but with all reader interaction techniques to help them feel engaged, don’t overwork them, or you could lose them.
4. Lose the detail
Write this uneventful part very vaguely, skimming over details while still keeping your reader in on exactly what is happening to the main character.
This still runs the risk of feeling a tad dull, and the longer the time period being skipped, the more like a montage it becomes. That’s not to say it can’t work, but it needs to be creatively and cleverly approached.
5. Checking in
I didn’t want to call this technique ‘diary extracts’ as that can come across somewhat quaint or childlike, but that is pretty much the gist of it, though if used correctly it need not be in anyway obvious or tacky.
Imagine your character reflects on events once each day. These events are still sudden, still imminent, because your character isn’t reflecting back years, but only hours. They are reflecting on their current, or near current, situation. This will allow for short sections to forgivably skip over time, with lines such as ‘This morning I woke to…’ or ‘last night I…’ and a brief summary of recent events, before more plot-important moments can be delved into.
6. Embrace the dullness
You could try to actually write the uneventful section you wish to skip over, but do it in a robotic or repetitive way. Leave out the detail and try to contain everything in just a few sentences, or even one very long sentence that runs on forever as with the dull things that keep happen.
Repeat this method every time you want to skip in the same way, or even shorter and shorter as these dull moments happen again and again and become mere lists of actions and objects. Really emphasise this dullness to highlight to monotonous everyday life of the character.
There is no easy answer to the issue of needing to skip over uneventful but unavoidable moments in your story, but two things do seem to stand out as points to consider and weigh up as you try to conquer the issue. The first is the length of time you wish to skip, and the second is your target reader, and more specifically what they do and do not find acceptable.
The main thing to remember is to be open-minded and flexible to a variety of techniques, and try plenty out on proof-readers who you believe are within your target readership. See which techniques raise red flags, and which read seamlessly and naturally through, and once you find a method that works for you—and you feel confident in—then use it.
© 2019 RebeccaDelphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.