No matter the medium, every storyteller has to be selective about which events the audience will experience and which will be summarized or simply left out. This is particularly true for stories that take place over long time periods. Leaving out important events will frustrate audiences, whereas putting in unimportant ones will bore them. So how do you know which events in your fictional timeline should be a real-time scene?
Highlighting What’s Important to Your Story
Before we get to specific rules about what qualifies for a scene, you need to know which story elements are central.
For many writers, the story is still in flux when drafting starts. If this is the case for you, just make your best guess. After you’ve finished your first draft, revisiting this question will help you identify scenes to add or remove.
For our purposes, important elements are:
- Your throughline, as always, and any child arcs for it
- Characters with enough agency to affect the throughline
- Character arcs for those characters
- Relationship arcs for those characters
- Significant subplots like mysteries that are revealed
To set the right expectations with your audience, you generally want all of these elements to appear in a scene during the first third of your story. The most important elements should be introduced first. Your main character is ideally introduced in scene one, whereas a minor character might not be introduced until a third of the way in.
An exception to this rule is the primary villain. In some cases you don’t want the audience to meet them before the end. However, the audience should still know about their existence and feel their influence on the story early.
If you will be introducing a protagonist late, mentioning them ahead can help set expectations. However, keep in mind that the longer you mention a named character without depicting them, the bigger the payoff the audience will expect once that character shows up. If you talk about a side character for most of your book and only show them in the last third, the audience will be disappointed if some big reveal doesn’t come along with it.
To keep your story consolidated, it’s better if you don’t add scenes for the sole purpose of introducing a lesser protagonist or subplot. Ideally, secondary elements are introduced while they are interacting with the main character and throughline. However, also consider what they need for a great introduction. If you’ll be adding a secondary protagonist with their own viewpoint, make sure they’re shown in a way that makes them likable. For the most central elements such as the main character, it may be worth adding an extra scene in the beginning to get the audience invested in them.
Once the story is concluded, you may also want additional epilogue scenes for some of your side characters or subplots. Again, it’s better to combine these scenes with one focused on the main character and throughline. However, a longer story justifies a longer epilogue, so with epic-scale stories especially, the audience may appreciate extra wind-down time with all the important characters.
Using the Expected Trend Rule
You know your central elements, and your story covers them over a five-year time span. What parts of your timeline are safe to summarize or skip over?
Most obviously, don’t devote a whole scene to anything that isn’t part of an important story arc. If you have an early scene where your main character has a boyfriend hanging around in the background, but the boyfriend and their relationship aren’t important, then they can break up offscreen. This will only upset your audience if you depict the boyfriend in such a way that they think he’s more central than he is. If that happens, reduce his presence to set the correct expectations.
For anything related to the important arcs of your story, follow the expected trend rule. This means you can summarize or skip past any trend in the story that the audience would expect to continue, as long as it does so at a modest and even pace. However, you’ll still need to start the trend in a scene. Let’s look at a few examples.
- If you have a scene where your protagonist manages to impress their boss at their new job, you can summarize how the protagonist slowly grows more adept and confident at their job over time.
- If you have a scene where your protagonist steals for the first time and gets away with it, you can summarize how they continue to steal, slowly doing it more frequently and stealing bigger items.
- If you have a scene where your protagonist arrives too late to prevent the villain from destroying a space station, you can summarize how five more space stations are destroyed in a similar fashion.
However, once story events deviate from what would be expected, you’ll need to depict a scene for the new event. Those moments of unexpected change are what stories are all about.
- If your protagonist impresses their boss, it would be unexpected if after a couple years, their boss somehow becomes their subordinate. Instead, start the trend by having the protagonist show up their boss. Alternatively, depict another scene where their boss has become resentful of their success, and the two have a showdown that the protagonist wins.
- If your protagonist steals for the first time, it would be unexpected if after a couple years, they were an assassin. Either start them off as a beginning assassin instead, or depict another scene where they transition from being a thief to an assassin.
- If your protagonist arrives too late to stop an antagonist, it would be unexpected if that antagonist now rules the quadrant. Add another scene where the protagonist confronts the antagonist more directly and is soundly defeated.
Recognizing Story Junctures
While the expected trend rule defines what can be skipped over, we can also define what must be depicted in a real-time scene. For that, we’ll simply use basic story structure. In brief, any type of plot arc is defined by:
- the establishment of a problem
- a turning point that determines how or whether that problem is solved
- a resolution that shows the outcome resulting from the turning point
Provided they are part of an important arc, all three of these stages typically justify a scene. That goes double for the turning point, which always justifies a scene. Since stories are fractal, your throughline should have child arcs that repeat these steps throughout the story. However, less important arcs like subplots or secondary characters arcs might only have this structure once.
This doesn’t mean that you’ll have exactly three scenes per arc or child arc. For one thing, you might fit many junctures into the same scene. For another, an arc may be be running in the background of a scene focused on something else. Let’s say you have a scene establishing that your main character is too naive. The scene after that might establish that they are struggling to get passing grades at their magic academy. During that second scene, they could still show signs of being naive. While you don’t need a scene just for that, you also don’t want to create the impression that this character problem disappeared.
Knowing that your story junctures need scenes won’t help you unless you can identify those junctures. Let’s go over some questions you can ask to find the problems, turning points, and resolutions among your story events.
Does it emphasize something negative without solving it?
This is the key sign of a problem being introduced. Going back to our example of an employee gaining more experience, let’s say you have a scene showing the protagonist is having trouble at their new job. That’s a problem or hook. If you just jump a year ahead to when they’re working at their job successfully, you’d be skipping over the turning point and resolution. That’ll make your audience grumpy. On the other hand, if you have a scene where they happen to be at their new job, and they were feeling uncertain but not struggling, that’s probably not opening an arc. You can jump ahead.
Is the protagonist undergoing an intense struggle?
This is one of the key signs of a significant turning point. A struggle means the protagonist is trying to do something that they are likely to fail at.
Of course, every conflict in a story will involve a struggle, and some conflicts can be insignificant enough that you don’t have to include them. For instance, your protagonist might have to convince a bouncer to let them into a club where they face the villain. While the confrontation with the villain is probably essential, the conflict with the bouncer would be an optional child arc.
However, the more intense the struggle is, the more that indicates the turning point is important and needs a scene.
Does it feel like fate is branching off into different paths?
If you find a moment where it feels like events could go in different directions before one path is chosen, that’s another sign of a turning point. A well-formed turning point involves a protagonist whose actions determine the outcome of the arc. Most often, that means they succeed or fail at something. However, they might also have to solve a moral dilemma that feels more neutral. Regardless, the protagonist uses their agency to steer the direction of the story.
Even if the protagonist makes an important decision without any conflict or difficulty, it probably still requires a scene simply so the audience knows why things happen the way they do. It’s unlikely such moments are part of an expected trend.
Does a problem go away?
The elimination of problems is what the resolution is for. That resolution should come after a turning point involving a protagonist. If you introduce a problem that disappears with a casual wave of a hand or mere summary, it will violate audience expectations.
So look for any place a problem ceases to exist. Then figure out if it’s a resolution that comes with a turning point, or if that problem wasn’t important. If it’s not important, de-emphasize it until it doesn’t feel like a hook anymore.
Does a problem reach the point of no return?
This is another indicator of a resolution, but this time in the tragic direction. If at any point a character’s fate is sealed, that should again mean a turning point and a resolution. If an important character dies, their death and the thing that caused it should be in a scene. If the city falls, the moment where that happens and the point where it becomes inevitable should be in a scene.
Does anything leave a lasting emotional impact?
This is a sign that something significant happened, though it could be a problem caused by a traumatic event, a turning point where the character gained confidence from battling demons, or a resolution for good or ill. If you’re jumping forward many years and this event is part of the normal ups and downs of life, it might not be important. Otherwise, it would be unusual to have a big emotional moment during your timeline that isn’t important to your story.
While you might think of your story as something that happens to characters gradually over time, you’ll need to condense those gradual changes down to critical moments. Fleshing out those moments will make your story more immersive and memorable.
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