Q&A

Will Readers Feel They Missed Out After a Big Time Jump?

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Hi there!

My story is divided into three parts. The first part takes place during my main character’s younger years. The second part jumps ahead several years. I’m worried that making such a large jump will make the reader feel as though they’ve missed out on a bunch of things. Do you have any advice on how to get around this?

Thanks :0)

-Shane

Hi Shane,

Great question! Whether your time skip will be an issue depends on what happens offscreen between the first part and the second part. Readers won’t care that they didn’t watch your protagonist grow up or live out their normal life. However, they’ll care if you skip past important events that they feel they should have witnessed.

Things I don’t recommend putting between time periods:

  • Any event that has such a big impact on the main character that their personality changes or it otherwise shapes who they are. If they slowly change over time, you could show some instigators of that change and then make your time jump, as long as the slow change in personality is predictable and readers understand how it happened. For instance, a naïve character could have an event that takes some of their innocence away, and then you can jump to the future after more stuff like that happened and they are completely disillusioned.
  • Any event that will be frequently alluded to because it’s relevant to what happens in the later time period. If it’s alluded to just for laughs, that’s fine.

For instance, if a parent dies between time periods because of a normal illness or accident, and the protagonist grieved per normal for a while and then recovered, it’s fine if that happens offscreen. But if the parent dies under mysterious plot-relevant circumstances and the main character thinks the death is their fault, you definitely want to show that in a scene instead skipping past it.

Most of all, don’t use the time jump to leave an important part of the main character’s experience mysterious so you can reveal it later. The point of a main character is to give readers someone to bond with, and for that to work, they need to understand where your character is coming from. As fun as reveals can be, a reveal would do more harm than good in this instance.

So overall, the best way to avoid readers feeling like they missed out is simply not to skip over anything they’d miss.

Best wishes,

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I agree with Chris there, both as a reader and as a writer.

    As long as things which happen between the parts of your story are not really relevant to the story (the character growing up, regular things which happen in life), you can mention them in passing later or just presume they’ve happened. But everything which has an impact on either the plot, the character, or both needs to be in the story. If a parent dies under mysterious circumstances, if the family is exiled by the new, evil king, if the character has a severe accident and is rebuilt as a cyborg – those are things the reader should learn about directly, not by having it mentioned like “Remember when you had that accident and they had to give you all those cybernetic parts?”

    Things like how your character went to school or moved to another city (unless any of it is plot relevant) can just be mentioned.

    • Leon

      Is there a limit on how many time jumps?
      I think i have five.

      • Cay Reet

        I think as long as the plot is still developing as it should, the number of time jumps doesn’t matter. One of my novel has about 14 time jumps (albeit by around a year each) and still works out well.

  2. Adam Reynolds

    I would say that it is probably better not to feature the time before the skip, unless it is critically important. As a broad rule, stories should start as late as possible.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yeah, it’s pretty likely the earlier time should be cut. But that depends on information Shane didn’t give me, so I focused on what he asked.

  3. Innocent Bystander

    That first one is one of many reasons I don’t like Catwoman: Soulstealer. It went from Selina Kyle being a girl just trying to survive and take care of her younger sister to a confident and ruthless woman who is competent at everything. I felt cheated; I wanted to read about what happened to her and molded her into the person she became.

  4. Runewritten

    ‘Windhaven’ by Tuttle and Martin is the most egregious example I can think of in terms of time jumps. I guess the sections of the book were written as separate novellas and later compiled, so that’s why it’s structured as such, but… it makes for a frustrating read.
    Each portion ends with a moment of glory for the main character with life-changing consequences, only for the next portion to pick up years later AFTER she’s had her adventures, and there’s a sense we’ve skipped from the inciting incident straight to the denouement with no climax in sight.
    This isn’t so bad in ‘character study’ type stories, and indeed Windhaven feels like it wants to be, but the first portion/novella really set it up for a world-changing epic that never came to be. You could argue that’s the point of the stories as Maris’ radical idealism softens with each chapter of her life, but I still felt robbed as a reader.
    So I’d say if you do time jumps, achieve two things aside from what’s already mentioned:
    1) Deliver on the type of story you’ve promised during the first portion. If there’s a murder mystery in their youth, I would hope as an adult they’re either dealing with an extension of that mystery or a higher-stakes callback to it. If that’s not the case, the shifts in tone risk alienating the reader. You could pull it off, but it’d be tough.
    2) Make sure each chapter of their life survives as it’s own story arc. If I reach what feels like the start of the story’s rising action only for it to skip past the climax and into a new setup with an entirely new premise, I’ll feel lost and robbed. I don’t want to hear about the BIG EVENT that happened in-between through casual asides and vague memories when I expected to follow the character there.
    I really wanted to like Windhaven

  5. Innes

    With this question I immediately thought about Stephen King’s IT, where the time skips between the protagonists’ childhoods and their adulthood. It makes sense and is satisfying because the plot (pennywise) only appears in these two moments, not between them. Would it help to think of a time skip as a jump between plot points?

  6. Will of the West

    I think a great example of how to do it right is during the first part of ‘Lirael’ by Garth Nix. A gap of 5 years plays out without witness between Lirael meeting the Disreputable Dog and the events of her 19th birthday. The period allows for her to grow as a character, losing a lot of her shyness and gaining a self-confidence and bravery. It also allows a stronger bond between her and the Disreputable Dog, hinting at things that have happened without the reader feeling like they have missed out on an essential part of the story.

    One of the key things here is that I still feel like I would have enjoyed the part of the story that we didn’t see happening but I know that it wasn’t integral to what was to come.

  7. Candlewitch

    The reader will probably only feel like they’ve missed out on something if the context of the changes post-jump aren’t obvious. If you’ve watched the first season of Sword Art Online, you might recall how often scenery would change or characters were added (or removed) without context.

    While I eventually got used to the series’ frequent and unexplained time jumps, it was nevertheless jarring for the protagonist to defer to characters I’d never seen before as close allies with a history between them. #WhatNotToDo haha.

    On the flipside, readers may not care too much about months spent training, traveling, hiding, or waiting. Those things can usually be glossed over with a time jump or two, while the results of that training etc, can be shown in the subsequent chapter — the earlier the better!

  8. Shane

    Thanks everyone! There’s some really great points here. I will say that my story probably doesn’t really start until the second half of the book, but there are certain moments and relationships from my characters childhood that impact the rest of the story. I’m not sure how to depict this without relying on flashbacks and things like that.

    • Shane

      Sorry, I mean second third

  9. E. H.

    If I find the setting interesting in itself, I love time jumps. If the characters and immediate scenario is all that draws me to the story, then no.

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