Over the last 20 years, Ive developed a clear and easy system for showing time skips in writing. In this article, Ill answer everything you need to know about time skips.
Starting with a simple definition, the types of time skips in writing, how they differ from flashbacks, and how to signify them in all your stories.
What Are Time Skips in Writing?
Time skips in writing are when the author jumps ahead or backward in time. Time skips are also called time jumps or time progression/regression. As an author, you can use time skips in short stories, fanfiction, novels, comics, anime, memoirs, and screenplays.
Therefore, you can apply time skips as literary vehicles to manage the pace and progression (or regression) of your story.
You can literally speed up or slow down the reader experience.
With that kind of power, its critical to know how to handle the movement of fictional time.
Time Skips vs. Flashbacks: Are They the Same?
Time skips are different from flashbacks.
A time skip is when the story moves forward or backward in time. A flashback is when the author goes back to an earlier point in time-but only in their memory.
As an example of a flashback, lets say were in a characters point of view.
Lets call the character Eric.
As Eric uncovers a dead body buried in a shallow grave, the glassy eyeball of the corpse sends him reeling back to a past life memory of murdering someone.
Types of Time Skips in Writing
There are several different types of time skips in writing. To use time jumps appropriately, its helpful to understand each type.
Types of time skips:
- Short time skips-Short time skips can be a few minutes, days, weeks, or months.
- Long time skips-Long time skips can be years, decades, or centuries.
- Time skips within time skips-Sometimes an author uses one or more time jumps inside of other time jumps to skip any amount of time.
- Multiple time skips-Some authors use multiple time skips in the same scene, chapter, segment, or story.
Are Time Skips Bad in Writing?
Time skips are not usually bad in writing.
In fact, time skips offer many benefits to writers and readers. The biggest benefit is that time skips make it easier to write a novel.
In contrast, writers who want to show everything that happens during a time span of years would need to write hundreds-or even thousands-of pages describing every minute detail of a characters daily life.
Most of the detail would bore readers to tears.
Time skips allow the author to quickly move the character into a different set of circumstances, location, and time period.
The bottom line: Time skips are only bad if overused, used without reason, or unclear for the reader.
Are Time Skips Lazy Writing?
Some writers, readers, and reviewers consider time skips lazy writing. Couldnt the writer think of a creative workaround?
Personally, I dont think most time skips can fairly be labeled as lazy writing.
The vast majority of time jumps serve a positive purpose in the story. Either to move past boring activities or facilitate a faster pace in the narrative.
Of course, that doesnt mean time skips never come across as lazy.
When I read a story that blurs past plot holes, plot complications, or plot action, I worry that the time skip is a convenient device to avoid difficult writing.
Why Do People Hate Time Skips So Much?
If time skips are not bad or lazy, then why do some people vehemently hate them?
Its probably because time skips are easy to abuse.
When a writer is not careful, time jumps can:
- Jar readers out of the story
- Confuse readers
- Frustrate readers
Those three outcomes are the opposite of what most authors want.
When writers dont handle time skips well, readers might quit the current story and not feel motivated to read any future story the author writes, either.
Some readers also consider time skips amateurish.
They think time skips mark writers as beginners who use literary shortcuts.
I dont agree with these assessments at all, but this belief does help explain the vitriol that a subset of readers feels toward the topic.
How Do Time Skips Impact Writing?
Time skips impact writing by either accelerating or decelerating pacing, which is the speed at which events unfold within your story.
As a result, time skips either give the reader more information than they would have had otherwise, or they obscure crucial elements of the plot.
For example, most fantasy book series engage multiple long time skips.
In each book, the author jumps through decades at a time-sometimes in single chapters.
This is done to showcase the changes that take place while some characters are away from their hometowns and families. It also gives the story a larger, more epic scope.
What Is the Purpose of Time Skips in Writing?
The best way to apply narrative devices is intentionally (never by default).
That means you must deeply understand the purpose of the device. Time skips serve important purposes in your story.
Lets go over the purpose of short and long time skips in writing.
As a writer, you have more freedom with time skips that are hours or days apart. Use these to change the mood of the story, introduce new settings, develop character relationships, give more details on actions, or expand on a single short period in time.
Time skips that are weeks or months apart can be used for dramatic purposes, such as revealing the results of a major event. Or they might introduce a new character to the story or pick up where you left off with an ongoing conflict.
As long as your time skips are purposeful and help move your story along, youre golden.
Time Skips: How Much Is Too Much?
As a writer, Im always conscious of how many times I use any specific literary device.
Too much of any device is detrimental to the story.
That brings up the question, how many time skips are too much in a story?
As a general rule of thumb, limit time skips as much as possible. Most stories narrate the most exciting or important slice of a characters life (at least up to that point).
If you find yourself constantly skipping time, it could mean:
- Youve chosen the wrong segment of a characters life (usually, a less engaging segment)
- Youve selected the wrong point of view (POV) character (one with less motivation, takes, and conflict)
For these reasons, Id shoot for fewer time skips in writing, rather than more.
Then, again, it depends on your story.
If your story covers a decade or more, youll use more time skips than if your story covers only 24 hours.
If your story involves time travel, then time skips will be built integrally into the plot.
I do think its possible for a story to use multiple time skips within the same scene or chapter, but I rarely see it done well.
To some extent, all stories use time skips to avoid boring stuff.
That means your characters eating food, using the toilet, sleeping, going from point A to point B, etc. Sure, a talented author can make each of these boring activities very interesting to readers.
But, even bestselling authors regularly skip these boring scenes.
Anything flat, normal, bland, or boring should be skipped. Anything not related to the plot or subplots should be skipped.
Boring your readers is a fast-track to failure.
How To Write Short Time Skips
Small or short time jumps occur over minutes, hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months.
You write small time skips by showing a characters activity between one major event and the next.
For example: When we finally reached our castle, I let go of my mother and turned to face her. This one sentence might cover multiple hours, days, weeks, or months of travel.
The key to any time of time skip is transitional words, phrases, and sentences.
Example transitions for short time skips:
- Thirty minutes later…
- When it was time…
- A few weeks passed…
- The next morning….
- As soon as…
- By the time…
- Before she knew it…
- The train pulled into the station…
- One month later…
- For several days…
- The next few months went by quickly…
This is simply an assortment of transitional words and phrases-there are many more options.
Some phrases and transitional words can be used interchangeably. For example, you could say: The next morning, we left, or The morning we left, we packed our belongings and headed out.
Id use whichever transitional phrase you prefer.
Also, consider what transitional words you inserted in other parts of your story. Try to vary the phrasing and type.
Along with a transitional word or phrase, most authors summarize any important action between the time skip.
Heres an example:
We journeyed through the mountains for months. The grueling weight of my backpack was the worst of it. Several times, the load forced me to stop overnight, exposed to the elements and hungry bugs. By the time we reached our new homeland, I was exhausted.
Heres a good video about how and why to time jump:
How To Write Long Time Skips
Long-time jumps happen over months, years, and decades.
They can even involve past lives and generational time travel.
You write long time skips with transitions paired with summary paragraphs or pages. The more time that has passed, the more explanation is typically necessary.
Most of the time, I would keep summarizing to 1-3 succinct paragraphs.
Transitional words and phrases for long time skips:
- Ten years later…
- Fifty years earlier….
- Two hundred years after…
- Back then…
- In those days….
- Up ahead lay a great…
- After a long time….
- During that era…
- Present day….
- Time passed slowly for everyone involved…
- At age…
Again, this is an example list. Many more transitional words exist to help you with time skips in writing.
I highly suggest that you keep a journal of the way your favorite authors signify time changes.
How Long Should Time Jumps Be?
Time jumps should be as long as necessary, and as short as possible.
When fast-forwarding through a story, jump from one exciting or story-related scene to another. Skip as much time as you need to get past boring or irrelevant periods.
In some stories, that might be a few hours. In other stories, it might be a few centuries.
There is no hard-and-fast rule for the perfect length of a time jump.
The best way to determine the length is to read your story and if it flows well, keep it. If you experience any trouble with pacing, or if your story drags, expand or shorten the jump.
And dont skip anything plot-related a reader would want to read-escapes, chases, arguments, twists, revelations, fights, deaths, etc.
How To Write Time Skips in Your Story
When writing time jumps, consider how it affects each of the characters in your story.
This will help you understand their awareness and sensitivity to time progression or regression.
Consider how the time skip impacts character growth, character relationships, the conflict of the story, and the consequences of the story.
Follow these steps to write time skips:
- Understand the purpose of your time skip
- Choose the length of your time skip (short or long)
- Select when to use your time skip
- Pick a transitional word or phrase
- Quickly orient the reader
- Summarize important details during the time skip
- Re-read your time skip (and possibly read it out loud)
How To Handle Multiple Time Skips?
In some stories, youll want to include several time skips in a scene or chapter.
Depending on the length of each time skip, consider breaking them into their own scenes or chapters.
If your time skips are only a few hours apart, you might want to combine them into one scene and add transitional words and phrases between them (like weeks later or months later).
This way, you dont risk confusing or losing the readers attention with too many time jumps.
If your time skips are years apart, consider breaking each one into a separate chapter.
Ive written several stories with multiple time skips in a single chapter.
For example, my story, The Four Things She Carried, includes time skips between four different scenes in the same chapter.
When Should You Time Skip in a Story?
Time skips are usually used at the beginning or end of a section, scene, or chapter. Rarely do professional authors time jump in the middle of a scene.
This is usually because it interrupts the flow of the scene or disrupts suspense.
Time jumps are common at chapter breaks, but occasionally authors will time jump at the beginning of a new section in the same chapter.
Examples of time skips at the end of a chapter:
- She wouldnt see him again for ten years.
- He closed his eyes and hoped for the best as the anesthetic put him under.
- I disappeared from view as I ducked behind a large rock. I stayed hidden until nightfall.
- He ran as fast as he could toward home, praying that no one would see him. Thats the last anyone heard from him for three years.
Examples of time jumps at the beginning of a chapter:
- He woke to find himself two hundred years in the future.
- Later that night, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath before climbing the stairs to face him.
- That fall, he spotted her across the coutyard.
How Many Time Skips Can Be in a Chapter?
You can have as many time skips as you want in a chapter.
There are no rules. No time jump police will knock down your door. As long as youre not confusing the reader or losing momentum, go for it.
Ive read stories with multiple time skips separated by only a few minutes or hours that worked well together.
On the other hand, Ive read stories where each time skip was years apart and it got very confusing.
The key is to make sure your story is making sense and moving forward (even if you are going back in time).
How Do You Write Time Skips Without Confusing the Reader?
A good way to keep your reader from getting confused is to always include a transition sentence when you start a new time skip.
Another best practice is to orient the reader as soon as possible.
You can orient readers with:
- Summary narration
- Inner monolouge (thoughts/feelings)
You could have one character say, Wow, youre a sight for sore eyes. Another could reply, Ten years does that to an old man.
How To Describe Time Passing Fast in Writing (Good Example)
When you want to speed up time in your writing, use word choice, sentence length, and punctuation to affect pacing.
Combine these methods with time skips.
Here is what I mean: Use shorter, punchier words instead of long, five-dollar words. In the same vein, use shorter sentence length and lots of periods.
A series of short sentences will read faster and more action-oriented.
You can also use longer sentences packed with commas and short phrases that lead the reader down the page. This also reads fast.
Take this sentence: The mailman walked up to the door and handed my mother the stack of letters.
And change it to this: The mailman delivered envelopes to my mother. She rifled through them, ripped one open, scanned it, and groaned before tossing it into the trash can. I frowned and made a mental note to check the trash later when she wasnt looking. An hour later, when she turned in for the night, I got my chance.
The second version gives the reader more action, which reads faster than the first version.
How To Describe Slow Motion in Writing (Helpful Advice)
To describe slow motion in writing, use long sentences with few periods and a fixation on a single object.
By fixation, I mean give the reader a lot of details about it.
Dont be afraid to repeat the sentence or phrase in which you describe whats happening. When used with intention, repetition can emphasize a point while slowing time skips.
Use this: The baby crawled across the old wooden floor. Each tiny tug of muscles propelled her closer. Her diaper crinkled like old plastic. Once there, the baby pulled herself up and, wobbling, found the large wooden door. With some effort, she tugged and tugged on it, wailing when it wouldnt open.
Instead of this: The baby crawled over to the door. She pushed herself up and tried to open it, but she wasnt quite tall enough yet. So she wailed for fifteen minutes before finally crawling away.
How Do You Transition Between Days in Writing?
Its easy to transition between days in writing. You just have to mention the day change in the story.
You can simply say, the next day, or in the morning.
A simple phrase marking time is enough. But you can also show a subtle change through description.
Heres an example:
Saturday morning dawned bright and early. I woke up stiff from an awkward sleep position, but a smile spread across my face anyway. It was my birthday, after all. We had plans to go out with some friends for dinner and drinks tonight.
How To Do Time Skips in Comics
When writing comics, you show time skips by having your characters enter or exit the panel.
Its simple, but it works.
If youre writing a longer comic, consider dividing time changes into two or three panels.
This makes it easier for the reader to follow along.
Time skips in comics are also shown with images like the sun setting and coming up, seasons changing, or switching locations.
How To Write Time Skips in a Memoir
You can write time skips in a memoir by labeling them and then describing the events.
For example, you could say: Two weeks passed and I was still in the hospital (time skip) when my doctor told me we were ready to take out the breathing tube (description of event).
You can also include the date or year at the beginning of each chapter.
How To Put Time Jumps in an Essay
You can also do time skips in an essay.
For example, you could say: After my first date with Becky, I decided to ask her out.
Then, A year later… or, When we graduated high school, we said goodbye and went our separate ways.
Other methods of transitioning in essays include using a specific person, place, or event to lead into the next part of your essay.
For example, you could say: The future President met someone who changed his life forever. Then in the next sentence, mention this persons name or describe them without saying their name.
How To Handle Time Jumps in First Person Present Tense?
You might be curious about using time skips in special circumstances.
Such as when writing in the first person present tense. The way you show the progress of time is by mentioning your present-tense experience of a date, time, location, or event.
For example, Today is my eighteenth birthday party! Im finally an adult.
Then later in the narrative, I cant believe its already been two years since that day.
How To Write a Personal Narrative With Time Jumps
When writing a personal narrative, you apply the same time jump techniques mentioned elsewhere in this article.
Use transitional words and phrases, punctuation, sentence structure, and naming times and dates. With personal narratives, you probably want to include your personal thoughts and feelings about the time changes.
You could write: Its been six months since Ive fallen in love with Paris. The cobblestone streets, the flower stands, and even the trash cans make it a beautiful paradise.
Then later: Now that were finally back in the city of love, my heart aches for those romantic streets.
How To Avoid Time Jumps in a Story
Is it possible to write a story without any time jumps? The short answer is, yes.
The difficulty is describing every passing moment in real-time. I would only choose this approach when my story captured a single experience, like a wedding or battle.
Youll want to shrink the timeframe of the story to a fraction.
In other words, only cover the most engaging day or few hours.
Time Skip Symbol
The most common time skip symbol is a series of three periods, centered on the page.
It looks like this:
Typically, you use this time skip symbol in the middle of chapters in a novel or book. You can also use it in the middle of a short story or piece of fanfiction.
In screenplays, the easiest method to jump time is to utilize a new scene heading or a secondary slug.
A typical slug might be LATER. You may still need to visually show how the different time periods will be represented on the screen since your scene heading and slug is only visible to the script reader.
Final Thoughts: How To Show Time Skips in Writing
The biggest mistake I see with time skips in writing is not properly orienting the reader after the time change.
Always ground the reader in the POV, time, and location.
Do this in the first one or two sentences of a new section, scene, or chapter.