I have been seeing a lot of issues around the passage of time in the fiction I have been coaching. It isn’t the content that’s the problem. The problem has to do with the way time loops around on itself in an illogical way.
Before I explain, let me say that time looping around on itself is a completely and totally different thing than a character going back in time to draw on an incident or memory from their past to make sense of their present. That’s backstory, or flashback, and you want that in your story.
In real life, our minds are constantly pinging around in time as we work to figure things out – pinging back to second grade, back to tenth grade, back to when we were twenty, that time in Denver with our Dad. In other words, the way we experience time in real life is not strictly chronological. Our brains are all over the place as we recall things and remember things, all in service of making sense of what is happening.
For your characters to feel 3D and real and alive, they need to remember and recall and process events the way real people do – pinging back in time then forward to story present. Jumping around time within the moments unfolding in story present, however, is confusing for the reader.
Those little time loops tend to look like this:
- We are going along with X action.
- Then suddenly we loop back to a A FEW MOMENTS BEFORE X action to learn some small nugget of information.
- Then we jump forward and proceed with X action where we left off.
The reason this is a problem is that it’s very hard on the reader. When time loops like that, we feel like we are being yanked around, and we are forced to think too hard – and not about the things we WANT to think about, like what’s going to happen or why people are doing what they are doing. We are forced, instead, to think about where characters are in time and space – to figure out the logistics. And it’s frustrating.
Let’s break down the time loop in one of Abby Mathew’s scenes (Abby is my co-host on the MomWrites podcast – thanks for sharing your work in progress, Abby!) You can learn how to spot the time loop – and then we can look at her revision to learn how to fix it.
Abby is writing middle grade fiction. The main action of this scene is the main character, Bernadette, having her first kiss with a boy while watching a movie at his house. The scene that follows has the boy’s mom driving Bernadette home (where she is trying to solve a mystery related to her dad, John Thorpe, and to the book Wuthering Heights):
Bernadette looked back at Logan, and saw he was watching the kissing scene, too. Before she could lose her nerve, she reached up and touched Logan’s cheek. He turned to her and just like the movie, their faces were inches from each other. Bernadette leaned in closer, and as their lips touched, she closed her eyes.
That moment someone flipped on the lights. The brightness assaulted their senses, and both of them sat back and covered their eyes.
“I don’t know that the two of you are ready for Wuthering Heights,” Mrs. Brock chuckled. “Maybe it’s time to take Bernadette home.”
Bernadette was thankful that she had left every light in the Thorpe house turned on. Being alone had unnerved her, so the house had been lit up like a Christmas tree since John Thorpe and Miss Amelia disappeared into their books. Conveniently, it made it look as if her father was home and Mrs. Brock didn’t ask any questions about Mr. Thorpe’s whereabouts. Mrs. Brock had driven Bernadette home with the promise that Logan could ride her bike back in the morning, and his mom had also agreed he could stay for the day.
Logan walked Bernadette to her front door, where they stood for a moment. Bernadette felt an odd mixture of embarrassment and happiness… and worry.
Do you see that time loop? The scene goes from the den at Logan’s house to Bernadette’s house, back in time to Logan’s mom’s car, then forward in time to Bernadette’s house.
The solution is to always make sure you are writing in a straightforward chronological way in story present. The clue that you have strayed from that path is often an info dump – the lines about Mrs. Brock and Logan and the bike just plop info down on the reader, and we don’t like that. We want to be present as the story unfolds.
The car ride is a great opportunity for Abby to let us into her character’s head and let us watch her embarrassment and worry unfold. Smoothing out the time loop, in other words, gives Abby the opportunity to simply write a better scene:
Her whole body laughed along, and Logan joined in, too. They shook the sofa with their laughter, and it felt good. Bernadette was relieved that she wasn’t imagining things, that Logan had wanted to kiss her. And the truth was, it was funny. Bernadette wiped her eyes so she could see Logan better, and decided to just go for it. She reached up and put her arms around his shoulders and kissed him on the lips.
“What’s so funn— whoa,” said Mrs. Brock, flipping on the lights.
Logan and Bernadette jumped to different ends of the sofa, but it was too late. Mrs. Brock definitely saw them kissing.
The car ride home was the worst. Bernadette would have preferred to find her way home in the dark on her bicycle. Instead she sat in the backseat of the Brock’s car, trying to avoid eye contact with Mrs. Brock in the rearview mirror. Bernadette was embarrassed that Mrs. Brock had caught Bernadette kissing her son. At least if she had ridden her bicycle home, the exercise might have helped to work out this angry feeling that was consuming her. It had been her first kiss, and instead of remembering a funny, romantic moment, she would forever remember a humiliating one. She kept her eyes fixed out the window, but she didn’t see the houses or the streetlights. Instead she saw the instant replay of Mrs. Brock’s stupid interruption playing on a five-second loop.
That reading experience is so much smoother for the reader. Since we don’t have to worry about where we are in time and space, we can focus on the story.
The next time you find yourself making a little loop back in time in story present, stop. Ask yourself if the important information is happening off stage – if you are just telling the reader what happened and dumping it in. If so, bring it onstage, in the order in which is actually happened, and let the reader move through time and space with the characters as if we were there.
Jennie has worked in publishing for more than 30 years. She is the author of four novels, three memoirs, and The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat. An instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for 10 years, she is also the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program that offers affordable, customized book coaching so you can write your best book. Find out more about Jennie here, visit her blog, discover the resources and coaching available at her Author Accelerator website, and connect online.