How to Effectively Handle Time Shifts in Your Story

Time Shift
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Note from Jane: This post is an excerpt from The Mind of Your Story by Lisa Lenard-Cook.

Everything that happens in your fiction should occur at the moment when it will evoke the greatest response from a reader. This means that even if your fiction’s timeframe begins at point A and then moves forward till it ends at point B, the story doesn’t need to progress lineally. Instead, your story should move forward emotionally, building momentum toward its climax.

Yes, scene A may have occurred in time before scene B, but your fiction may achieve far more emotional impact if scene A occurs after scene B. In other words, the placement of each scene must be relevant to its emotional impact in the mind of your story.

Consider any story by Alice Munro and you will see what I mean. Munro begins almost all of her stories in a particular moment that takes place long before or after its primary timeframe. She then moves back and forth in her story’s mind until she arrives at another particular moment, also often long before or after the story’s primary timeframe.

The climactic moment of a fiction affects not only that moment but every moment that came before and all that will come after. Like a stone dropped into a pond, it ripples outward. Nothing is the same once the climax has occurred. It’s the largest kairos—moment in emotional time—in a fiction.

Remember that your main goal is to keep your fiction moving ever forward. Sometimes, however, the best kairos occurs in a character’s—and the fiction’s—past or future. It’s at these moments that we go back or forward in time, either via a flashback or a time shift. The key is to ensure each time shift occurs at the right moment in your fiction.

A character’s past and future are always relevant to her present. Not only are we products of everything that has gone before in our lives, but our hopes and dreams for the future affect what we do now as well. And just as certain parts of our own lives are more relevant at one moment than another, the moments of our characters’ pasts and futures must be relevant to the moments in which we reveal them. In other words, the time shift you choose to reveal must color your fiction in some important way at the moment you reveal it.

This means that a number of questions will come into play whenever you think it’s appropriate to move around in time. Let’s look at each of them individually.

1. When Is a Time Shift Appropriate?

As any agent or editor will tell you, it’s best to get your story’s “present” going at a good pace before you slip into its past. One of the errors I often see in early drafts of novels is a time shift in the first five pages. A good rule of thumb is to get at least one-tenth into your narrative before you begin going back in time. In a 75,000-word novel, this would translate to 7,500 words, well into your story’s present narrative. The main reason for this is so that readers become emotionally invested in your protagonist, but it’s also important to make sure your readers feel thoroughly grounded in time and place before moving them off somewhere.

This said, time shifts can occur anywhere throughout a fiction. Just don’t drop into flashback arbitrarily, because there doesn’t seem anything better to do at the moment. This leads to the next question:

2. Why This Time Shift Now?

You can’t shift time simply because there doesn’t seem to be anything going on in your fiction’s present. As I said above, the past you choose to reveal must color your fiction in some important way, but more than this, it must color your fiction at this moment in its telling in some important way. This particular flashback must matter now, at this particular moment.

As an illustration, I had a great deal of fun moving back and forth in time in my short story, “Men on White Horses.” In the passage that follows, I move from a photographic display on the protagonist’s refrigerator directly back in time to her childhood:

The front of the nonworking refrigerator serves as impromptu photo display. Here are Franny’s grown daughters, Leslie and Marie, and here’s her sister Frieda, pretending she’s about to fly off the Whirlpool Trail. They could hike that trail in their sleep, and in her dreams Franny still does, the sheer drop down to the swirling water below never signifying danger as it ought to but instead something familiar and true.

Their father told them that when he’d been a boy, he sometimes found arrowheads along the trail. Animals—deer and wolves, he said—had made the trail down to the river, and then the Indians, stalking the animals, widened it with their stealthy footsteps. Now, us, he said. We’re followers, not pathmakers. Listen. Pay attention. Sooner or later, you’ll find an arrowhead of your own.

Franny strained to pay attention. She reminded herself to pay attention. And yet when something unexpected happened it always surprised her. Like that time Frieda had suddenly shoved her against the sheer wall along the trail …

Look at how many different moments from Franny’s past occur in these two and a half paragraphs. There’s the story’s present (in present tense, in this case). There are Franny and her sister Frieda, hiking the Whirlpool Trail as girls. There are things their father said to them, then two sentences in the narrative present (in past tense) before a shift back to a specific moment when Franny and Frieda were hiking the trail. For Franny, who at this moment in her life is still surprised by the unexpected and is still seeking her own “arrowhead,” each of these past moments colors her present in a significant way. And for the story, each moment heightens the kairos precisely as I want it to.

3. Is This Time Shift for Me or for My Reader?

When we know as much as we do about our characters, it’s tempting to try to squeeze it all into the fiction. But many of the things we know simply don’t matter to the fiction we’re telling. No matter how interesting an episode from a character’s past may be, if it doesn’t color the current story in some important way, it’s likely there for you rather than for your reader.

4. Does the Story Need This Particular Time Shift?

This same rule holds true for time shifts that do nothing to move your narrative forward. Extraneous information is extraneous whether it occurs in the past or present of a fiction. Remember, the most important purpose of a time shift is to keep your fiction moving along while revealing something from your character’s past that colors his present in some significant way. You’ve got to be utterly ruthless about weeding out unnecessary time shifts. If a reader says, “That’s interesting, but what’s it got to do with what’s going on now?” chances are that time shift isn’t needed.

5. Do I Need a Time Shift That’s Not Yet Here?

Finally, you need to consider what’s missing. Is there some crucial scene that you’ve not yet shown?

Exercise: Time Management

Look at a fiction you love and have read a number of times. (If you haven’t read a fiction you love more than once, now is the time to acquire that practice. It’s part of learning to read as a writer.) You should be familiar enough with this fiction that you can answer the following questions either from memory or by simply flipping quickly through its pages.

  1. Where in time does it begin?
  2. Why do you think it begins here?
  3. What would be lost if it began at a different time?
  4. Can you think of a way the emotional impact might be improved if the fiction began at a different point in time?

Now, take out something you are working on but are not yet satisfied with. Very quickly, in much the same way you worked with the fiction above, answer the same questions for your own work. It won’t be as easy as it was for someone else’s work, at least not at first. Ultimately, though, looking at your own fiction this way will help you begin to revise and rewrite it with an eye toward managing its time effectively.

Book cover for The Mind of Your StoryIf the second part of this exercise seems impossible to you, you might consider asking someone you trust in your writers’ group to answer these questions of it. Those insights may give you the jump start you need to learn how to improve your fiction’s pacing on your own.

For more from Lisa Lenard-Cook, check out The Mind of Your Story and Find Your Story, Write Your Memoir.


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