I have trouble making jumps in time clear to the reader. How can I do this?
Published: March 22, 2012
Q: I have trouble making jumps in time clear to the reader. How can I do this?
A: When transitioning in time, the direct approach is often effective. Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “A Temporary Matter” begins when Shukumar and Shoba learn that their electricity will be cut off for one hour in the evening for five days. This is significant to the couple, whose strained relationship has kept them in different parts of the house during the evening hours. After they learn about the power outages, Lahiri takes the story back in time:
Six months ago, in September, Shukumar was at an academic conference in Baltimore when Shoba went into labor, three weeks before her due date.
The movement back into the fictive present time of the story is equally clear and direct:
These days Shoba was always gone by the time Shukumar woke up.
Movements forward in time are handled similarly:
The next night Shoba came home earlier than usual.
These phrases—six months ago, these days, the next night—situate the reader firmly in time. It’s worth noting that all three of these examples are the first sentences of the new scene. The movement in time is established immediately.
Some jumps in time can be made intuitively. Charles D’Ambrosio’s short story “Her Real Name” opens with Jones and “the girl” in a car heading west toward Las Vegas. A flashback follows, showing how he met her. It begins like this:
She’d been working the pumps and the register at a crossroads station in southern Illinois, a rail-thin girl with stiff red hair the color of rust, worried, chipped nails, and green eyes without luster.
The transition doesn’t name a specific time, but the reader has a general idea as their meeting took place on the same road trip Jones and the girl are currently on.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear the girl is sick. At one stop, Jones seeks out pain medication from a doctor who lost his license but tends to migrants who work the apple orchards. The scene with the doctor at the orchard ends and the next scene begins this way:
The room smelled like rotting mayonnaise. Her body glistened with a yellow liquid. She'd vomited on herself, on the pillows, on the floor.
Without having to state it directly, it’s clear that little time has passed. He has returned to the girl after seeking out the pain medication.
Keep transitions clear to help the reader feel grounded in time. With this sure footing, the reader can stay immersed in the world of the fiction.
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Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide
. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including
Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.