Screenwriting Tip: One way to deal with multiple time jumps

July 2nd, 2013 by

Let’s say you are Aaron Sorkin and you are tasked with writing a screenplay for The Social Network. One problem you have is to craft a narrative that covers several years and multiple time jumps.

Or you are Eric Roth and confronted with adapting a novel “Forrest Gump” that covers several decades.

Or you are Herman J. Mankewicz and Orson Welles facing the daunting task of writing a script for “Citizen Kane,” one that also extends over many decades, requiring several time ellipses.

Here’s the problem with multiple time jumps:

How to do that and create a sense of pace and narrative drive?

How to sustain a script reader’s attention so they make those time jumps with you and not get lost or lose interest in your story?

One solution: Create a narrative device in the present that allows you to pluck out the most important and entertaining scenes and sequences in the past. Then while cutting out the dull parts, you can pull together those elements into a coherent and compelling narrative.

Mankewicz and Welles did this in Citizen Kane by creating a reporter (Thompson) whose task it is to investigate the life of Charles Foster Kane, and stitch together a narrative, jumping from one character witness and their remembrance, that answers the mystery: Who is Charles Foster Kane?

Eric Roth planted Forrest on a park bench, telling his ‘tall tales’ to a series of strangers while waiting for a bus, his voiceover narration stitching together each time jump.

Aaron Sorkin latched onto the two legal depositions to provide a framework in the present to jump back into the past to craft together a coherent plot that sustained a narrative drive.

If you have a story that covers a long period of time and involves multiple time jumps, the simple fact is you are dealing with a challenging narrative. Every single time you have an ellipsis, you are inviting a script reader to break out of your story and into the mundane matters of their lives — I need to wash the cat! — anything but read your script.

Your goal is to create a seamless flow from FADE IN to FADE OUT, and if you are dealing with a long time frame in your story, a device whereby you set up something in the present that naturally allows the narrative to jump back and forth in time, from present to past, past to present is one way of dealing with this issue.

If you stop and think about it, there are a ton of movies that use this device. Can you think of some?

Please join me in comments for a discussion on this subject.

5 thoughts on “Screenwriting Tip: One way to deal with multiple time jumps

  1. John Arends says:

    Working on one of these now, and I’ve turned to “Amadeus” and “Little Big Man” and “Chariots of Fire” — as well as the more current films above — for guidance. A protagonist with memory loss in the present is a very common and useful trope for going back and stitching non-linear moments into a good mystery or thriller. And of course there is always Clarence’s Call to Adventure by the VO galaxies in “It’s A Wonderful Life”…

  2. 14Shari says:

    Scrooge is a good example. The ghost takes us to the past and to the future. I think ‘Back to the future’ also fits this structure.

  3. TheQuietAct says:

    I dealt with this tricky situation in the first feature script I wrote with GOYOQ.
    I have devised a new method to deal with this convoluted and taxing problem.

    Note to future self-Write in shorter time frames.

    But the structure of a narrative device that allows time jumps whilst pushing the story forward? Now there’s an idea. But given the heartache, not for the next few scripts. :-)
    It’s something that will have to be revisited by future self though, because I love a time-rambling epic film.

    Just not going to try writing one again anytime soon.

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