Beware of Time Jumps in Storytelling

Watch a great movie and you’ll notice that every moment keeps you in the story where you can see what the hero is going through and the struggles the hero must overcome. However, if you watch a mediocre movie, you may notice another common characteristic: time jumps.

A time jump occurs when the action suddenly skips. Instead of showing us the hero struggling to achieve a goal, a time jump simply jumps to after the hero has already achieved that goal. This cheats us of seeing the hero’s character growth and seeing how the hero overcame an obstacle, which keeps us in the story.

Two notable examples of movies with time jumps are “Black Widow” and “Nobody.” Both aren’t bad movies but neither are they great movies. They fall in the gap of being good enough to be entertaining but not good enough to be compelling over time.

In “Black Widow,” the hero needs help from her stepfather who’s being held in a maximum security prison. So how does the hero plan to rescue her stepfather and how does she overcome obstacles in her way? She doesn’t.

There’s a sudden time jump when the hero’s plan is already in action and she’s flying in a helicopter to rescue him. This gets us to the action faster but also cheats us in seeing how the hero managed to plan and coordinate the rescue attempt.

There’s little sense of suspense because the obstacles are just meaningless guards who show up long enough to get mowed down. There’s no sense of meaning or tension because there’s no opposing character threatening to derail the hero’s entire plan.

Compare this scene in “Black Widow” to any scene in “Die Hard” where John McClane is fighting against an army of terrorists. Yet not only is John McClane trying to kill all the terrorists, but he’s also being hunted down by the brother of one terrorist he killed, who has vowed revenge. And he’s also dealing with the main villain who wants to kill him too and pretends to be an American who was attending the party before the terrorists showed up.

By showing us not only how John McClane plans and deals with all these terrorists, but also pitting him against two motivated villains, every scene in “Die Hard” is filled with suspense and tension, which is sorely lacking in “Black Widow.”

“Nobody” is another action thriller that has a time jump. Near the end, the hero wants revenge against a Russian mobster. So instead of the movie showing us him planning and executing his plan while overcoming obstacles along the way, “Nobody” simply shows us brief clips of the hero killing the Russian mobster’s men and lighting his warehouse on fire full of money.

There’s no suspense, no tension, no sense of watching the hero grow, learn, or change in any way. There’s just a lot of clips showing the hero defeating the Russian mobster’s men with ease. Boring.

Beware of time jumps in your story. If they cheat the audience out of seeing your hero grow, change, and learn, it may not be a good idea. If the time jump speeds up the action, then it can be a useful storytelling tool.

Remember, we want to watch the hero grow and learn because then we as the audience also feel that we’re growing and learning too, and we’re not being cheated at how the hero overcomes obstacles in the process.

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