In most movies, time is flexible. In “Avengers: Endgame,” five years pass between the time Thanos wipes out half of all life in the universe and the time the Avengers decide to fight back.
When writing your screenplay, there are different ways to use time:
- Show large passages of time (such as years)
- Show small passages of time (such as days)
- Tell a story in real time
Movies where large passages of time occur are risky because the story essentially ends in one time period and then jumps to a far distant time period. This often works when a movie shows the hero as a little kid and then jumps years ahead when the hero is much older.
For example, in “Fighting With My Family,” the movie begins with a young brother and sister fighting over a TV remote control. This sets up the main character as a wrestler. Then the movie jumps years ahead for when the hero is a much older teenager. At this point, the story stays on the hero as a teenager.
Introducing your hero as a young child early for a brief amount of time, and then jumping years ahead to stay focused on a character at an older age is fine. What you want to avoid is having this large time gap occur too far into your story. The reason for this is because the longer it takes to introduce a character, the more we’ll bond with that character at that younger age.
By keeping this introductory scene of the hero as a youngster short, “Fighting With My Family” then focuses on the hero as an older teenager for the rest of the movie. Now we can identify and bond with the hero as an older teenager instead of as a young girl.
Most movies don’t show large passages of time at all. Instead, they skip over hours or even days of time. For example, in “Star Wars,” Luke sees his uncle and aunt’s dead bodies at the farm. Then the story jumps ahead in time (probably an hour or more) into the Luke going with Obi-wan towards the star port to look for a pilot who can take them off the planet.
Most movies are told with short jumps in time like this. Ideally, keep the time jumps short and focus only on the important scenes. In “Star Wars,” we know Luke has gone from his uncle’s farm to outside the star port. We don’t need to see Luke traveling from his uncle’s farm to the star port because nothing much exciting happens during that time.
So use time to focus only on the important scenes and skip over the dull scenes where nothing critical happens. Any time you get stuck in your story, think how you can skip ahead to a more exciting scene.
The trick is that when you skip ahead in time, you must end one scene with a dramatic cliffhanger. Then jump ahead to show the next exciting moment.
In “Star Wars,” Luke sees the dead bodies of his aunt and uncle. That’s a dramatic moment. Then time jumps ahead to Luke riding with Obi-wan to the star port. After seeing his uncle’s dead body, Luke has already committed to joining Obi-wan so it makes sense to jump to the next exciting scene.
The big mistake to avoid is to jump ahead in time without ending the previous scene on a dramatic cliffhanger. A second mistake is to jump ahead to a scene that doesn’t have any connection to the dramatic cliffhanger of the previous scene. This creates a disjointed effect that throws us out of the story’s spell.
Finally, a handful of movies operate in real-time where the time of the movie is the actual time of the story. A 1988 movie called “Miracle Mile” does this when a man meets a woman and sets up a date with her, but he oversleeps and misses his date with her at a restaurant where he picks up a phone and learns that a nuclear attack is about to occur against America.
Now the rest of the film is about this man trying to find the woman he missed his date with and rescue her from the chaos erupting around him as people panic as news of a nuclear attack spreads across Los Angeles.
Telling a story in real-time where each minute in the movie is an actual minute in the story is difficult because it forces you to make every scene interesting and logical within the two hour (or less) time structure of a movie. But such a real-time telling of a story can create a sense of urgency.
“Before Sunrise” is another movie told in real-time where a man meets a woman on a train in Vienna and they fall in love.
So when plotting out your story, decide whether you want large jumps in town (hopefully only in the beginning), short jumps in time (like most movies), or no jumps at all because your story takes place in real-time.
Time is flexible so feel free to jump ahead in your story to focus only on the exciting scenes, but not too far ahead so your story risks feeling disjointed. Look at time as a tool to tell a story. By shifting time, you may be able to tell your story more effectively.