Reader Question: How to handle the passage of time in a script?

Time management can be a big concern in a screenplay.

A question from Dan:

I’ve got a screenwriting question if you wouldn’t mind having a look. I’m an 18 year old kid writing my first script, a biopic, and trying to learn the trade while also piecing together my script I run into problems quite a bit…

One thing at the moment which I’d love to hear your knowledge on, is how to believably convey time passing without the use of title cards, and without a montage, but in a relatively small frame of time. The entertainer my script is about moves to LA at the age of 18, and has some success doing gigs there, he even lands a part on a pilot which doesn’t get picked up, but he decides within two years to return home to readjust his outlook. I’m still drawing an exact outline of where I want events to fit into place, but I’m pretty sure that his entire experience in LA (which really is only the tip of the iceberg for his career) will be almost introductory and within the first 5–10 pages.
I have some brief character stuff going on and I don’t want to cut this out because I feel it is an important part of his early career, although it may end up being so brief that it is almost useless. I’ll have to work on it.

So sorry, if you want to skip that, my question is how would I show the time passing for this character? Or in general, what are some non-hack ways of presenting a move forward in time so that it doesn’t feel like he’s performing in one instance and then we fade to black and suddenly he has a beard and is talking about leaving?

That’s a good question. As any GITS reader knows who’s had to deal with time shifts in a script, it’s a tricky business because you are requiring the reader to jump from this time period to that time period. That may not seem like a big deal, but if you’ve worked super hard to lure a reader into your story universe, any time jump can cause them to blink — Wait a sec, what’s happening — and if they blink long enough, they can fall out of the story.

The actual pragmatics of it are easy enough. Let’s say you start your script with this establishing scene:

EXT. FARM FIELD - DAY (IOWA, 1975)

Then you set up your character where they begin the story. After that sequence, you shift the action to L.A. some years later. All you would have to do is this:

EXT. SUNSET BOULEVARD - NIGHT (LOS ANGELES, 1978)

And there you go — you’ve made your time-jump.

But it’s not enough to simply make the time-jump, you need to handle it for what it really is: a transition. And as I say, it’s tricky to do that in a “non hack way.”

One approach is to use a narrator. For example, that’s how writer-director Frank Darabont handled the many time-jumps he had to make in The Shawshank Redemption. Here is the first big one in the script:

INT -- BACK ROOMS/STOCK AREA -- DAY (1947) 46-- a dark, tangled maze of rooms and corridors, boilers and
furnaces, sump pumps, old washing machines, pallets of
cleaning supplies and detergents, you name it. Andy hefts a
cardboard drum of Hexlite off the stack, turns around --
-- and finds Bogs Diamond in the aisle. blocking his way.
Rooster looms from the shadows to his right, Pete Verness
on the left. A frozen beat. Andy slams the Hexlite to the
floor, rips off the top, and scoops out a double handful.
ANDY
You get this in your eyes, it
blinds you.
BOGS
Honey, hush.
Andy backs up, holding them at bay, trying to maneuver through the maze. The Sisters keep coming, tense and guarded, eyes riveted and gauging his every move, trying to outflank him. Andy trips on some old gaint sugglies. That's all it takes. They're on him in an instant, kicking and stomping. Andy gets yanked to his feet. Bogs applies a chokehold from
behind. They propel him across the room and slam him against
an old four-pocket machine, bending him over it. Rooster jams
a rag into Andy's mouth and secures it with a steel pipe, like
a horse bit. Andy kicks and struggles, but Rooster and Pete
have his arms firmly pinned. Bogs whispers in Andy's ear:
BOGS
That's it, fight. Better that way.
Andy starts screaming, muffled by the rag. CAMERA PULLS BACK,
SLOWLY WIDENING. The big Washex blocks our view. All we see
is Andy's screaming face and the men holding him down...
...and CAMERA DRIFTS FROM THE ROOM, leaving the dark place
and the dingy act behind...MOVING up empty corridors, past
concrete walls and steel pipes...
RED (V.O.)
I wish I could tell you that Andy
fought the good fight, and the
Sisters let him be. I wish I could
tell you that, but prison is no
fairy-tale world.
WE EMERGE into the prison laundry past a guard, WIDENING for
a final view of the line. The giant steel "mangler" is
slapping down in brutal rhythm. The sound is deafening.
RED (V.O.)
He never said who did it...but we
all knew.
PRISON MONTAGE: (1947 through 1949) ANDY PLODS THROUGH HIS DAYS. WORKING. EATING. CHIPPING AND
shaping his rocks after lights-out...
RED (V.O.)
Things went on like that for a
while. Prison life consists of
routine, and then more routine.
ANDY WALKS THE YARD, FACE SWOLLEN AND BRUISED. RED (V.O.)
Every so often, Andy would show up
with fresh bruises.
ANDY EATS BREAKFAST. A FEW TABLES OVER, BOGS BLOWS HIM A KISS. RED (V.O.)
The Sisters kept at him. Sometimes
he was able to fight them off...
sometimes not.
ANDY BACKS INTO A CORNER IN SOME DINGY PART OF THE PRISON,
wildly swinging a rake at his tormentors.
RED (V.O.)
He always fought, that's what I
remember. He fought because he knew
if he didn't fight, it would make
it that much easier not to fight
the next time.
The rake connects, snapping off over somebody's skull. They
beat the hell out of him.
RED (V.O.)
Half the time it landed him in the
infirmary...
INT -- SOLITARY CONFINEMENT ("THE HOLE") -- NIGHT (1949) 51 A stone closet. No bed, sink, or lights. Just a toilet with no
seat. Andy sits on bare concrete, bruised face lit by a faint
ray of light falling through the tiny slit in the steel door.
RED (V.O.)
...the other half, it landed him in
solitary. Warden Norton's "grain &
drain" vacation. Bread, water, and
all the privacy you could want.

Two things. First, voice-over narration is frowned upon in Hollywood. I think it’s because there is a belief that using a narrator is somehow an example of sloppy writing. Certainly that can be the case, but as movies like Shawshank, Forrest Gump, and Sunset Blvd. prove, narrator V.O. can also be used to excellent effect.

Second, you’ll notice that Darabont uses a montage. That’s another time-jumping device that can be used poorly — probably the reason you included it in your question as an example of something you would prefer not using. But as this excerpt from Shawshank demonstrates, a montage can also be used quite effectively as an approach to transitions. If we look at this excerpt closely, I’d say there are at least three keys to a good montage:

INT. PRISON LAUNDRY -- DAY (1949)Andy is working the line.                               RED (V.O.) 
And that's how it went for Andy. That
was his routine. I do believe those
first two years were the worst for
him. And I also believe if things
had gone on that way, this place
would have got the best of him.
But then, in the spring of 1949,
the powers-that-be decided that...
EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949)Warden Norton addresses the assembled cons via bullhorn: NORTON
...the roof of the license-plate
factory needs resurfacing. I need a
dozen volunteers for a week's work.
We're gonna be taking names in this
steel bucket here...
Red glances around at his friends. Andy also catches his eye. RED (V.O.)
It was outdoor detail, and May is
one damn fine month to be workin'
outdoors.
EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949) 54Cons shuffle past, dropping slips of paper into a bucket. RED (V.O.)
More than a hundred men volunteered
for the job.
Red saunters to a guard named TIM YOUNGBLOOD, mutters
discreetly in his ear.
EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949)Youngblood is pulling names and reading them off. Red exchanges grins with Andy and the others. RED (V.O.)
Wouldn't you know it? Me and some
fellas I know were among the names
called.
INT -- PRISON CORRIDOR -- NIGHT (1949)Red slips Youngblood six packs of cigarettes. RED (V.O.)
Only cost us a pack of smokes per
man. I made my usual twenty
percent, of course.
EXT -- LICENSE PLATE FACTORY -- DAY (1949)A tar-cooker bubbles and smokes. TWO CONS dip up a bucket of
tar and tie a rope to the handle. The rope goes taught. CAMERA
FOLLOWS the bucket of tar up the side of the building to --
THE ROOF-- where it is relayed to the work detail. the men are dipping
big Padd brushes and spreading the tar. ANGLZ OVER to Byron
Hadley bitching sourly to his fellow guards:
HADLEY
...so this shithead lawyer calls
long distance from Texas, and he
says, Byron Hadley? I say, yeah. He
says, sorry to inform you, but your
brother just died.

The montage offers a seamless transition into the next scene — the famous “Suds on the Roof” business where Andy helps out Hadley with his financial dilemma, which turns out to be a huge turning point in Andy — and Red’s — life in Shawshank.

Another way to handle time-jumps is to position the story in such a way that a key character is looking back on their life. Forrest Gump does this as well as movies like Little Big Man. This allows you the possibility of telling a story in a linear fashion (like Gump and Big Man), or you can jump around and tell the story in a non-linear fashion. But by approaching the story like this, you’ll be using flashbacks and that is another narrative device that is looked upon with disfavor per Hwood’s conventional wisdom.

But if you’re just looking for ways to smooth over transitions, here are a couple of tricks.

  • Visual-to-visual transition: Use a visual image to link the preceding and following sequence. For example, consider this transition from the Elliot & Rossio script for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, from the opening sequence where Elizabeth, as a young girl, first meets a young Will Turner:
Elizabeth looks from it to the medallion -- the skull on the
flag is the same as the one on the medallion.
Fog surrounds and closes in on the black ship -- except for
the black flag. As Elizabeth watches, the skull appears to
TURN and GRIN at her --
Elizabeth shuts her eyes tight --EIGHT YEARS LATERINT. GOVERNOR'S MANSION - ELIZABETH'S BEDROOM-- and then snap open again, startled wide with fear.But this is no longer twelve-year-old Elizabeth standing on
the stern of the Dauntless; this is twenty-year-old Elizabeth,
lying in bed in the dark.

The visual link is Elizabeth’s eyes.

  • Audio-to-audio transition: In the same way, you can use a sound to provide a link between a preceding and following sequence. The classic example, which I’m sure you’ve seen 10,000 times in TV shows and movies is an airplane:
EXT. FARM FIELD - DAY (IOWA, 1970)Teenager WILL kicks at the chafed soil. Then he hears a sound - 
an airplane FLYING overhead. He squints up at the jet --
WILL
Someday I'm gonna fly away from here...
The sound of the airplane grows LOUDER --INT. JET - DAY (1978)-- and LOUDER as WILL, now a handsome young man (21), presses
against the airplane window as it lands with a jolt --
FLIGHT ATTENDANT (V.O.)
Welcome to Los Angeles.

While those can help smooth transitions, they really are filigree. The keys are as noted above. And I would say the single most important thing is to pull the reader into the ending of the preceding sequence, making them curious about what’s going to happen next, then push them into the beginning of the following sequence, depositing them smack in the middle of the action so that they don’t have time to dawdle or think — just keep them moving.

I’m sure GITS readers will have lots of ideas for you — so please everyone, chime in with your suggestions for Dan.

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