In a story, we can’t cover every single thing that happens. We just don’t have the time, the space, or the reader’s indulgence. If a character is making a coffee, we don’t detail every single action to make that coffee. E.g.
- Bob filled the kettle, put it back on its base, and switched it on. He went to the cupboard, opened the cupboard door, and pulled out his favourite cup. He took out the coffee, unscrewed the lid, opened a drawer, grabbed a fork by accident, put the fork back, rifled through the cutlery until he found a teaspoon, dipped it into the jar of coffee, found the teaspoon too heaped, sifted some of it clear, then unloaded it into the cup.
We’re not even halfway through the coffee-making at this point. It might be how you genuinely make a coffee, but it’s not exactly interesting reading. Usually, we’ll summarise something like this, or maybe even leave it at, ‘Bob made himself a cup of coffee.’ If we include more details than that, it’s generally not for authenticity (in this case), but because we want to draw specific attention to those details, e.g. Bob might heap three sugars into his coffee, implying he’s a sweet tooth.
There’s a lot unwritten in storytelling – stuff the reader doesn’t need to know, or which is prohibitive to detail for the narrative’s development. We can sum up actions succinctly, or summarise large spans of time in a page or two. In Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize), the first half of the book is dedicated to the protagonist’s life through his secondary schooling. Then, in a couple of pages, we follow his marriage, the birth of his kids, his separation, and his life into retirement – forty years whiz by just like that. Consequently, the second half of the book picks up the protagonist’s life from that point.
Summarising large passages of time is a skill in itself, particularly to handle so much information so simply without digressing into exposition. Lots of writers struggle with this aspect of writing – how do you deal with what happens between events? Often, writers set-up the story at a new point, and briefly digress to explain there has been a jump in time. E.g.
- It had been two weeks since Bob’s argument with Gloria.
And, just like that, we’ve jumped forward.
Some writers don’t even bother resetting, but trust in the reader to get up to speed once they resume reading. Stephen King’s Pet Semetary is split into two halves, the second beginning after a tragic event which we never see happen. But through the new setting, the new scenario, you reorient yourself, and whatever dislocation you experience as a reader actually works dramatically, because it’s what the protagonist would be feeling – dislocation, shock, and perhaps even a blur since the actual event took place. Here, the jump is also a narrative device.
As a writer, you need to work out what happens off the page, whether your story works with it occurring off the page, and whether you’ve successfully been able to resume the story. Some writers struggle with this. There are times a scene begins with characters in improbable situations which might be dramatic or exciting or compelling, but wholly contrived. You always need to consider how your characters get to where they are.
For example, we could write a scene where our protagonist rides an elephant from the zoo, but how did he get on that elephant? How did he break the elephant free of its enclosure? How did he break into the zoo? It’s not enough to assume that your reader will take your unspoken word that all this just happened off the page. You need to create and sustain an infallible logic that this could occur (as governed by the laws you have created for the story in your world).
This is a rule screenwriters often flaunt for dramatic effect. How often do you see in a movie a conversation that spans several locations? Characters might be talking whilst driving. Then we cut to their apartment, and they’re continuing this conversation. Visually, it works – it’s a cut that’s instantaneous. Logistically? So they were talking in their car, paused the conversation, parked the car, walked up to their apartment, went into their apartment and sat down, and then resumed their conversation at the exact point they left it off – it just doesn’t happen. On-screen, it can work. In a book? Uh uh.
Some stuff that occurs off the page seems much too important to leave off the page, but writers jump it because they’re more interested in getting to another point of their story, something that offers more excitement for them. There are plenty of stories we read for our various anthologies, where an author has skipped something pivotal and which deserved exploration (in prose), but they’ve deemed unimportant. Sometimes, the best scenes aren’t the ones that are the most explosive, but the journey of how they became explosive.
When you’re writing, think about the things that occur in your story which are not being written about, whether they deserve words, whether they’re being left out for dramatic effect and, if that’s the case, whether you’re doing your story justice when you’re resuming the narrative.