The Joy of Jump Cuts

In the first term of the writing MA I teach, we set the students an exercise in writing time. Both moment by moment time, and long periods of time passing. Invariably people find the second one harder – and I admit I do myself. Think about it – showing the passage of time usually involves telling not showing, a lack of dialogue and action, and summarising rather than dramatising. All things which lead to a reduced pace and bored, disengaged readers.

Screenwriters have the advantage here. They can show passing time via leaves falling, seasons shifting, or even a trusty montage. Typically, scripts will also cover less time than novels (because you’d have to age the actors up otherwise). A novel is distilled time. It can take three hours to read (OK YES I SKIM READ) but may cover months, years, decades. Luckily, there is a way to do this without the great Pace Killer which is recounted time. And it’s this: the jump cut.

Or in other words, the joy of just leaving things out. If you need to move the action of your book on an hour, or a day, or even twenty years, just do it. End one chapter or section, start another in the new time period. This will also create a nice sense of suspense, as the reader scrambles to work out what’s happened in the intervening time. If you think they’ll need an anchor, you can add a phrase like ‘it was the day after’ or ‘in the ten years since the accident, things had changed’. Don’t feel you need to show how we get from A to B or even A to F. Readers are smart; they will work it out. This also goes for ‘filler’ scenes of people in cars, greeting new arrivals to a scene, or showering. Consider cutting them. Think about starting the scene much later – with dialogue for example-and ending sooner. Sharon Bolton, who writes some of the paciest thrillers that ever kept you up till 3am, once told me that during editing she ‘top and tails’ each scene as much as possible.

So give it a try if you ever find yourself writing a phrase like ‘a year went by’. It’s almost always better to dramatise than summarise. Learn the joy of jump cuts, and give yourself permission to simply leave things out.

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