Something I am unhealthily obsessed with in my screenplays is how time passes for the characters within the story. To be honest, I’m not sure how important a consideration time is for most stories (unless a time limit is built into them), but I can never stop myself from wondering: How much time passes over the course of the script?
The Time Bubble used a device that was necessary for me to understand how much time passed. The main character, Mitch, is trying to get back home before his girlfriend is murdered on a certain date in the past. He knows the date, but due to the way time travel works in my narrative he can only get to her before her murder – if he gets there after he will not be able to try again. I plotted out important dates for Mitch, all leading to the day he needs to get back to. This was important for me to understand in the story, as I couldn’t let too much time pass or the audience would begin to wonder why Mitch hasn’t gotten closer to his goal. I even used it to my advantage in the third act as a misdirection, where Mitch is thrown in jail for an indeterminate amount of time and is led to believe by the authorities that he’s missed his window of opportunity.
In The Inhabitors, the time frame seemed less important so I didn’t map it. However, due to the arcs of the characters (one, in particular), I wondered if I should. Will the audience call bullshit if a character has such a dramatic change over what might amount to a week of in-story time? Will they even notice if the timing of events is never explicitly called out? As a reader or a viewer we are conditioned, thanks to editing, that movies only show the major events in the story. We don’t watch the characters sleep or take shits. It’s unnecessary. So, in that sense, because the audience is accustomed to only seeing major events within the story they will either A.) not notice how much time has passed unless it is important to the story or B.) assume, based on the actions of the characters, the changes in setting, and other subtle hints, that a certain amount of time has passed regardless of whether or not the screenwriter meant them to think that.
As a viewer, I tend to lean toward playing it safe with timing. I was watching Beverly Hills Cop earlier and there was a scene when Axel Foley is in the Beverly Hills Police Station after causing havok throughout the city. Over the past 15-20 minutes of screentime we’ve seen him stake out a house, lose a police tail, start a fight at a fancy restaurant, get arrested, and be released. He is given a police escort and told to go back to Detroit. As they walk out of the police station, where Foley was brought after being arrested, it’s day. Mid-day, even. And he remarks about the things he did “that morning.” Now, as a viewer I found myself thinking, “All that happened in less than half a day?” Actually, I think the rest of the movie happens before nightfall. It’s not unrealistic, lots of things can happen in a short amount of time, but I did find myself thinking about it during the movie which meant I wasn’t giving the film my full attention. This is bad.
Peripheral, my latest, has a similar but opposite problem. The time frame is revealed, but not until the end of the script. I’m worried a reader or audience will say, “All of that happened in that amount of time?” Again, though, the timeline fits the story. So does it matter? In this case, I’d argue not.
I think being cognizant of the timeframe that passes in your story is important if it’s central to the story. If it’s not central to the story, it’s not as important to explicitly call it out, but one should still be cognizant of it if there is too much happening in a short amount of screentime. If half of the action in your story takes place within one day, consider spacing it apart or letting the audience in on just how much time has passed. I probably would have been more forgiving of Beverly Hills Cop if it had even been nightfall by the end of the film.