Script Check: Handling of Time

One of the main differences between experiencing a story on the screen vs. in print is the handling of time. In a novel you can cheat by writing how much time has passed; on the screen you can only suggest passing time using specific techniques.

Don’t summarise

In action/description you should not use words or phrases suggesting that time goes by, e.g. “Eventually”, “minutes later”, “at the end of the game” etc. What is perfectly fine in a novel, can not be done in a script.

Why not?

First, it disguises the fact that nothing interesting happens on the screen during that time. For instance, the adverb “eventually,” suggests that the last described action continued for a while but there really isn’t anything interesting enough to be described.

Secondly, the summarizing of action distorts the general rule of ‘one page per minute’. If what you describe in two lines actually takes two minutes, the total page count of your script will give a completely misleading indication of the movie’s actual duration.

Thirdly, it may be unclear to the reader whether the action is continuous or what you want to see is an actual jump ahead in time.

What is perfectly fine in a novel,
can not be done in a script.

How to write it?

If you want to jump in time, the simplest way would be to use a new scene heading or a secondary slug such as “LATER”. Because this is only visible to the reader, you may have to describe how the different time of day will be visually represented on the screen. Showing a setting sun, or describing an EXT. establishing shot of your setting by NIGHT may not be an original way of showing the end of the day but it is visual and it is effective.

If in stead you don’t want to jump and you feel it is important to show a continuous passing of time, you need to describe what the viewers get to see on the screen during that time – and it better be dramatic.  In any case, you can not leave this to the imagination of the reader.

you may have to describe how
the different time of day will be
visually represented on the screen

Passing of time – Short

The following scene from “Collateral” by Stuart Beattie describes fourteen minutes in roughly four pages. This is successfully done through explicitly stating the duration of the trip at the beginning and the end.

Note that the fourteen minutes actually don’t take this long on the screen. It’s four pages, so it’s roughly four minutes. To the viewer, this suggests that time passes more quickly in this movie than in the – less exciting – real world. Isn’t that what we all want to achieve?


pulls out, starts the meter.


(checks his watch)

How long you think this’ll take?


Fourteen minutes.


Fourteen? Not fifteen? Not thirteen?


Two minutes to get onto the 101. Transition to the 110 to the 10 and exit on Normandie is four minutes. North on Normandie is five minutes. Two minutes to South Union ’cause there’s roadwork. Thirteen plus one for “shit happens.”

Vincent checks his watch.


Mind if I time you?

(Max shrugs)

What do I get if you’re wrong? A free ride?


An apology.

Max heads for the 100 on-ramp.


...I already offered up the free ride today.


To who?


...some girl.


Did you ask her out?

Vincent’s read Max’s mind. Max hadn’t thought it through that far. Now that he does, reality sinks in. Annie’s out of his league and he knows it.

Gone forever, Max jams her card under the rubber bands on the visor.



Max’s cab zooms across, heading out of downtown.


Max changes the subject.


First time in LA?


No. To tell the truth, whenever I’m here, I can’t wait to leave. Too sprawled-out. Disconnected. You know...? But that’s me.


You like it here?


It’s home.


17 million people. This was a country, it would be the fifth biggest economy in the world. But nobody knows each other. Too impersonal. But that’s just me...you know...


I read about this guy. Gets on the MTA, here, and dies. Six hours he’s riding the subway before anybody notices. This corpse doing laps around LA, people on and off, sitting next to him, nobody notices.


I see your point.   Yeah...

Vincent glances around the cab.


Cleanest cab I’ve ever been in. Your regular ride?


Yeah. I share it with the dayshift guy.


Prefer nights?


People are more relaxed, you know? Less stress, less traffic, better tips.


You get benefits?


Like sick leave?


Retirement? Health and welfare?


It’s not that kind of job.


Start a union.


Me, specifically?


Why not?


Last thing I need is a reason to keep driving a cab. It’s temporary. I’m fillin’ in, you know, while this other thing I’m putting together is shaping up...


How long you been driving?


Twelve years.

Hardly temporary...


Really? What else are you putting together?

Max hesitates. He’s not as secure as he was with Annie.


I don’t talk about it. No offense, but...


(smiles, shrugs)

None taken. Talkers and doers. Like you, I like doers.


A rundown, quasi-deserted area. Alienation in the twilight. A lonely tenant watches the city from an open window. Max’s cab pulls to the curb...


closes his briefcase, checks his watch.


Fourteen minutes. Man, you’re good...


Lucky with the lights.


Yeah, sure. You probably know the light schedules, too.

(leans forward)

Listen...I’m in town on a real estate deal. A closing. One night. I got five stops to make, collect signatures. See some friends. Then I got a six a.m. out of LAX. Why don’t you hang with me for the night...?

Within the dialogue we already establish where Max had been earlier that night, and where he is going in life. Twelve years.  Hardly temporary. Then BANG! Fourteen minutes have passed and we’ve formed a relationship between Vincent and Max.

This time lapse is also expressed visually throughout the scene.

Max starts the meter.
Vincent checks his watch.
Max heads for the 100 on-ramp.
Max's cab zooms across, heading out of downtown
Vincent closes his briefcase, checks his watch.

This gives the reader a sense of movement and we arrive at the end point very subtly,  without the use of descriptive words or unnecessary transitions to indicate the passing of time.

Passing of time – Long

The writers cleverly illustrate the passing of time at two points in the following scenes from the hilarious There’s Something About Mary.



But...how...how’d you get the zipper all the way to the top?


Let’s just say the kid’s limber.

The Officer makes a face, then rolls up his sleeves.


Well, there’s only one thing to do.


No, no, no, I’ll be fine. I’ll just hang my shirttail out and work on it in the morning.


Look, son, this’ll only hurt for a second. The Officer reaches down and takes hold of the zipper.


No, no, please!


Teddy, be brave.


Beans and franks!


Warren, shhh.

Defeated, Ted holds his breath and braces for the worst.


It’s just like pulling off a Band-aid. A-one and a-two and...



We got a bleeder!


TWO PARAMEDICS rush Ted out the front door on a stretcher. Mary runs alongside him holding a towel on his crotch, while a THIRD PARAMEDIC dabs at his crotch with a towel. Mary’s Mom and Dad are out front along with two FIRETRUCKS, four POLICE CARS, and a crowd of about thirty NEIGHBORS.


(to Mary)
Keep pressure on it!

Mary does as she’s told.


(running along)
Ted, I’m so sorry. Are you going to be okay?


(irrational cockiness)
You betcha!

He gives her two thumbs up as they slide him into the ambulance.


The doors SLAM shut and as the ambulance pulls away Ted starts to WHIMPER and we can see Mary fade into the night, as we



Ted, now in his 30’s, lays on his therapist’s couch.


...Anyway, school ended a few days later and that July her father got transferred to Florida.

Between the point where the Police Officer counts, and the Paramedic yelling out “We got a bleeder!”, we as the audience laugh as we associate the two moments and imagine what has happened in between. It could be very tempting for the writer to summarise this by using titles or simply suggesting time has passed. E.g. Two minutes later.

The second example is where Mary fades into the night, and we dissolve to Ted laying on the therapist’s couch.  The use of transition and the change of environment has already given us enough to know time has passed. However the character description, through action (See Action/Description: How detailed?) adds another layer to illustrate the AMOUNT of time that has lapsed.  Through the last few lines we gather that Ted is older and he is telling a story about his past.

How do you indicate that time flies in your script?

(with thanks to Vi Truong)

Creative Commons License photo credit: tibchris

If you found this tip useful, check out the Screenplay Checklist, an A-Z of commonly made mistakes by aspiring screenwriters.

Karel Segers - The Screenplay ChecklistOnce you have written your screenplay, make sure you keep the reader hooked by eliminating all the errors that would distract from an enjoyable experience.

Check this 57p. list of errors and annoyances to perfect your spec script.

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Comments 7

  1. Hello,
    I am trying to write a scene involving a Hockey game, where we go from the beginning of the game, we see the first goal, and then I want to jump to the end of the game. How do I do this?

    1. Hey Andrew,
      There are numerous ways of doing this, one more original and satisfying than the other. It also depends on the type of film it is, and its tone.
      You could cut back and forth between the audience and the scoreboard, until you have the final score. This would only take a few seconds. Or do only one cutaway from a clock, and back to the end time. For passing of time, you also use “FADE TO:” (instead of the regular CUT TO). Even easier, but perhaps a little clunky, would be a SUPER: NINETY MINUTES LATER.

      The simplest way would be to just write: “LATER”.


      [Description of the beginning of the game.]


      [Description of the final moments.]

      The best thing to do is study films where this happens, and see if you like the effect.
      I hope this helps.

  2. My antagonist inserts himself into the life of my main character over several weeks and I need to move it quickly to arrive at the Main Character embracing him as the father figure he longed. Should I use Montage and transitions to reflect the time period?

  3. Without more context, this is hard to say. What you describe sounds like an important process, and montage may not give it due importance. If this is supposed to happen over the course of Act 1, there are typically plenty of other things you need to set up as well. So all you really need is to work about 3 scenes into the act where you make the point of the antagonist infiltrating, and these scenes can have other functions as well. Montage is not always a good solution, because it is expensive because of the numerous setups resulting in only little screen time, and it is usually also devoid of emotion.
    I hope this all makes sense. :)

  4. Hi Karel,

    I know you said to put ‘LATER’ in the script. Would it also be okay to put in the action, ‘two hours later, he still waits for the man to show up.’ Would that be okay as well?

    1. It wouldn’t in my books, as it reads more like a novel.

      A screenplay is partially a technical document, and your suggestion buries an important productional element (the time jump) in narrative text.

      I feel that you absolutely need to isolate it as a separate element.

      I hope this helps!

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