Macro-Level Jump Cut Scene

Full Disclosure: Jump cut may not be the correct term for the advice that follows. Years ago, the late great John Yeoman, beloved writing coach and friend, called the cinematic technique a jump cut during one of our lengthy craft discussions. Thus, it’s the term I’ve always used. Then I reread JSB’s 2018 article to prepare for this post. Jim’s correct use of the term is more widely known. Nowhere could I find the description of what I call a jump cut. Nonetheless, the two techniques are basically the same. When I use the term, I’m referring to the macro-level. Jim’s post focused on the micro-level.

Clear as mud? Okie doke, moving on…

The macro-level jump cut is a technique where the writer drops the reader into a harrowing situation—in media res—conflict builds, tensions rise, all without the reader knowing what proceeded this scene (aside from a few hints). The scene ends at a pivotal moment. Next scene rewinds the clock to the days or hours leading up to the opener. We’ve all seen this play out in movies and net-streaming series. Novelists use it to ensure readers will stick around to find out how the protagonist wound up there. Inducing curiosity and/or fear in the opener strangleholds the reader, forcing them to keep flipping pages.

The payoff that follows must live up to the hook. All my Grafton County Series novels (except the first book) open with the first half of the jump cut scene. Chapter One rewinds the story. It isn’t necessary to label this scene as a prologue. I do, but it could also be the first chapter. If you choose to include it as a prologue, Chapter One still needs its own hook.

Remember the pivotal moment where we left the reader? No matter where the payoff is—first plot point, midpoint, or climax—continue the jump cut scene from there. Newer writers may be tempted to copy/paste the first half of the scene. Resist that urge. Trust the reader to connect the dots. They’ll recognize the setting and situation.

Let’s look at two examples.

The Prologue of Pressure Points by Larry Brooks opens like this…

It was the echo of gunfire that kept him running. His body had long ago abandoned hope, pushing on faith alone through a fog of pain and fatigue. Logic screamed that this was pointless, while another voice whispered it was all a lie. Both were old friends that had served him well, and like Jesus on his fortieth desert night, he was tempted.

But neither voice was real. The gunshot had been real. The echo of it was real.

And so he ran. For his very life, and for those left behind. He knew that precious little time remained, and what was left was as critical as it was dwindling. Everything he had ever learned or believed or dreamed was at stake. He was out of options, down to a final chance that, win or lose, would be his statement to the universe.

It was his time. He had come full circle.

It is not paranoia when they are really out to get you. When they are right on your ass, downwind of the scent of your blood, closing fast.

Whoever the hell they are.

He ran all through the night’s relentless downpour. Low branches whipped his forehead and cheeks until they bled. He could feel his heart pounding in every extremity of his body, his vision clouded by sweat and rain. Both elbows were bloodied from a fall when his foot caught an exposed root, sending him skating wildly across a patch of decaying leaves. Leaping over a rotting log, he felt his right ankle turn impossibly inward, and the ensuing bolt of pain seized his leg like a pair of gigantic hands twisting with the enthusiasm of a gleeful sadist. But he had no time for this or any other distraction, not on this night, when, one way or the other, his past would finally and conclusively catch up with him.

Chapter One rewinds to 41 days earlier. I can’t show you the payoff scene without ruining the ending. Trust me, it’s amazing.

Please excuse my using an excerpt from one of my books. I searched my Kindle for other examples but couldn’t find any that jumped out at me.

The Prologue of RACKED opens with…

In the vast openness of the snowmobile trails, solar-powered Christmas lights danced across pine needles on the branches I separated while the lanky silhouette of the Serial Predator tossed shovelfuls of dirty snow on a mound. Was he digging a fresh grave? My calf muscles jumping-jacked beneath my skin, begging me to run. But I couldn’t. Not yet.

A row of thin birch trees bowed over the makeshift grave, thin branches curled like the skeletal fingers of a demon protecting its prey. The overcast sky blurred the hazy moon into non-compliance, its glow hastened by gathering storm clouds.

Who did he plan to bury here? My gloved hand clawed at my throat.

Please tell me Noah’s still with Mrs. Falanga. All the saliva in my mouth dried, my insides squirming, screaming for release. What if Childs left his post long enough for the Serial Predator to sneak past him? What if he murdered everyone in the house? What if he abducted my son after Mrs. Falanga tucked him in bed? She might not realize he’s missing till dawn.

Beyond the tree a flashlight balanced on its end, a smoldering yellow glow pointed toward the heavens. Cigarette smoke billowed through the haze. Hot ash tumbled into the darkness when he flicked the filter into the arctic December air.

I backed away from the tree.


My right heel froze on the pinecone.

The Serial Predator slung his portable spade over one shoulder and stalked toward me. “Hello?”

Male voice. Almost familiar. Where had I heard it before?

Holding my breath, cramps squeezed my calf muscles as I crouched behind the conifer, flames tunneling down my sciatic nerve to my partially raised foot, bent at such an angle mind-numbing pain riddled the whole right side of my leg.

The Serial Predator hustled back to the shallow grave, and I lowered my wet boot to the snow. The moment he turned his back, I nosedived toward the base of the tree trunk, slithering beneath the branches like a frightened garter snake. Snow piled around the bottom helped shield the top half of my body. I pulled my legs out of view. A glacial breeze swept across my wet hair, and I could not stop shivering, the icy snow soaking through my jeans and wool coat.

With one smooth motion, he swiped his flashlight off the snow and aimed the beam toward the pine tree. “Hello?”

After the blinding light struck my eyes, I would never be able to describe his face or any distinguishable features, the black hoodie masking his identity. He could be anyone. Or no one.

With both gloved hands covering my nose and mouth, I held back icy breath that threatened to reveal my hiding spot.

“Is someone there?”

A cylindrical sphere lasered through the pine needles, and I ducked, my bare cheek trembling against a clustered mass of icicles. Snow boots clomped around the tree, then stopped—inches from my face.

Dear God, don’t let him find me.

Chapter One rewinds to 26 hours earlier.

Have you used this technique in one of your novels? There’s nothing wrong with writing a linear storyline. This is just another option. Let’s discuss.

30 thoughts on “Macro-Level Jump Cut Scene

  1. Good morning, Sue. I used to like jump cuts in fiction. Then I became old and grumpy, not necessarily in that order. As I sit here, however, I think of all the videos that use the technique, such as Reservoir Dogs and S4, E1 of Ozark. Pulp Fiction, in its way, is one long series of jump cuts. And so it goes.

    Thanks for this, Sue. Hope you have a great week!

    • Mornin’, Joe. Agreed. We see it a lot in movies and net-streaming series. It’s effective in novels, too. 😉

      Thanks. Hope you have a great week, SJ!

  2. Sue, I remember that terrifying scene from RACKED. This example puts to rest any debate about whether or not an author should use a prologue. It works great. Nuff said!

    A question: apparently I’ve been misusing the term “jump cut” to describe ending one scene with a cliffhanger then jumping to another scene in a different location with a different character’s POV. Several scenes later, I jump back to the character hanging on the cliff, showing how that crisis is resolved (but usually leads to a new crisis).

    So what is the correct term to describe that technique? Thanks!

    • Debbie, that’s exactly what I call a jump cut. We can either make a huge leap to a pivotal milestone, or jump to a different POV, then back to the protagonist hanging off a cliff (to use your example). In my view, it’s the same thing. One could also argue that dueling timelines–one in present day, one in the past–is another form of jump cuts.

      As for the correct term, it’ll always be a jump cut to me, but try Googling the technique. I couldn’t find our definition anywhere.

      I love a good prologue. 🙂 I think they got a bad rap because new writers don’t know how to use them, so they end up becoming unnecessary info dumps.

    • Debbie, there’s no term for it, it’s just classic pulp style. Dwight Swain once got a letter from an editor of a pulp magazine, requesting a novella written in the style Edgar Rice Burroughs developed: carry along a group of characters in the first chapter, leaving them in a position where nothing can save them; then go to another set of characters and leave them with a “hell of a problem” at the end of that chapter; go back to the first set, rescue THEM from their deadly peril, only to leave them seemingly doomed at the end of that chapter; then back…etc. “Don’t give the reader a chance to breathe.”

      A lot of early Koontz is like that. It’s just called good suspense technique!

      • Jim, you must have been replying at the same time I was. Just saw your explanation. Thanks!

        Guess it doesn’t matter what we call it as long as it works.

      • Years ago, when the INDIANA JONES movies were so wildly popular, a publisher created an action book series with the pace of the opening scene of the original INDIANA JONES where disaster builds upon disaster upon disaster with no real stopping for breath.

        I read the first book, and it was bloody awful because the action became boring and silly at such a lunatic pace, and there was so little personality to the main character or any of the other characters I didn’t give a damn one way or the other what happened.

        EXAMPLE: A bear chases the hero up a tree, he thinks the tree is safe, but it’s rotten, and the bear begins to shove it over, the tree lands in the river, but it’s infested with alligators, and there are bad guys on the other side of the river, and a bear on this side. He out swims the gators to a bridge and begins to climb up a vine growing up its side, but, ooops, there’s a large poisonous snake right above him, and….

        Needless to say, that series vanished without a trace after a few books.

        Pace in a novel isn’t just constant things happening.

  3. Just to provide another opinion. I do NOT like starting in the future and rewinding time. I’m totally irritated (just ask the Hubster) when a TV show starts with a bank robbery/shootout scene, and then the screen says … “X period of time earlier.” I hate it. I know where the show is going, so why watch it?

    I’m linear. Time moves forward. It doesn’t jump around (except in science fiction maybe). I’m a mystery lover, not a suspense lover. I rarely like knowing anything the protagonist detective doesn’t know.

    Sue Grafton’s alphabet series uses a “jump cut light” technique, but all readers really know is that she survives.

    • Terry, you’re a mystery lover, not a suspense lover? In my mind the two go hand-in-hand. Regardless, I think you misunderstood. Of course, we shouldn’t show what happens to the protagonist and ruin the ending. It’s used as a hint of what’s to come. The payoff could be two chapters later, or it could be farther into the story. The reader doesn’t know, which makes it an effective technique. Unless, like you, the reader doesn’t like suspense. In which case, they wouldn’t crack open a psychological thriller in the first place.

      • In a mystery, you’re a step behind the villain, on par with the detective. In suspense, you’re a step ahead, knowing more than the detective. I cut my teeth on Sherlock Holmes, and I don’t want to know what Moriarty is up to until Sherlock figures it out.
        I didn’t mean your cut is going to ruin the ending–it usually ruins the middle. I already know there’s going to be a bank robbery and a shootout, so I don’t really care to back up to see how it got there.
        And you’re right. If a book tease says it’s a psychological thriller, I give it an immediate pass.

        • Neither book has a bank robbery. Larry’s book has a shootout, but it’s definitely not a bank robbery. Nothing even close to that scenario.

    • I’m with you, Terry. I’m not a fan. I especially don’t like it when the first appearance of the scene isn’t the same as the later version of the same scene where the full resolution is revealed. I see this technique as a crutch because the writer couldn’t figure out how to write a sparkling opening that hooks the reader, so they borrow from a high-tension scene later to bridge until something interesting happens.

  4. Thanks for writing this post, Sue. Wonderful. Micro or macro, forward or reverse, the jump cut is a great technique to keep the reader on the edge of their seat and turning pages.

    Before I began a teen fantasy series, I was working on a thriller series (none published). I was experimenting with the jump cut. I’m not sure I even knew what it was called. This post makes me anxious to return to those thrillers and work on the technique. I have used the micro jump cut in my fantasy series, but otherwise the stories are linear.

    Thanks for the examples. Now I have two more books on my TBR list. And I can’t get that image of the snow-booted serial predator with the flash light out of my mind! Great reader magnet!

    I hope your week is filled with only good jump cuts!

    • Thanks, Steve! I should note, in the examples I used, the only time manipulation is done in the prologues. Otherwise, they’re both linear storylines. I also include jump cuts (which I guess are actually called match cuts — see Debbie’s link) to up the suspense by leaving the protagonist in a harrowing situation, then switching to a different POV at a simultaneous time, then jump back to the protagonist.

      Haha. Thanks! Hope yours is, too, Steve!

  5. It’s a time-honored technique, Sue. Used a lot in film noir, e.g., D.O.A. where at the very beginning a guy stumbles into the homicide room of the LAPD and says he wants to report a murder. The chief detective asks, “Who was murdered?” The guy says, “I was.”

    The rest of the movie is a flashback, until it returns to the present for the end. I call this technique a “frame” story. The present is the frame that surrounds the flashback. It’s A Wonderful Life is a frame story.

    A prologue such as you describe doesn’t have to presage the ending. It can be a scene that happens later in the book. I believe Mary Higgins Clark did this several times, and she’s sold a few books.

    • That’s exactly what I told Terry, Jim. The opening scene can foreshadow any scene in the book. The reader has no way of knowing where or when the harrowing situation occurs, and that’s what makes it so effective, IMO.

      A frame story. Thank you! I haven’t heard that term, either.

  6. Great examples of this technique, Sue. Both yours and Larry’s would keep me reading to find out how the character got to that point and how they might get out of those dangerous situations. I haven’t used this technique in my own fiction, not yet, but I do like it. Not only is it something that I’ve seen a lot in televised drama, but I’ve also seen it used in tabletop roleplaying games, most notably the Star Wars one my wife and I have played in for years. Our Game Master loves this technique, and is highly creative in employing it.

    Thanks for starting off this Monday with a compelling look at a powerful fictional technique (I like Jim’s “frame story” term for it 🙂 Have a great week!

    • Thanks, Dale! Isn’t that interesting about the roleplaying game. I can see how it would be effective.

      I like Jim’s “frame story” term, too! Hence why I adore this community. I learned two things today, frame story and match cut. Hope you have a great week, too!

  7. Thanks for this information, Sue. I was also confused about what a jump-cut is. Like Debbie, I thought it was the cliff-hanger ending to one chapter, then sending the reader to another POV in an entirely different setting.

    I’ve never used the jump-to-the-future prologue, but I can see why it would be effective. It sounds to me like the author drops the reader into the action (in media res?) to get them excited about continuing. Lots to think about here.

    • Exactly, Kay. It’s meant to foreshadow the story to come. We can also jump from one POV to another, like Debbie mentioned, to keep the reader unbalanced and on the edge of their seat. If you read the link Debbie included, I understand that’s called a match cut. Learn something new every day. 🙂

  8. I’m not a fan. I don’t recall more than a few books I’ve read which have used the technique in recent years.

    I’ve only used it once, but it was in the most complex novel I’ve written which moved through a long period of time. I used the play THE TEMPEST as my structural device. The first section was present day. The main character is on a small sailboat that’s run over by a yacht, and he’s left to die. Some hallucinations, lots of memories and regrets, and he drowns. The next section is him at 9-years-old. Then him a few years before the drowning. Cut to a day after the drowning, and he’s in the hospital. His last hallucination had been real, and he’d been pulled out of the water. There’s a few months cut ahead, then he gets his happy ending, and the villain is killed. Happily ever after until the next book in the series which was sadly never sold. So happily ever after for all the characters who deserved it.

    • Sounds like a complicated storyline, Marilynn. I’m referring to only one time manipulation, that of the prologue. The rest of the story is a linear timeline.

  9. Thanks for this terrific post, Sue.

    A WIP that’s about half done (first draft) employs exactly this. It begins with the MC racing around a street corner, running away from bad buys. After some really bad stuff happens, she’s tied up in a skanky room, trying to figure out where she went wrong.

    I’ve thought maybe this wouldn’t work, but now I’m a bit more optimistic. 🙂

  10. Interesting topic. The technique labeled a “jump cut*,” here, is actually “flash forward to action.” There are several possible reasons for it, including setting the pace, foreshadowing, hooking the viewer, etc. But a major reason is to introduce an MC as early as possible, in a proactive scene–this is what attracts stars to a project. A-list actors expect their agent to immediately hand them the script for a project, already turned to the page where their character enters, and it had better not be Page 50! The audience also has expectations that the MCs will be brought on early.

    * “Jump cut” refers to cutting and splicing of actual film. Now it’s mostly digital media.

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