From the Technique section of section of my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells: “From there to here, then to now.”
Often in an edit I’ll see a need for a transition. Writers sometimes just leap over time and space without giving the reader a clue as to what’s going on. This is caused, I suspect, by the usual syndrome—the writer sees all in his/her head but just doesn’t get it on paper.
So how do you get from there to here…or from then to now? I advocate using character and action. The following example is a simple shift from one location to another; such a transition, in a book, would include a blank line between paragraphs like this to denote a change in place or time.
Jennifer knew there was only one place to find Jason. She raced out the door and down the stairs to the parking garage.
As soon as Jennifer hit the smoky air in Timothy’s Tavern it hit right back—eyes, throat, lungs. God, how could Jason stand this?
What the reader will know without being told:
- Jennifer drove to the tavern (she raced to her parking garage).
- She is inside the tavern (so must have parked her car and come in the door).
Note how the transition is motivated by action that leads the reader to expect movement.
What isn’t needed because it has no impact on the story:
- Getting Jennifer into her car
- Showing Jennifer driving down Main Street and taking a hard left on Pine.
- Slamming the door of her car and racing across the parking lot at Timothy’s Tavern.
- Opening the door to Timothy’s Tavern and running in.
Here’s an example from my edit files of a narrative that needs transitional work. It’s from a paranormal romance. I’ll give it to you straight, then with my comments.
She slowed her breathing and reached for the deep sleep. Instinctively, her mind connected with Randall’s. Together, they drifted into sleep. Their breath left their bodies at the same time. Their hearts stopped beating as one.
Randall stared at the faces gathered before him. Some of them were good friends, others were mortal enemies. He took a deep breath and said firmly, “I’ve called this Council today to introduce my intention to take a mate.”
It’s not my job, as an editor, to create a transition for an author—but it is my job to point out the need and make suggestions. Here, along with a little line editing and comments (italicized), is what I did:
She slowed her breathing and reached for the deep sleep. Instinctively, her mind connected with Randall’s. Together, they drifted into sleep. Their breath left their bodies at the same time. Their hearts stopped beating as one.* * *(I added a line space and asterisks to indicate changes in point of view and scene.)
Randall stared at the faces gathered before him. (A little transition and scene-setting would be good. Even “the next night” would help. What time of the day/night is it? Where are they? How many council members? What are the attitudes emanating from them? Is Randall on his throne? “Faces” suggests a clump of people standing before him? Are they? Or are they sitting in chairs? Around a table? What?) Some were good friends, others mortal enemies. (Technically, “faces” can’t be friends or enemies. How about: Some of them belonged to good friends, others to mortal enemies.) He took a deep breath and said firmly, “I’ve called this Council today to introduce my intention to take a mate.”
There are times an author, lost in the fullness of her understanding of the story, shortchanges the reader on the transition from time to time, place to place, or person to person. I’m sure you’ve had the disorienting experience of sailing along in a narrative only to suddenly become lost when the storyteller vaults to an unexpected somewhere/when/one else.
Transitions can—and often should—be simple and virtually unnoticeable. At other times, they are a valuable tool for enriching the story by characterizing through description or action.
Here are a couple of examples from manuscripts I’ve edited.
From here to there
We start with the character in her bedroom:
I lie back down, but there’s no chance of me going back to sleep now, so I get up and put the kettle on. As I sit down with a cup of tea, Amy appears.
I was okay with this through putting the kettle on, but then. . . Where does she sit down? In her room? In the kitchen? If it’s in the kitchen, the writer needs to transition her, to locate her there for the reader. Perhaps dress her—when she rises, does she put on a robe or clothes? What are they? And tell us if there are sounds of other arousal in the flat, if anyone is in the kitchen or it is blessedly empty, etc. Let us see her in action.
Another “here to there” slip—the characters are in a bedroom:
With no more than a thought, he dressed them both for the banquet. Alex looked down at the beautiful crimson gown and reached up to feel her intricately done hair. Damien’s power was so easy to him, so effortless. It was one more difference between the two of them.
Alex said, “I’m going back to my old room, Damien.”
“You will not,” Damien said, his voice steely. “You will cease this foolishness right now. You forget who is master here.” He grabbed her arm.
He was interrupted by a vampyress who came sailing out of the banquet to catch his arm. Alex eyed the beautiful vampyress and the possessive way she took Damien’s arm.
In this case, the author was so eager to get to the coming conflict at the banquet she forgot to transport us there. The fix could be as simple as adding a line break after the first paragraph—before Alex’s dialogue—and a snippet of transition:
. . .It was one more difference between the two of them.
Just outside the banquet room, Alex said, “I’m going back to my old room…”
From time to time
In another novel, we’re at a cockfight, and the roosters have been set loose:
They danced at first, happy to be on their feet as if they’d kiss, but then something within them said “KILL” and they lunged like Spartans with green head feathers, short-handled daggers and form-fitting breast plates. Oooh’s and ahh’s followed every thrust and bend. Feathers floated away from wounds like wishes from dandelions. Screams and battle-cry cackles sounded out pain and laughter.
The sight of the loser went right through me. A beaten soldier on the battlefield after the last bayonet strike. Lying limp and shaking, pecked to near death, eyes out, broken wings, wounds gaping.
If the writer is going to jump to the end of the fight, we need a time transition. First, an extra line space between the paragraphs is a customary—and useful—way to indicate a gap in time. In manuscript form, adding a centered “#” helps clue in the reader, though it may not be needed in printed form.
In this case, I don’t even know how long one of these matches lasts. Minutes? An hour? A transition and some information would be good. For instance, even something such as “Twenty bloody minutes later, the sight of the loser went right through me” would do wonders for the reader.
From person to person
Transitions between characters can be simple or complex. The following example moves from one character to another within a chapter, but carefully—in my view, head-hopping should be avoided at all costs.
This transition uses a line break/centered asterisks convention to signal shifting from one point of view to another. But it takes more than that to make the shift seamless and effortless. Here, the action of one character is tied to the other so the scene seems to flow continuously even though there is a point-of-view break.
She mounted the steps and came upon a slender man in a black overcoat. The man aimed a small video camera her way. As she turned her face away, she saw his lips move, and the wind carried his words to her.
He said, “I think I got one.”
She looked behind her. Nothing of interest there. Shielding her face with her scarf, she shifted her gaze to the man, and he jerked the camera away. She believed that he wanted to conceal his purpose.
But what did it matter? It could have nothing to do with her.* * *“I think I got one.” The whisper shivered in KB Volmer’s earpiece. She stepped out of the gallery of art done by kids in Ireland. It hadn’t looked any better than the stuff her mother had taped on the refrigerator when she was a kid.
Speaking just loudly enough for her collar mike to pick up her words, she said, “Again.”
“I got one.”
Tying two characters’ actions together in this way also works when moving from the end of a chapter to the beginning of the next.
The jump-cut transition
Sometimes no transition at all is the way to go if you can use jump cuts to collapse time for powerful pacing.
In film, “jump cuts” are often used to collapse time. The moniker is literal—in the midst of a scene the action jumps ahead from one moment to one further down the timeline rather than following all of the action as it happens. The technique accelerates pace and can enhance the impact of the action.
Jump cuts work in fiction, too, but care has to be taken with setting the scene. In a film, the viewer has a complete picture given to him at all times. In fiction, we have to supply it. And that’s where I see writers missing the mark.
Chapters are a great opportunity for jump cuts. You can end a chapter or scene in one place, wrapping up an action and setting up a future course, and then jump to a completely different scene…as long as you fill the reader in on what that new scene is.
Here’s an example. The heroine, Ailia, has been arrested by Homeland Security and a rogue agent has used torture tactics that could take her life. The action takes place in Chicago in the midst of winter, and the reader has been freezing along with the character in this chapter. She has escaped her holding cell and. . .
She dashed to the doorway marked Exit and hurtled down the stairs.
We next see the character in the Florida Everglades. In real time, she would need to leave the building, go to O’Hare Airport, buy a ticket, get on a plane, land elsewhere, rent a vehicle, and travel. Ho hum. Instead, here’s the jump cut to the opening of a new chapter:
Eager to see the ships of her clan, Ailia peered ahead as she steered an airboat through saw-grass marsh deep within the three million acres of the Everglades.
The warm air coddled her, such a relief from the energy drain of keeping warm in Chicago. Sunset colored the sky with bands of pink and mauve. A silhouetted heron winged past, grace in motion. After traveling all night and most of the day, she relished the idea of coming to rest.
The first sentence, a mere twenty-eight words, quickly transports the character to a place a thousand miles away. Note that it does so from within her point of view, giving the reader a sense of character through her reactions to where she is and at the same time enabling the reader to “see” the character’s surroundings.
The story’s other primary protagonist, Gabe, was also captured and tortured by the agent. He was broken out from his cell by the Drago character you’ve met before. Gabe and Ailia are destined to travel very different paths before they are reunited. Here’s Gabe’s escape scene.
Drago opened a door to a stairwell. “Quickly, others may come.”
Gabe followed him up toward the roof. What did Drago have up there, a helicopter? A magic broom? It didn’t matter to Gabe, anything to get away from people determined to torture and kill him.
So they go into the night. The story calls for Gabe to go with Drago to his home place, which would involve climbing the stairs, getting onto the vehicle Drago has on the roof, and traveling across Chicagoland in the dark to a forest preserve. But that’s not action that will move the plot along. So, at the beginning of Gabe’s new chapter, we jump:
A moan broke Gabe free from a nightmare and he bolted upright. It had been his voice, a teeth-clenched cry forced out by a vision of himself frozen upright, white with frost, arms reaching for his son but doomed to never embrace him.
A quilt fell from him and cold air struck his bare torso. The bed was a bunk fastened to a paneled wall. The room wasn’t much more than sleeping quarters, maybe six feet by eight. There was space enough in a corner for an antique-looking washstand and an old-fashioned pitcher in a large bowl. Neatly folded, a small towel and washcloth waited next to it. His shirt and jeans were draped over a single chair. Reddish sunlight glowed through a porthole.
So we’re off and running in a new place that is clearly very strange to Gabe, experiencing it from within his point of view.
When you jump cut, make sure you give the reader solid footing when he lands so that he knows where he is. Do it from within the character’s experience so description becomes part of the action, not simple exposition.
For what it’s worth
© 2011 Ray Rhamey