Saturday, September 1, 2012

Week 36 - Transitioning

2 Sep - 8 Sep: She's in a meeting with the president?  Hang on a minute.  Wasn't she just naked in an aeroplane?

I have recently learned that when drafting a long story, I am a fairly economical writer who tends to skip transitions in favour of getting to the meat of the scene before it disappears forever from my consciousness.  In other words, I'm lousy at transitions, and - I'll be honest - I need help.

In Your Life as Story, Tristine Rainer gives autobiographers, and some of us who aren't, pointers about moving horizontally through time (as opposed to flashbacks, etc).  To give credit to her suggested tools, I went searching through my trusty bookshelf for examples:

1.  Typical transitional phrases, such as, "That afternoon...," or even, "Then...":
 It was shortly after midnight when the concierge phoned him.  (The Shadow of Your Smile by Mary Higgins Clark.)
The next morning at breakfast she acted as though nothing had changed.  (Assegai by Wilbur Smith.) 

2. Leaps into new scenes:
  • Begin a new scene with an action:
"That's all you want?  A ride?" the young man said.  
Dr Lecter showed him his open hands.  "A ride."
The fast motorcycle split the lines of traffic on the Lungarno, Dr. Lecter hunched behind the young rider....  (Hannibal by Thomas Harris.)  
  • Jump into a new scene with a description of a new place.
He found a woods road that roughly paralleled the barrier.  It was overgrown and disused, but  much better than pushing through the puckerbrush.  (Under the Dome by Stephen King.)
  • Leap into a new scene with an inner response:
It seemed at first another and a happier world which I had re-entered:  I was home, in the late afternoon, as the long shadows were falling.... (Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene)
  • Specify the day or time or day and time:
At around 7:35, a black Lincoln Navigator pulled up in front of Taberna del Alabardero, a hotsy DC eatery for the stars. (Cross Fire by James Patterson.)

3. Bridges across time, e.g., "The next three months moved slowly..."
Weeks of savage cold.  Quoyle was comfortable enough in his sweater and anorak.  (The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx.)

Okay, so transitioning needn't be a big deal; these people do it so effortlessly after all.  Next week I'll stick with the time theme but zoom out to take a look at proportion in plot.

Exercise 71. You've been away from a character for three chapters.  Write the first four sentences to return the reader to viewpoint and location (from Elements of Fiction Writing: Setting by Jack M. Bickham).

Exercise 72. "Describe how a character gets from home to work in a page, then in a paragraph, then in a sentence; describe how a character moves from an argument with her husband to a meeting with a friend." (From Jean Rosier-Jones, So You Want To Write.)


  1. part 2: my responses to your comments:

    You said: I really like the story and I really like the last four para’s, ie, the presidential phone call – that’s when you got my attention and had me thinking, “hmm, this is interesting, I wonder where this is going.”

    I say: In relation to the theme of the book, this might be considered a prologue, not a first chapter. In the big picture, the only thing that is really important is that Eddie has lost his family and is suicidal. The dogs are just there as a descriptor of his past life. The call from the President is to provide insight into his mental state. An emotionally stable person would never speak like that to the President. I am rewriting the next several chapters or I would gladly send them to you so that you have more context, but the point is that he is able to be recruited into a secret organization that fights evil and protects those who can’t protect themselves. The rewrites involve moving up those initial meetings and adding more gravity/tension to the initial meetings.

    You said: I think the bits before that contain too much info too early. This isn’t a short-story that needs everything packed tightly – it won’t hurt the reader to wait for the details. Don’t get me wrong, I like the quirky bits about the dogs, the deaths are important, the xmas presents, the in-laws, the tragedy, the funeral etc etc, but I think you need to focus on feeling rather than information.

    I say: I was trying to do the show not tell type of writing. Because of your comments, I can see where I missed that mark. Some of this will need to be rewritten. I know there is a balance and I am not sure where that balance point is as of yet.

    You said: It’s your story, and it’s certainly not my place to tell you how to write it, but it would be slack of me to offer criticism without offering thoughts on how to improve (which you can gleefully ignore if you want to). Maybe draw me in with the phone conversation (with a sentence or two to set scene and place the guy and his mood in context), so I’m thinking, “I wonder why he’s so sad? I wonder why he’s pissed off at the president?” and then answer the questions later in the chapter or following chapters (or wherever).

    I say: I have considered that before and since. I decided on the present version because since it is a full length novel, I did not feel that I was limited by a 500 word count. I really have enjoyed the freedom to let the words fly. My problem is that I like the part about the dogs and how they support their master. But I get your point.

  2. part 3: more responses.

    You said: Perhaps you could focus on the guy’s POV – show that he’s really, really hurting – make me feel it too. Make me feel sorry for him, and then when you tell me about the xmas presents for his lost kids at the end of the chapter, my heart will break.

    I say: Again, I want the reader to know that Eddie is in pain but more importantly, we are setting the reader up to understand why Eddie is going to attempt to take his life. In Eddie’s view suicide is not running from his troubles but allowing him to reunite with his family in death.

    You said: I confess, I’m struggling with POV in my own work. Here, I’m not sure about opening with the dog’s POV. I like the language you use, but I want to get to know the character who’s on the president’s speed-dial (e.g., I like that he has a Milky Licker sense of humour).

    I say: I didn’t intend on having the dogs as the pov for the first chapter but it seems that it has worked out that way. When I read it, I see it from Eddie’s pov. Part of the problem of being the author. I was hoping to have some additional comments about the selection so I submitted it to the website Flogging the Quill. I expect it to be reviewed soon. I am very excited to be getting closer to having something suitable for reading and submitting soon. Again I really appreciate you taking the time to give me an honest critique. I have a good friend who calls everyone he doesn’t like a milky licker. I wanted to incorporate that into the book somewhere. Quick questions; did you notice the bible verse before the chapter? Do you feel the conversation with the President flows naturally?

  3. Will respond on your site so you have the record. Egg

  4. Hey there...

    Great post Egg.

    I wonder if "transitions" is a factor over which authors spend too much time brooding. Do readers want to spend that much time reading a well-written, page-long transition about coming home, as is the point of Exercise 72? I read the Pit and the Pendulum with the purpose of discovering the way Poe dealt with time. Know what? He gave it little effort. A phrase here, a clause there, then BAM, on to the story. As long as we don't sacrifice clarity, when it comes to these little guys, less is more.

    1. After I specifically went looking for transitions, I came to the same conclusion. Experienced authors seem to drop a word or two and move on. Now I'm wondering, as a reader, how much transitional b.s. I've ploughed through for the sake of an author's ego?? Thanks for the thoughts.