Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Fia left this in our 'Have a Question?' box: A few years ago my tutor said my writing read too like a script. I decided to 'tell' more. Now I have the poor protagonist not only waking up but going to the bathroom, brushing her hair, getting in the car...help!

If I understand Fia properly (given that she gave her question the title "Transitions"), the problem she's having is with moving from one scene to another and spanning the time between those scenes without filling in the "story time" with meaningless action. I would first like to point back to this post I did in July about time passing in novels, and then (without bothering myself to read that old post) prolix on a bit here about transitions. I may contradict something I said back in July, in which case, what I say now is right. Unless it's not. Onward:

How do you go from one scene to the next? How much "real-time" activity of a character can you skip?

The first thing you need to know in order to work this out, is which of your scenes are actually necessary. Every scene should move the story (which means either plot or character development) forward. If you have scenes that don't do this, I suggest very strongly that you cut them. No matter what your writing coach might say.

Once your story is made of only necessary scenes (and passages of necessary exposition and narrative summary), you have to come up with the connective tissue that holds them together. But before we work on our transitions, let's put in mind a couple of good rules for effective scenes:

1. "In late, out early": This is an idea used often by screen writers, and it means that you begin your scenes only when something important is about to happen. You don't waste a lot of time setting up the scene or building up to the action. And, once whatever important event has taken place, you don't hang around afterwards as the staff clears off the tables. You get out and move on.

This doesn't mean that scenes should be short, all action and the pace of the novel rushed. This doesn't mean that you can't use the "scene and sequel" technique where after something important happens, your characters think about what that event means to them as people. What it means is that you don't waste your reader's time and that the story never reaches stall speed; you keep moving forward at all times.

2. Scenes are self-contained: This means that the work of setting the scene, describing the surroundings, etc, is all done in the scene itself, and is not done using expository passages that seem to go nowhere. This is a separate set of subjects all unto themselves, so I won't dwell on it here.

Once you have your scenes in well-written form, there are a couple of ways to connect them:

1. Just do it(tm): Jump directly from one scene to another, possibly at a scene break or chapter break.

2. Cut back-and-forth: Switch between characters/locales/events, and each time you return to a character, you've moved the timeline forward or changed the location of the character. You sort of leap-frog your separate storylines (you do have more than one storyline, don't you?).

3. Find the connecting idea: If your story is solidly-built, there is something (an object or an idea or an emotion) that is carried forward from one scene to the next. The reason you have the following scenes, in other words. Think about that reason and how it connects the two scenes, and use it as your transition. I know that I talked about this in the post back in June.

4. "Two hours later...": Just tell your reader that you've moved on with the story, skipping unimportant stuff. Anyone who's read more than, say, two novels will be used to this narrative device, and there's nothing wrong with it. Most of the time, the simplist way to do something is the most effective, least obtrusive, and therefore bestest of all possible ways to do it. The more you try to be fancy, the higher the risk that you'll fail. Do please take risks with your writing, but be prepared to fall on your face some of the time and resort to Plain Old Writing That Works.

The main thing to keep in mind here is that, whenever you find your characters doing things that have nothing to do with the story, you should just cut that stuff. If you can't find a clever or beautiful way of moving the storyline forward to the next scene, try doing it in the most simple and direct manner possible (either a scene break, a chapter break, or declaring to the reader that you've jumped ahead in time).

One of my favorite transitional passages in my work-in-progress is this little bit, that bridges two similar scenes that are set in different places and entail different characters; there is nothing to immediately connect these scenes, so I just pick the reader up and carry them from the first scene to the second:

About six miles south of Abigail’s farm, on a hill that rose above the town of Joppa, Clockshott sat alone in his parlor, waiting for Bull. It was not yet eight o’clock and Clockshott’s hands busied themselves buttoning and unbuttoning the green waistcoat he wore. He was not confident that his guest would come at all.

What I like about this transition is that it's not really a passage between scenes; it is in fact the start of the next scene. Which leads me to one final thought about transitions: don't make them a place of rest, a spot where the story slows down. Think of transitions as the start of something new, not the end of what just happened or a space between things. Always consider how you can maintain forward momentum.

As usual, the best way to learn how this stuff is done well is to read your favorite authors and pay attention to the way they handle these things. Every writer develops favorite techniques for solving these narrative problems, and while we seem to be forced into coming up with solutions individually, there are really only a few ways to do this.

IMPORTANT NOTICE! The Genre Wars short story contest (details here) ends TONIGHT at 11:59 PM PST! There is still time to submit your 2,000-word (or fewer words, if you like) story! Don't delay! Ignore your boss and polish up that prose!


  1. Scott, This is a fantastic post. I think your list is complete enough to keep a writer going strong for a long time! I've never worried too much about transitions. I think I tend to choose the simple route you mentioned in 4. Of course, with the multiple story lines, I was also able to jump around quite a bit. Come to think of it, that was very helpful.

    I think a lot of people have trouble with transitions because they think they need to be clever. Clever is fine, but you don't always have to be it, as you say.

  2. I admire that paragraph from your WIP. It sets the place, his nervousness and why he's there in a visual and succinct way.
    I have a question about Genre Wars. Did it close at midnight or is it open today until midnight? If it's still open, I may submit something. NaNo sucked me away during Nov.

  3. My comment seems to have vanished, so I shall rewrite. I really like how you wrote that transitional paragraph, Scott. It set the place and his nervousness and why he was there so visually.
    I also have a question: Is Genre Wars open through today through midnight or did it close to entries already?

  4. Tricia, the deadline is tonight at 11:59 pm, PST. :)

  5. Davin: Ta, awfully. I just hope I actually address Fia's concerns. If not, she should step up and complain ("You guys suck!").

    I think that in most cases, the simplest solution to writerly problems is the best. Transitions are something that rarely vex me, though they once did. A couple of years ago I wrote a story that deliberatley had a bunch of different settings and scenes just to force myself to practice writing transitions, and that helped my technique a lot.

    Tricia: The comments were being wonky for a while, but they seem to have sorted themselves out. Anyway, the Genre Wars contest deadline is December 1, 2009 at 11:59 p.m. PST. Thanks for the admiration of my prose! It's from a rough draft, and hopefully I'll remember to change "Clockshott sat alone in his parlor" to "Clockshott sat alone in the parlor of his house" when I get to my revisions.

  6. Great post, Scott!

    I'm trying to re-read some of my recent faves with a more analytical, writerly eye. Let's hope it works!

    Thanks for the great advice.

  7. This is the first time I've seen anyone discussing this subject and yet it's so difficult to create good transitions.
    I think I end up using the simple time-jumping technique most of the time if it's part of the same arc and a chapter break if its not (although I reckon I can get away with one rogue time jump to a different arc towards the end of a chapter).
    I've also occasionally used the 'while this was going on' ploy which I suppose is similar if not same as the example.

  8. Based on the question, I think point 1 is the most applicable, but all are noteworthy.

    If a scene takes place at work, start with the character at a desk answering a phone, not smacking the snooze button and then getting showered and dressed...unless there is something specific to tell about the character in the act of grooming. Here's a scene from on of my novels where the character wakes up after a terrible nightmare:

    Gil awoke, exhausted. He rubbed his eyes and pulled his fingers through his damp hair. His faded blue pajama shirt stuck to his back from residual sweat. He shrugged his shoulders to pull it loose.

    Gil climbed out of bed and went into the bathroom. He avoided the mirror and went straight to the commode. He stood for a while before the stream started to flow; his body had put out a lot of water during the night, and his need to go was not urgent. He finished and washed his hands, looking down so he would not have to face his reflection.

    You don't need to read the preceding scene to know that he had a tumultuous night. But the pajamas sticking to him and his sweaty hair is not as important as the fact that he is afraid to look himself in the mirror. Without that revelation, these two paragraphs have no material impact and would quickly meet the DELETE button.

  9. This is the first time I've stumbled across your blog, thanks to fellow mystery writer Elizabeth S Craig's tweets today!

    I must say that your thoughts on transitions are excellent. Sometimes (especially during NaNo) I find myself going from one extreme to another: one time, I'll have my characters going through every little process, other times, they just jump from one thing to another. Finding a healthy balance is key in good writing, and I find I read my favorite authors frequently just for learning purposes.

    I plan on following your blog, and adding it to the blogroll on my own blog!

  10. Tere: Reading like a writer is one of the best skills we can have. Everything I do well in my own fiction has been stolen from my favorite writers.

    Cardiff: I think that for practical purposes there are really only two ways to move to a new scene (continuing the last scene or breaking away from the last scene). As long as writers resist the urge to give us every single moment of the protagonist's existance during the events of the story, we have to simply jump ahead through time to the next scene. The less attention we draw to the mechanics of this, the better.

    Rick: Right on both points! The scene has to contain some vital information or it's just filler. And the writer shouldn't waste time getting around to that vital information.

    Which is, again, not to say that things have to rush. You can go directly from vital scene to vital scene at a relaxed pace. It's possible to move slowly through a narrative while not wasting a second of the reader's time.

  11. Liberty: Thanks for stopping by and commenting (and thanks to Elizabeth for tweeting the post)!

    I think that one thing that affects how we move through a story and how much sort of ancillary activity (details of daily life, that is) we include is the POV we're using. I think that the closer we get to the characters and the shorter the emotional distance between the reader and the POV character, the easier it is to sort of stay put and remain with the character while they go off-task. All of the story elements work together and influence each other.

  12. I normally try to self contain chapters to one scene/event, rather than multiple scenes/events. If there are multiple scenes/events then I do section breaks to clearly identify the new scene/event and will actually try to denote a length of time if necessary.

    I also struggle with the walked across the kitchen, grabbed the open bottle of wine, filled his glass, and walked back to the table. I sometimes wonder how necessary these 'events' are within a story, and try to limit such 'action' passages to a bare minimum.


  13. Scott: I think a lot of writers do the "one scene per chapter" thing. I like to have three scenes per chapter at least, because my chapters are all mini-dramas with dramatic arcs and three-act structure. I'm not kidding. Three-part structure is the basis of all my storytelling, I am coming to find.

    As long as the "pours a glass of wine" sequences tells us about character or reveals something else important to the reader, it's fine to include it. Otherwise, it might just be filler. We hates filler.

  14. I really like Rick's example; it shows what a scene should be used for: to build character or further plot.

    Nice post, Scott. Really good advice.

  15. Great post, Scott. And I think transitions are one of the hardest things to get right. Thanks for all the tips!

  16. Great post.

    I'm gonna have to remember that in late out early thing. I feel like a lot of my scenes are slow in starting, probably because I wasn't always sure at the beginning about where the scene was going.

    I, personally, am of the Just Do It school. A lot of my transitions are scene breaks, and then I'll say something like, "On Wednesday...." It gets the job done, and I don't risk doing something crazy by trying to be clever. I save that for other things.

  17. All very well said, Scott. Thank you for answering this question! It goes well with your other post, and I must second what you say about reading and paying attention. I've been reading a lot this past month, and I've learned more about writing in a few weeks than I have in the past year. Amazing, that.

  18. I've written short stories in which I had no idea how to get from one scene to another, so just hit Return a couple of times and decided to go back and fill in the blanks later. Lo and behold, when I went back to bridge the gaps, it usually only took a sentence or two.

    That's the beauty of writing. We can take huge leaps in time and space in just a few words.

    Excellent post, good sir.

  19. I adore this post, as my WIP unfolds throughout my mc's childhood and then into her college life.

    Clearly, I can't write about everysingleday she lives and everysignlething she does all day.

    And, I can't always signify the passage of time with a new chapter. I've found to leave a little white space before a new paragraph works, especially when writing the first sentence with something that clearly shows the reader time has passed:

    Laurel started her first period at the age of eleven. Her mother called it a monumental moment in her life.

  20. You guys rock!

    This is not only the first time I've read advice on this subject, but it's such good advice too.

    I've printed it out and stuck on the wall of the shed - where I write or pretend to.

    Thank you.

  21. Fia: Glad this was helpful! Hey, I read the "haircut" story (or portion of your novel) on your blog, and I liked it. Your writing is lovely, and you captured the sense of being pushed to the edge of the events (until you had to pay) really well. Keep writing!

  22. Thank you. Sweet of you to read it.

    It needs revision - a lot - but I won't touch it because it helps to see my mistakes.

    Good luck with your debut novel. Let us know when it's published.


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