Stories – great or small – are made up of a series of scenes. As writers, we focus on perfecting scenic elements and structure – the characters’ inner lives and conflicting objectives build tension to a climax of action, emotion or realization. Then comes the denouement which results in resolution, decision, change.
From this rise and fall comes the rhythm of our plot. Each scene moves our story along. But they are linked together by transitions. Seemingly insignificant but sometimes bogglingly tough, transitions are the necessary seams that bind our stories together.
Too often I have used the sewing metaphor, quoting a beloved acting teacher of mine to “stay on the thread of the scene”. But actors don’t have to worry what happens when they leave the stage. As writers, we are simultaneously the actors, director, scenery, props…. Once the scene is over, do you simply close the curtain and push in another set? Or do you follow the character into the next room, up the stairs and into bed, taking every step along the way?
So how to approach transitions? Efficiently, carefully, with respect that these small stitches are the key to everything. They need to be invisible, or if they’re noticed, they have to add something significant to the whole like decorative embroidery or the pocket stitching on jeans.
Some writers boldly avoid transitions by separating their scenes with section breaks or moving chapter to chapter in short, disconnected blips. It’s certainly an option and, when successful, creates a fascinating effect that shapes an entirely different kind of narrative. But for me, a traditionalist, part of the craft lies in tying things together neatly, logically and organically.
Often we make the mistake of revving up for our scenes, using several paragraphs of internal musing or explanatory writing to prepare the reader for what comes next. Often the information we think we so desperately need is already there in the body of the scene, or can be told through a quick whip-stitch of gesture, reflection, or a well-planned tilt of the character’s head.
When you find yourself with a long chunk of exposition, take it as a hint to cut or at least trim significantly. Exposition stops the flow of the narrative. Though sometimes the reader can use a brief rest between scenes. So I’m not suggesting that exposition is taboo. The trick is knowing just how much is enough and when and how to jump back into the action.
Last night, Sandra did a masterful job by matching of the eyes of two of her characters in the rearview mirror. The shift was seamless as she moved us from a reminiscence to the present moment of her narrative. I can guarantee that transition was hard won. And Stephanie revised her scene by cutting the unnecessary technical chatter and getting us more quickly to the snappy dialogue we all love.
Unfortunately, there are no “how-to’s” for all this. It’s a painful, meandering lesson in trial and error. Just becoming aware of your own tendencies helps to cut the ambling a bit. For example, years ago I was frequently accused of making all my characters walk from place to place between scenes. Maybe it was my growing love of hiking, but it didn’t serve my narrative at all. I’ve learned to move along more quickly these days, but I still struggle with it. In fact, I’ve been stuck all week at the beginning of an argument. Why couldn’t I just let my characters start fighting? Well, all those threads needed to be tied, but they started bunching up on me. So I pulled them apart, decided what was really necessary and tried again.
I think I’ve got it now, but I’m giving it some breath and distance. So we’ll see.