When, as a very young man, I took up the writer's trade I had a good idea of the obstacles I had to overcome. I had read the book (How to Write for Money by Jack Woodford—first published in 1944 and still great fun to read); I subscribed to The Writer, to The New York Review of Books, and to Astounding Science Fiction Magazine; and I knew how to re-ink a used typewriter ribbon (a few drops of sewing machine oil and then pull the ribbon tight and let it sit for a week).
I was ready to handle plot, subplot, characterization, mise en scene, exposition, mood, dialogue, style, the proper use of the adjective, finding an agent, dealing with editors, 1,000 ways to cook beans, and other details of the writer's life. I had researched the Hook, the Handle, the Funny Hat, and the Payoff, and had a nodding acquaintance with spelling and grammar.
But I had no idea how to get a character through a door.
Not that I couldn't think of many ways to write my character from one side of that door to the other. But how could I tell which was the best way for this character going through this doorway at this moment?
And characters go through many doors: from bedroom to living room, from courtroom to jury room, from inside to outside. There are the figurative doors: across town, from country to city, from country to country, from planet to planet, from past to future (and back). And metaphysical doors: transitions in viewpoint from hero to villain, palace to hovel, ecstasy to sorrow, the plebeian to the exalted.
One great hint: if you're writing a book and come to a major transition point, it's a good place to end the chapter. This sets up the reader to expect a transition of some sort. But which sort? That's mostly done by feel—what feels right to you will probably feel best to the reader. Of course in order to develop this skill, you have to have felt a lot of transitions.
Let's look at the different sorts of transitions and see how we can best achieve this goal of selfless creation.
There is a gaggle of different ways to describe getting from place to place, scene to scene. Motion pictures have a vocabulary for this and I'll borrow a few of their terms to demonstrate the more basic notions:
This describes an instant jump from one scene to the next. One second you're in the conning tower of the U Boat listening to the sonar "pings" of the approaching destroyer, and the next you're on the bridge of the destroyer ready to deploy depth charges. Using words instead of pictures the equivalent might be:
John struggled to get out of the quicksand, every movement seeming to draw him in deeper until now the vile ooze was up to his nose.
In another part of the swamp Bernice was having her own problems.
This is useful when you don't want to hold up the action, or when you want to create tension by switching to another scene while leaving your character in some sort of quandary—physical, emotional or otherwise—until you return to him.
Also instantaneous, but we cut from something in one scene to something analogous or possibly identical in the next. Often used to show the passage of time. We see a character throwing a basketball. We close in on the basket as the ball goes through, and when we pull back we discover the same character, but twenty years older (or younger).
In words perhaps:
As Waldo walked up the gangplank to the Queen Esmerelda his mind flashed back to his honeymoon cruise 34 years before.
"Take my picture, Waldo," Monique had gurgled, posing seductively at the top of the gangplank while he lugged her giant vanity case up behind her.This is good for creating an emotional bond between the two scenes, or stressing some physical relationship between them
The camera follows the actor (or vehicle) about as it does its thing. In words, we do the same:
Petrovski peddled down Main Street, listening entranced to the chirping of the birds and the croaking of the frogs. Turning left at Spring, he parked his tricycle in front of the Moles and Stoats pet store, whereupon...
You stay with the character as he moves from one place to another, thus not breaking the continuity although you have changed locations.
Also known as fade out, this is when the scene slowly disappears and the screen turns, usually, black. ("Fade to Black" is, traditionally the last instruction in a film script, indicating that the show is over.)
And so we bid farewell to Richmond as it disappears in the fog behind us while our ship slowly sails...
This provides an emotional end to the past scene and prepares the reader for something new.
There are other terms used by cinematographers, but these are sufficient to serve our writerly purposes.
From Room to Room
A slow transition can be used to supply information about the protagonist or the situation without seeming to hold up the plot. After all, the poor guy has to get from here to there, doesn't he?
But if you're in the middle of an action sequence you want to keep it moving, so it might be better to do a quick cut instead of a slow fade.
So George (your character) is in the kitchen and you want to get him to the living room. There's a party going on and there's a blonde he'd like to meet and one or two people he'd like to avoid.
George turned the flame off under the kettle and went into the living room. "Have some of this stinky cheese," he said to the blonde by the piano.
There.We've effectively done a cut, quick and painless.
Wait a minute—perhaps this is too abrupt for our readers. George was in motion. Was he carrying something? A plate of hors d'oeuvres? A drink or two? An air of defiance? Was the door between the two rooms open or closed? Did he see any of the people he wanted to see? Was he forced to slink around the davenport to avoid someone? Did he tiptoe, waddle, ooze, march, or possibly hop? He probably didn't skip—George isn't the sort of fellow who skips.
Balancing the platter of pickled shrimp on his forearm, George gingerly pushed open the macrame curtain shielding the living room from the fowl odors of the roasting turkey and took small, careful steps, threading his way toward Marsha who, sitting at the piano stool, was ....
Hmmm. Maybe not. At this rate it will take him forever to make it to the piano. Follow your character slowly and in detail if the information you're adding is essential, or at least worth knowing. Otherwise it's probably a good idea to just cut to the next scene.
Of course transitions don't always slow down the action. Remember the opening of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Jones transited from the temple to the boat while being chased by a giant boulder, a rival archaeologist, and a pack of pissed-off natives? That was the action.
In Devil's Waltz, Jonathan Kellerman's hero Alex spends much of Chapter Sixteen on the phone with his detective friend Milo. The conversation ends with Milo saying:
"Already did that...Years ago, when I thought we might become friends."
And then the narrative skips a line and takes up:
I took a ride to Culver City...
Alex doesn't even hang up the phone. Kellerman just skips a line—Cut!—and goes on.
Now let's look at a short follow shot. In Evan Only Knows by Rhys Bowen, Evan and his companion Bronwen have spent the evening in a pub.
It was late when they finally came out into the darkened street and stood in the halo of a street lamp while Evan located his keys.
"I hope that wasn't too much of an ordeal for you," he said, opening the door for her.
Bronwen gave him a dazzling smile as she climbed in. "Not at all. I found it very interesting—Stodge." [a nickname for him she has just discovered.]
He decided to say nothing about his talk with Maggie. There was no point.
When they got home...
What sort of transition you use depends on just what you need to accomplish. If your character is going someplace he's gone endless times before, you might as well just get him there. If he's headed somewhere new you might want take time to describe it and establish, if you like, what awaits him. If the journey is part of the story, then we envy you; journeys are fun to write.
What's the farthest we can take a character? A galaxy far, far away? Oz? Down the rabbit hole? Middle Earth? Do we use a space ship? A cyclone? A rabbit with a pocket watch? A passel of wizards? Each, you will notice, fits the universe it inhabits. Extraordinary settings demand suitable transitions. The action should contribute to the sense of wonder—or of "otherness"—of the universe surrounding it, but it should not draw attention to itself unless you, the author, choose to have it stand out.
Back in the days of the pulp magazines there was a writer, let's call him Van Isaac, who had a series novel running in, I think it was, Amazing Planet Adventures. At the end of one episode he had his hero Captain Galaxy sealed—welded—into a stainless steel cube with one two-hour oxygen cylinder, drifting somewhere beyond the orbit of Neptune, while the villain went off to destroy the planet Earth and kidnap the hero's girlfriend.
How was Captain Galaxy going to escape? The editor was afraid that Isaac had written himself into a corner, or worse, into a stainless steel cube somewhere past the orbit of Neptune. But Isaac showed up on the appointed day with a fresh bunch of pages. The editor grabbed it and read the first line:
Somehow he got out.
Seconds later he appeared on the skywalk on Newer New York....
Well, the fact that this story has been told among writers for the past 75 years is a good sign that this is not a usual way of moving among the planets. It is also not an acceptable way to write fiction. Wonderful, but not acceptable.
Despite the fact that Isaac apparently got away with this, you and I must make our transitions plausible and, unless needed for the plot, unexceptional.
When headed for another city, or country, or world, take into account the method of travel and the time necessary to get there.
Before and After
In my short mystery story "Blind Justice," set in ancient Rome, I have Quintilian, my detective, visit the home of the victim Marcus and his son Rufus:
The next day we went to the home of the deceased Marcus Vexianus Abracius.
But wait! What a great chance to throw in some expository material about both Quintilian and Rome, make them both, as it were, more rounded characters:
The next day we journeyed across Rome to the home of Rufus and his stepmother, Quintilian walking briskly the whole way and I scurrying along behind as best I could. Over Quirinal Hill and Viminal Hill we went without pausing. Even the two slaves we brought along as bodyguards, great, hulking Celts from the Islands of the Mists, had trouble keeping up with him.There was a brief respite before we climbed Esquiline Hill, but only because a senator recognized Quintilian and bade him stop and answer a brief question regarding the proper raising of the senator's young nephews. Quintilian loved to walk in all weathers, claiming he could think better as he strode along. For my part, I had all I could do to breathe, and had little energy left for thinking at all.
When we arrived at the home of the deceased Marcus Vexianus Abracius...
I think that creates a fuller picture of Quintilian and his world as he climbs and descends the hills of ancient Rome.
The truly frustrating thing is that if you get really good at this essential part of the writer's craft, if you put the necessary amount of blood and sweat into picking just the right words, the transitions will slide by unnoticed, the reader having no idea that you've done anything clever. One of the secrets of good writing is that the cleverest things are transparent and don't intrude between the reader and the story. And so they slide by unnoticed except occasionally by another writer who will point and say, "Wow! I like the way you did that."
So what I suggest is that you look for authors that provoke the "wow" reaction in you and see how they do it. Everyone has a different list. Mine would include Eric Ambler, Harlan Ellison, Joe Gores, Dorothy Sayers, and Kurt Vonnegut.
This article first appeared in The Writermagazine.