Many new writers figure out how to write great descriptive scenes, but they don’t know very well how to link them together.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say that you open a novel to a scene ten pages in that starts, “Let me explain this to you just once: you stay away from my daughter!”
Now, as a reader, it sounds like there is a double threat here. Someone feels that his or her daughter is threatened, and so is making a threat in return. So chances are good that as a reader I’m going to keep going, but I have a dozen questions churning in my mind. Here are a few:
- When does this take place in relation to the previous scene?
- Who is speaking to whom?
- What are the speaker’s intentions, his or her hoped-for outcome?
- What is the speaker willing to do in order to ensure compliance?
- Where in the heck are these people?
- Are there other characters nearby?
- Is there a potential for escalation?
Answering these kinds of questions is the whole point of creating a smooth transition between scenes, and it is when writing transitions that you most often have to break the rules.
You see, one of the most common phrases that a new writer will ever hear is “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, as a new writer you need to learn to appeal to the reader’s senses in order to bring your story to life—the sense of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste—but you also have to relay the viewpoint character’s internal emotions, thoughts, and intent. That’s how you “create” a scene.
But when you’re writing a transition, you often have to ignore that primary rule of “Show, don’t tell.” You often have to simply “tell” the reader some information. So instead of writing evocative scenes in what we call “descriptive writing”, you’re “narrating” to the audience. That narration can be so brief as to seem almost invisible, but it almost has to be there.
Let’s start with that first question. “When does the scene take place in relationship to the previous scene?” There are lots of ways to tell us that. Sometimes it appears in the chapter title: “5:32 PM, August 9, 2020.” Or more often the author will say, “Three days later…” and go on to set up the scene. I’ve read stories where two scenes were separated by as little as 30 seconds or as much as 30,000 years. As a reader, it’s something I need to know.
“Who is speaking to whom?” Once again, that question is easily answered, usually just by adding a dialog tag. I know a lot of authors who feel that they are gaining something by withholding that information for as long as possible. They don’t want to tell you that Jan is speaking to her ex-boyfriend, so they try to hide that for a page or two. It lends an air of mystery to the tale. But when I read such stories, my first thoughts are not very charitable. Personally, I think that if your conflicts are so weak that you have to hide the names of characters in order to hold the reader’s interest, you’re not much of a writer. You might want to go looking for employment at a McDonald’s.
You can tell us outright who the speaker is simply by naming the characters. You might even dress it up with a little description. “Karen leaned across the table at Mel’s Diner, flashed a snub-nosed revolver in her hand, and warned….”
Similarly, most of the time the place where this occurs is important. Is it a secluded area where your protagonist could get in trouble, or is it in the “lion’s den,” so to speak? Does the weather offer some sense of the mood you want to establish? What’s in the background, the mid-ground, and the foreground? All of those might be important. In fact, for readers who prize being transported to another time and place—which is most of them—getting the setting right may be one of the most important aspects of a scene.
“What are the speaker’s intentions?” Most of us, when we’re confronted by a problem, come up with some kind of plan to either escape the problem or resolve it. So you need to let the reader know what your protagonist hopes for as an outcome. Did she come to this diner with the intent of murdering her ex- once and for all, or does she simply want to drive him away? Or did she secretly come because she wants to get back together with him—perhaps wanting it so badly, she doesn’t even admit it to herself? I’m not sure why, but for many writers, revealing the motives of a protagonist is often hard to do. It just feels clumsy. But letting us know motive isn’t hard to do. We can establish it in the protagonist’s direct thoughts, in her dialog with others, or in the actions she takes. We can even simply tell the reader in narration. “Karen hoped to god she didn’t have to kill Brian today as she packed the snub-nosed revolver in her purse. She made sure she had all six chambers loaded anyway.”
I’ll stop here and let you figure out the subtleties of transitions on your own. I think you get the idea. My goal as a writer is to answer the reader’s questions as we open each scene as smoothly as possible. I want to answer the questions before the reader ever has time to wonder at the answers. I want to do it eloquently.
I’m always conscious as I write a transition between scenes of the need to hook and hold the reader
Yes, I may want to weave in just enough imagery in the transition so that my reader finds himself or herself ensnared in the story without realizing what is happening, but I’m very conscious of the fact that there are some times where it is best to “tell” the reader what is going on rather than to “show” them.
If you saw “The Great Showman” there is a line where PT Barnum says “if you haven’t been to the circus recently, you haven’t been at all!”
Well that is how the Apex-Writers group is right now. We just launched our new website! We have a created a community with customizable profiles, groups, and forums. We have updated our courses with a beautiful layout. We are still going strong with our weekly conference calls, and this next week we will be hosting Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta from Wordfire Press, M.J. Rose from AuthorBuzz.
To learn more and join, simply go to https://www.thecompleatwriter.com/
Also, we are running our sale on the online workshops: The Advanced
Story Puzzle and Writing Enchanting Prose, only until Friday. Right
now, both workshops are $100 off, but the prices will go up soon.