Wednesday, 18 May 2011


Hi everyone - congratulations on making it through the week this far. It's been tough, but the worst is over now, right? We can totally survive until Friday. Totally. Right? Probably. Heh heh. Ahem.

Why the patently false cheer, you ask? Weren't you all over the moon and full of optimism and energy just a few days ago? Weren't you about to start work on your beloved Big Secret Project? Shouldn't you be, like, HAPPY and stuff?

Well, that was the plan, dear readers, honestly it was. But little did I realise that something insidious, inescapable and invidious (check your thesaurus) was lurking for me within the pages of Big Secret Project. Something called...a transition. Otherwise known as Writer's Kryptonite.


You see, I had already written the first three chapters of BSP for my agent at the beginning of this year, and, as authors are wont to do, I had paused just as a moment of high tension left the characters on a cliff-hanger. So when I revisited the book, I happily churned out the second part of this exciting action scene, and checked my synopsis only to find a section a little bit like this:

"Something interesting happens. The police arrive and insist on taking the characters to the hospital to be checked out. After they have both seen a doctor, and have evaded the police's questions, the girls are about to head home when something even more interesting happens."

(Warning - events have been changed to protect the innocent. And the guilty)

Writers often pepper their outlines with lines like this. They pop out of our brains as easily as fungal spores pop out of mould, and it never occurs to us that they will cause us untold pain and suffering later on. It would never occur to ANYONE reading the outline, probably, that such a line would make a working author freeze in their tracks, and sit with their head in their hands, groaning, for days at a time.

Just what is the problem? Well, everything between the first interesting event and the second interesting event is what we call a transition. A bridging scene, if you will. A section of writing in which nothing particularly important happens, no characters change or develop, nothing new is introduced into the story, and the plot does not move forward - but which nevertheless must be written in order to preserve narrative flow and a sense of consequences and reality within the story.

This particular transition calls for the arrival of the police on the scene, their reactions, and then either a short section taking place in the back of a police car and another one in a hospital, or possibly a little time skip and then a longer section in the hospital. We need to see that one of the characters has a few minor injuries, and that the characters realise they can't tell anyone about the interesting events they've seen. Some other pieces of information need to be scattered here too, cunningly, so that readers can come to their own conclusions about the way stuff in the story is going to work.

It doesn't sound hard, does it? But it is, dear readers, it really, truly is. Writing a transition scene like this is probably the hardest thing that I have to do. Transitions are like my kyptonite. I only have to catch a glimpse of one and I get weak and sick. I'm supposed to get my characters from A to B in a way which is brief, interesting, and which conveys the necessary information, and yet, nothing actually HAPPENS here. I have NO IDEA HOW. None. How in the world am I supposed to keep readers from throwing the book down in disgust and boredom when they come across these pages? How?

The temptation is always to skip these little scenes. To simply jump forward in time within the story and start the next scene in the middle of the action - or to write straight from one exciting event to another. But it doesn't work. Trust me, I've tried it. What happens is:

a) You end up with a series of short, choppy scenes which don't feel anchored in the story world and which distance the reader from the reality you're trying to create.


b) You avoid the first transition but find that there's an now inescapable need for one in the next scene because you HAVE to convey the information and the sense of time passing somehow. So you keep pushing forward trying to avoid THAT transition. But then you really need another one. Before you know what you've done, you have a dragging, lagging, soggy midsection in which plenty of stuff happens but none of it's the slightest bit interesting because it's all happening one thing after another with no sense of any of it actually linking together into a story, and pacing went out the window.

Transitions, dude. They're a b***h.

But wait! Before we all give up on writing forever because the mere thought of writing a bridging scene is enough to send us fleeing to a dark corner to rock and make strangled moaning noises - there IS a way to make transitions interesting and worthwhile! It's just really hard, that's all.

Basically, you have to find what I call 'a way in'. That is, a way to approach the House of Transitions craftily, through a side door or a window, so that you can convince yourself and your characters and hopefully the readers that it's not actually a transition you're walking through here at all.

Example? Well, let's say that in the above mentioned transition, we see the police cars screech to a halt and have our characters exchange apprehensive glances. Then we skip forward in time and join our main character in the waiting room of the hospital. She's been separated from her friend because the friend hit her head and needs some x-rays. The police are peppering the main character with questions about the interesting event which she can't answer because she knows that they'll think she's lying or insane. Let's make her feel a bit tense and frightened during this, especially since she's all alone. The way she reacts will be a good illustration of her character. And let's use the questions the police ask to make it clear what her friend has said, so that we know the friend is also denying all knowledge - that's an efficient way of getting that across to the reader.

But the scene is still a bit bland, because it's too familiar and too uneventful. What if we dig a bit deeper into the main character? Let's say the last time that she was in the hospital was when a close family member that she loved a great deal passed away. Let's say that was a very traumatic event for her, and that remembering it also makes her remember a lot of other bits of information which the reader will need to know sooner or later too, about the character's family set-up. And what if the character glancing over these fragments of memory also hints intriguingly at future events in the story? Now we can not only have a scene which illustrates the main character's personality, but which illuminates her past and foreshadows her future too.

Yes, this is still a transition scene. But now it's also a scene in which so many other things are going on that the reader can't help but be interested. The writer can't help but be interested!

It's not always as straightforward as this. Sometimes the way in can be the realisation that the scene needs to take place on a frozen lake, with the characters sliding around and hanging onto each other and laughing the whole time, or that one of the characters is furious but trying to hide it, or that the transition you're writing now needs to mirror one that's coming up in another three chapter's time. Like I said, its tough. But it is worth it in the end. And the reason I know this?

Because when my editor emailed me to tell me she had loved the new version of FF, she singled out two particularly powerful points in the story - and one of them was a transition scene which I HATED writing. I'd tried so hard to make that transition worthwhile that I came out the other side and turned it into a pivotal scene.

That's basically like Superman laughing in kryponite's face, guys. Awesome, right?

So what's your writing kryptonite, and how do you deal with it?


Abbey R said...

I totally agree: transition scenes are some of the hardest things to write. That's mostly where I get stuck and get a really bad case of writer's block. It IS hard to overcome but not impossible.

Zoë Marriott said...

I think it's easier to overcome once you realise that's WHY you're stuck. I didn't even figure out what transitons were until I was writing my last book! I just knew I kept getting stuck in scenes that should have been 'easy'. My friend had to point out what was really going on.

Megha said...

Transition scenes are hard for me to write. (I didn't know they were called that :P) I... don't see the point, but like you, the scene HAS to be there, or else. It's hard to make them interesting, because there's hardly anything going on! But yeah, I agree with you totally, I try to add some characterisation-y stuff in it. What doesn't kill me makes me stronger. =D

Zoë Marriott said...

That's a writer's motto all right, Megha!

Heather said...

I had never heard of transition scenes until just now, but I think this is exactly what I've been struggling with, so thanks! :)
I think my kryptonite is probably figuring out where to start and finish chapters. It sounds like a basic skill, but I can't seem to get it right and keep the tension going. My first drafts are usually long and sprawling because I find splitting them into chapters too much of a pain.

Zoë Marriott said...

I have a lot of friends who do that - just write the whole thing in a block and then split it up when it's finished because then they can see the whole thing and where the natural breaks are. I think that's a very valid way of working.

serendipity_viv said...

I am going to save this post for future reference, as I know exactly which scenes you mean within my own writing! I can almost let you virtually walk me through them.

Zoë Marriott said...

I'm glad it might be useful - I really just wanted to rant about my least favourite scenes!

Lynsey Newton said...

I like the fact that the possibilities are endless - you use the "what if" question and let your imagination run wild. I think I like transitions, perhaps that makes me a little weird. I reserve the right to change my mind about that if needed in the future!

Also, I recommend the shower for thinking time. It works wonders.

Zoë Marriott said...

Well, see - that's the weird thing, because one writer's kryptonite is another writer's best fun ever. One of my friends hates action scenes, and I LOVE writing those. It's as individual as people's personalities.

Megha said...

Ooh! I love writing action scenes, even if they end up rubbish. It's so fun to read my work afterwards and see it as a reader would.

I actually think action scenes somehow help with characterisation/finding out more about a character. Action scenes are actually a way I find out more about my own characters, if I'm stuck.

Isabel said...

Wow, I'm surprised to find that transitional scenes -- even after all that you have complained about them -- don't... bother me. They come naturally. For example, in the chapter I am writing now I am IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FIRST HUUUUUGE climax of my book. And my plan was to dive straight into it. But instead I sat down to write and a nice couple of pages that really weren't very important at all but that were INTERESTING somehow got written down instead. And just like that I found a PERFECT transition into the climax. How interesting... however, I do have a lot of other things that I find very difficult in writing. But I don't think transition scenes is one of them. ;)

I was listening to "Fighter" all through reading this blog post. Actually, I've been listening to it ever since I got home and I've lost track of how many times I've pressed "Replay". ;)

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: I think any scene that moves the characters forward though the plot should be developing them too, and action scenes tend to move things forward at high speed!

Isabel: Lucky you! My life would be a lot easier if I could transition smoothly. It's something that I hope I'm getting better at, but I doubt I'll ever find it natural.

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