Friday, May 21, 2010

Transitions and What Makes them Good

Transitions are a tricky subject to tackle and one I’m having difficulties with right now, which is why I decided to write a post on the matter (go figure!). I’m working on one of my older pieces, titled “Eldrie” and I’m at a point where my characters have a sudden understanding that they are not just ordinary characters, but extraordinary ones.

Now, I admit, this transition is very popular in epic fantasy and its counter transition is just as well used (character comes into the story knowing that he’s extraordinary, and either finds out that he’s not as amazing as he at first thought, or else he uses his awesome powers to fight off evil forces… this transition is more popular with urban fantasy than with epic.) But let’s all face it; we read fantasy and Sci-fi because we like that sort of transition… and all the magical and futuristic baubles that tag along with it. We wouldn’t read it (or write it) if we didn’t.

The trick, however, is for a writer to make these transitions look new and appealing as if we were the first ones to think them up. And let me tell you now, it is NOT easy! There are no (or else very, very few) ideas out there that haven’t been tapped into before, and the same thing goes with transitions.

So what do you do when you find yourself stuck writing a transition that just doesn’t want to work?

Well, for shorter transitions such as scene or chapter changes, here is a tip from the all important literary agent:

First and foremost, do NOT describe weather.

Weather is a fine thing, and as writers we all want our readers to know what’s going on at all times, whether it’s raining, snowing, morning, or night. But agents have made it clear, they don’t like reading long descriptions of the weather or how brilliantly light or deeply dark it is outside unless it seriously affects the scene.

Let me be the first to admit, I am totally guilty of this.

To be honest, weather is an easy subject to use and it’s one of the first things a writer considers when trying to set a scene or start a new chapter. I don’t know how many times I’ve started a scene with “The night was dark” or “The sun rose... [fill in the rest of the sentence]”. Recently I’ve tried to go back and rewrite these transitions so that they fit the scene better.

Here’s a quick example. In the first excerpt, I’m trying to describe one of my villains to the MC who is seeing the creature for the first time. The setting is late at night in the MC’s front yard. What I’m trying to portray is sense of deep evil and dread, even though my MC has never seen or heard of the villain before. In this particular instance, the fact that it is dark out is very important, as my MC just woke up from a nightmare set in the black of night on a high cliff top.

Outside, the night was black. Clouds scuttled across the sky, hiding the stars from view.  A dark figure stood in the yard. Tibain figured it to be several feet taller than Dakore and it was completely black. Shadows darkened the ground around it and no moonlight fell where they were. No moonlight fell on the figure either; it repelled the light like an oil-skin repels water.

That was the original text. Did you catch the “black night” reference? Did you also catch how it countered the fact that the moon was out?

Well, recently I’ve gone back and rewritten the scene to seem more forbidding and dark.  I tried to be careful when choosing my words, and I was also careful to have the weather set the scene rather than hinder it. See if this sounds any better:

Tibain slid his dagger from under his mattress and eased himself out from beneath the covers. Keeping his movements as silent as possible, he crept over to the window and drew the shutters open. Clouds scuttled across the sky, hiding the stars from view. The moon’s ghostly light shone through them, piercing them with silver. The land lay beneath it, cast in a spectral glow.

A tall, dark figure stood beneath the oak tree. Moonlight splattered over the shoulders of its tattered black cloak, filtered through the branches above. Shadows darkened the ground around it, stretching towards it like errily reaching fingers.

In my personal opinion, I like the second version better. I cut out the “black night” reference, and instead made the fact that the moon was out seem almost more frightening than if it’d been hidden away. (or at least I tried to).

But there are other types of transitions too, and they are not so easily dealt with.  Like, for example, the one I was talking about earlier - you know, the one I'm having trouble taming. That one spans several chapters and covers several scenes.  My problem? I feel like I’m taking too long to get to the point.

So what do I do now, eh? Do I let it sit? Do I fall over my laptop and cry out of frustration? Do I rewrite it?

Actually, the first thing I did was go and look up possible solutions in “Novel Shortcuts” by Laura Whitcomb. (and no, I’m not being paid to advertise her book.) Seriously though, I’ve found it to be an immense help, and I suggest that every writer get a copy. My problem right now is that I feel like my transition comes too late in the story, so I flipped to chapter 9 in Ms. Whitcomb’s book and looked up “pace and structure”.

There it was, listed #2.

For copyright reasons, I will not actually quote Ms. Whitcomb’s book, but I will try to summarize what it said.

Basically it said:

If you think your novel is moving too slow, then pay attention to that feeling. It could mean that you have too many scenes that don’t really pertain to the actual plot, or maybe you just like to describe things in detail but you don’t need to. Try to cut out what you don’t need, including some scenes that aren’t as important as others. Cut back on your adjectives and adverbs and use them only when absolutely necessary; sometimes things can be described better without them. Then, if cutting things out doesn’t help, go back and look at the outline or rough draft: perhaps your problem isn’t in too many words, but in the flow of actions. If your characters actions don’t seem to flow correctly, go back and try to figure out what went wrong, then try to fix it. You might find that the problem get’s fixed by rearranging (or cutting) a few scenes to keep your reader’s turning pages. Also, read, read, read!!! Reading and analyzing transitions to see what made them work from some of your favorite books might help you realize what is going wrong with yours.

So that’s what I’ve been doing, and it’s already helped a lot. I’ve gone back and cut words (and a few scenes) and have started re-reading some books that I feel have a similar story voice as mine. (when reading someone else’s work to discover a problem in your own writing, I’ve found that it’s always best to choose something with a similar voice because the style I’m reading tends to slip into my writing style as well).

If anyone out there struggles with transitions as much as I do, I hope this post helps. Transitions aren’t easy, I know… believe me, I know! But they can be done and done well. It just takes time and determination, and before you know it your book will be reading smoothly again. :)


Squeaks said...

Awesome post! I totally know what you mean about transitions. I've been working on getting mine to run smoothly from one thought to the next. I want readers to not even notice that something is in transition until after it occurs...the result is a nice kind of shock :P

Oh by the way, did you get my email I sent you? I've begun to wonder whether I typed in the wrong email address XD


Galadriel said...

Very useful advice

Jaleh D said...

Transitions are a real pain. I'll have to keep those suggestions in mind, maybe find that book for the other suggestions, too.

Jake said...

Okay, I JUST finished the rough draft of the short story. Sorry! It's about 2000 or so words (which'll probably increase before it get's to you). You can expect the story in the next couple of days. :D


Celebrilomiel said...

Great post, Nicole! That's really helpful!

Anonymous said...

Nice post, I didn't know about these points in the plot were called transitions and that they could be so tricky. Thanks. :)

Star-Dreamer said...

I'm glad it could be helpful! :D