Caro Clarke writer

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Transitions: getting your story through time and space

Transitions are the ways a writer gets the characters from scene to scene.

Scenes are units of your story containing a set of related actions in (usually) one time and one place. They serve exactly as scenes do in films and stage plays. Movies also need transitions, and these are the simple cut, the wipe, the dissolve, the fade out and so on. Sometimes films use textual transitions, where a word or phrase sets up the new scene explicitly: "1849" or "London", or they show us a detail, what I call a 'fixing detail', to pinpoint exactly when or where we are now. "1849" might be an aerial view of a gold-miners' camp, or a steamship's poster for 'passage to the gold-fields of California'. London might be signalled by Big Ben or a double-decker bus swinging through Piccadilly Circus.

Modern novels have borrowed from film, but film borrowed from earlier novels. Novels have always used a range of transitions, and all of these techniques continue to be used. I divide these into direct and indirect transitions.

Direct Transitions
The direct transition has to move the story in time or place. They are the straightforward statements of a change of time or location (or both) to the reader.

One of the simplest is writing heading for a new scene or a chapter that gives the day or month or season, what I call the "date-stamp": "Sunday" or "September" or "Spring". Or even "Later" or "Many years later" or "Childhood".

A stated direct transition is useful if you have a story happening at two different times, for instance: "Winter, 1849" and "April, 2004", letting your readers know that you are now cutting over to the other story thread. It could be the same time in two different locations: "East bank of the Mississippi, June 1849" and "Smith Farm, Massachusetts, June 1849."

Date-stamps are often seen in thrillers and action novels, where they sign-post rapid changes of time, location or both, speeding up comprehension (why say "Kate was now in Las vegas, having caught the red-eye from London" when you can just say "Las Vegas: 5:00am"?), Date-stamps in a thriller give it a subtle authenticity and the sense of time running out.

Date-stamps are especially useful in time-travelling novels. However, this is not the only way to signal a change in time, and I think it is more fun for the reader and more fun for the writer to use indirect transitions, which I discuss below.

Fictional dates and times also help to signal that the story has moved to a new time or place and remind the reader that they are now in a strange and even alien environment: "In the Reign of King Xog IV, Imperator of the Lands of Vassillas, during the Time of the Black Famine" or "Star Date: 2273.4".

Changes in location can also be stated directly. "London" does what it needs to do as the title or heading of a scene that has shifted to London.

Direct Transitions are convenient, easy, and make the change from scene to scene clear. They are a standard narrative device and should be used without ornament, in the same way as "he said" is part of the furniture. It is better to say "California 1849" than to waste your readers' time and patience with "The global center of greed, the hell of hope, that corner of Pacific paradise turned into a maestrom of mud and violence and desperation as tens of thousands of gold-maddened prospectors descend into it through its mountain passes." Have pity. Keep a sign-post a sign-post, a date-stamp a date-stamp, and don't believe that turning a signpost into purple prose makes it better.

Between the Direct Transition and the Indirect Transition is what could be called the Embedded Direct. This is a plain statment of time or place, but set into the narrative as part of the narrative journey rather than merely being a sign-post along the way. A character writing a letter or a diary is one form of Embedded Direct Transition: "September, 1848: we have arrived. Our first visit was to the Claims office to find out what land is still to be taken. I have come away dejected." Another example: "She had forgotten that it would be Thanksgiving in the USA. The airport was almost empty." (Remember, these examples would be used to end or begin a scene; they are the portals between set chunks of action.)

A more common version of Embedded Direct is what I call the Narrative Direct. These are simply little notices of time passing, or a change of place, mentioned as description within the flow of the story. "After dinner that evening..." or "She took the next plane from London." Again, they have no more emphasis and purpose than 'she said' and they serve the same purpose, but they are part of the narrative flow and so are less of a conk over the head. A section with the title "Two Weeks Later" is a conk on the head. "She spent the next two weeks planning the break-in" simply slides the transition into the story. This sentence would either end one scene or start the new scene. It combines the signal that time has passed with the action, and combining is always good, because it offers density and stops wasting the reader's time. "She spent the next two weeks driving across the desert planning the break-in" gives you a time and location shift. The next sentence could be the first in a new chapter: "The hotel in Las Vegas overlooked her target."

We are now at the more difficult, more sophisticated and more rewarding form of transition.

Indirect Transition
Every indirect transition has to do two things: to move the story in time or place, and to be part of change or conflict. If you stop thinking of transitions as a technical problem and see them as part of the narrative, they stop being the hinges between the scenes that are hard to make interesting, and become the narrative. To write effective Indirect Transitions, you have to know why they are happening and what they have to convey.

For instance, you might have one scene ending: "...and she walked to him through the young cherry blossom that was dancing in the breeze like notes seeking a song." You now want to signal indirectly that ten months have passed. But first you have to know why you are having ten months pass. What for? If you don't know why, it's not really surprising that you don't know how to get your character from spring to winter.

Here's how the next scene could start:

"The stark ice-gloved twigs of the cherry tree were dark against the snow."

This immediately tells us that we have a change of season, and therefore a transition of time, but we have picked up a new emotional temperature as well. You have chosen to show a man looking at an ice-encased cherry tree: it won't be with joy in his heart a coating of ice isn't a detail anyone would use to signal buoyant gladness. The emotional change is in the transition, the 'fixing detail' of the ice. But don't leave it at that. Combine your fixing detail and an action that reveals feeling:

"The stark ice-gloved twigs of the cherry tree were easy to break, and he flung them down to slash the snow."

The reader will understand the man's frame of mind in part because you have chosen this particular moment in time to show it to us. His feelings are harsh; ten months of loss and thought cohave brought him to this point. The transition is not unimportant, but it is not the dominant purpose of the sentence; the emotional change is. When you know the purpose of a transition, it arises naturally from the story with fresh and vivid words and supports the dominant emotional state.

Characters in a time-travel story can be shown arriving through a Direct Transition, but you will bring the reader directly into the experience if a scene ends "...the sharp smell of milk boiling over in the microwave." and the next scene begins "He turned and the air was dark, flowing around him like tarry vapour, filled with a stench of latrines and dogs and other unpleasant things he could not name until the darkness wisped away from around him and he stood ankle-deep in frozen mud beside two dead piglets and a discarded yellow liripipe as stiff as a snake." That is more compelling and more fun to read than a heading "Paris 1383".

Gripping your reader means plunging them into the emotions of the scene, and your transition should be a part of this. Your transition can't be an "add-on", it must be a part of the scene:

   Autumn chill was sharpening the air and he began to dig, Liam's rising and falling pick counterpoint to his shovel.
   "By Christmas," Liam grunted, "we'll be rich as kings."

   Chapter Three
   Rain was making the straggly, yarn-decorated Christmas tree outside the tent-flaps shudder as he crouched under the drumming canvas, pencil cold in his fingers. Liam remains convinced that we are about to have a splendid success, my darling, and I still wish to believe him.

The time transition has been achieved without a lot of fuss within the action: it's Christmas-time and so at least two months have gone by, but the story hasn't slowed down for this, but enriched by it.

An Indirect Transition conveys emotion, conflict, mood, and as much more as you can fit in:

   Jane's voice was flat. "Kate, you must get the next flight. Will you?"
   Kate looked at the row of placid geraniums on her window-sill, the cat watching the evening swallows swoop over the church spire. She said nothing. Donald had always been a gangerous loser.

   The soft, charcoal desert became angular stacks of lights, winks and blears, chemical colours, lines of white and red of traffic busy even at this hour, the sky paling behind her with a sun about to rise. Kate leaned her forehead against the glass. Somewhere in that restlessness below was her target."

You have moved the reader through time and space and you have conveyed something of your character's mental state. You have done this be selecting certain 'fixing details' in the new scene to signal "Kate is now in Las Vegas and it is night-time." The details are partly there to signal the new time and place, but they do a more important job. The next paragraphs will continue the journey into clarity and detail.

Compare a Direct and an Indirect Transition:

They hauled the wagon two thousand miles to the mountains of California.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
   Two thousands miles of hauling a wagon by hand changes you. Edgar looked at his hands, looked at Liam's face, looked at the California mountains as seamed and weathered as either of them, and dry as empty husks. Liam's eyes held again the softness Edgar had seen less regularly as the months had passed.
   "Thinking about Killarney?"
   "Thinking about going home in buttons of gold," said Liam.

The short example is a plain transition. Nothing wrong with it, but not very interesting. The longer example has to be longer because we are looking at a little bit of the story with a transition worked in. We know from it that the two men have reached the Rocky Mountains. That is a successful Indirect Transition. But we also know that one of the men is having doubts ("dry as empty husks") and that the other has renewed his fantasy. The transition has become part of how you are telling the story.

Beginning writers get hung up on the difficulty of transitions: how to get their hero back to the farm, at the deserted warehouse, another year older. Keep it simple. Don't work on a wordy and complicated bit of technical building when the sign-post "By December he..." will do. But a story filled only with road-signs is less scenic drive: the flow of the landscape is visually stuttered. Combine, weave transition into narrative, and concentrate on inserting the forward impulse of emotional change into everything, transition included.

Know why you are making a transition. Why does the hero need to get back to the farm? Why is it important that we come to the hero a year older? What purpose does that location or that gap in time have for the story? Is he older but wiser? Older and feeling parked at the side of his life? Fulfilled and contented, having seen the fruit of his labour? Each one of these new scenes will be about him in that moment a year later. They could even start "A year later...":

   A year later, he looked at his daughters dancing in the blowing cherry blossom and knew she had been right to leave him. He had learned that time is endless only to children; to him, it had become sad and precious.
   A year later, the same cherry tree blew the same blossom to the vacant air in the same prodigal way. He had given her up, and knew now that life was a just a cycle of giving up, giving up, whether it was blossom or love.
   A year later, he smiled as he watched the cherry blossom blowing into the bright air. They had planted it together and she had been right: he would always look at it and remember her.

What do you take from each example? That a year has passed? Or that a year had to pass so he could think this particular thought? When you have clarified what the scene is doing, you can re-write the sentences as you choose, removing "A year later" and phrasing it a different way:

He smiled as he watched the cherry blossom blowing its beauty into the bright air. When they had planted it together, she had been right: he would always look at it in April and remember her.

Transition, emotion, the closing of a narrative loop. They all happen together, because life is like that, and a good novel captures life.

If you are sweating over a transition, remember that your entire novel is a transition made up of transitions: your characters start out in one place and time and you bring them to another through a chain of scenes, each scene with its own complete change, each scene part of a greater change held in a chapter, and groups of chapters creating internal arcs of change that the deliver the over-riding one that is your novel. The transitional information that brings the characters from one scene to another is only a change in miniature, a fractal, of the same kind and degree as the entire narrative. It's the story.

Copyright Caro Clarke -