When to Transition in a Novel

A friend of mine who is a talented writer was complaining to me yesterday about the difficulties of scene transitions. She is struggling to determine what she should and should not include in the current in progress draft of her novel. I feel her pain, but also know plenty of experienced writers have trouble in the same department.

The long and short of it is: in the case of most novels, you can’t detail out every waking second.

I once read somewhere that in many movies, the camera is idle on a subject or angle for only about three seconds at a time in order to hold the audience’s attention.

In fact, many filming tips may be relevant to writing; on this website, the teacher instructs film editing students to:

Cut away from the scene the moment the visual statement is made.

People are super shitty at paying attention the moment something becomes boring. I know I am –the second a book loses my interest, I snap it shut and find a screen to stare at instead. For decades channel surfers have flipped to the next station after having judged the previous for just three or so frames. We have so many other options for entertainment; why allow boredom?

And those options grow and grow every year. This is a far different time from when Thomas Hardy wrote Jude the Obscure, from when people didn’t have much else to do but read about well-shafts and …well, I myself only read the Cliff Notes.

So, let’s bring it all back around. A scene transition should take the place of describing the in-between any time the in-between is not crucial to the story. We don’t need to know the minutiae of how Lassie reached home after Timmy got his stupid punk ass stuck in quicksand; we only need the nitty gritty, how she raced through the forest, leaves fluttering in her wake as she cleared logs and fence posts. And we certainly don’t need to know about the trip back to Timmy, so how does that look?

“What’s wrong, Lassie? Has something happened to Timmy? Take me to him, girl!”

(Insert extra space here.)

By the time they reached Timmy, only his head and shoulders were above the quicksand.

By the way, this blog has excellent information on how to classily transition scenes. I highly recommend it if you find writing time passages awkward. I won’t touch on that myself since I am naturally awkward as fuck.

So, one question my friend had was whether or not to detail the process of one character tracking the other within a forest, using drops of blood from an arrow wound. She’d done her research on this particular tracking method (which fits in really well with the theme of this blog post of mine about Google searches that might put you on a watchlist).

I’ve not seen the result, but it got me thinking about how to write about things which may take hours, and condensing them into a few summarizing sentences.

My advice was to have the tracker find the first drop of blood (I dunno; I didn’t personally research this so I don’t know how it works. I’ve got enough insanity in my own search history!) then vaguely describe that he goes on in this way for however long it takes to find the other character.

When something repetitive (but interesting) is happening, you only need to describe one cycle of it. So, in a dreaded traveling scene, it could go down something like this:

There were three of them, and one small pony. Bill rode astride the tiny equine while Earl was pulled in a cart behind, and Fred walked beside them. They went on in this way until the sun sank behind the mountains, then set up camp.

At this point we could transition either to the next day, or a campfire story, or a giant worm bursting from under the earth and eating all four of them in one fell chomp. The possibilities are endless!

4 thoughts on “When to Transition in a Novel

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