Moving between scenes

Here’s a post at Jane Friedman’s blog that’s relevant to anyone who is currently trying to avoid writing a 1000-page draft (raises hand). Or, for that matter, anyone just trying to get through a draft with a minimum of necessary cutting (also raises hand). It’s all very well to have exciting scenes, but you also have to get from one to the next and then the next after that, and transitions are (a) often hard to write, and (b) sometimes boring for author and reader alike, and (c) may end up being cut from the final draft anyway, so honestly, it’s good to minimize transitions most of the time.

However, unless you literally teleport your characters from scene to scene, they have to move through the intervening time and space somehow.

So, this post: Moving Between Scenes with Summary and Spacers

Let’s see what this post suggests …

Summary serves an essential role in the making of the narrative arc. In the first place, summary provides a means of moving time forward without a loss of momentum … But summary also serves as mortar between scenes, holding them together.

Yes, which is why you can’t skip transitions unless you’re actually causing your characters to teleport. I mean, I can’t offhand think of any other way to do it. Oh, wait, I can! You can also skip transitions if you render your character unconscious and someone else transports the character while they are unaware. That’s the only other way I can offhand think of.

And that will certainly provide a sharp discontinuity in the narrative. Normally we fill in those discontinuities with transitions. This post divides summaries into two sorts:

Sequential summary offers an efficient if compressed accounting of a particular period of time—as in a day, a week, or a month—organized in the order in which the events occurred.

Circumstantial summary is another matter. It’s not about a single trip to the store; rather, it provides a glimpse of the way these trips generally go.

Examples of both are provided. They’re good examples, so here:

Sequential summary

She persuaded a Spanish Town doctor to visit my younger brother Pierre who staggered when he walked and couldn’t speak distinctly. I don’t know what the doctor told her or what she said to him but he never came again and after that she changed. Suddenly, not gradually. She grew thin and silent, and at last she refused to leave the house at all.

Circumstantial summary

My mother usually walked up and down the glacis, a paved roofed-in terrace which ran the length of the house and sloped upwards to a clump of bamboos. Standing by the bamboos she had a clear view of the sea, but anyone passing could stare at her. They stared, sometimes they laughed. Long after the sound was far away and faint she kept her eyes shut and her hands clenched.

I was going to say, either way, it’s telling, not showing, but in fact I must reluctantly concede that both telling and showing are obviously used effectively in these paragraphs, so I can’t pause here to declare triumphantly that telling is fine. I mean, telling is fine, but no one here is arguing otherwise.

I’ve said this before, probably, but the most extreme summary I’ve ever used was in my debut novel The City in the Lake, where I grew Timou up from an infant in a cradle to seventeen or thereabouts in just a few pages. And to do that, I went to Patricia McKillip’s The Sorceress and the Cygnet and read the bit where she does this over and over.

He was a child of the Horned Moon. That much Corleu’s great-grandmother told him, pipe between her last few teeth, as she washed the mud out of his old-man’s hair and stood him between her knees to dry it. “You have your grandpa’s hair,” she told him.

“Tell him take it back!” A thin, wiry child, brown as dirt otherwise, he stood tensely, still trembling with the indignity of having been crowned with mud, tied up with Venn’s granny’s holey stockings, and left in the sun to dry.

A few paragraphs later, Corleu is a teenager. A few pages again, he’s a young man. And the whole time, McKillip is also telling the reader about the astrology of this world: Cygnet broke the Warlock into pieces and trapped him in the Blood Star. His shadow fell to earth, into the Delta, into Blood Fox’s shadow. That’s why they say: beware the Blood Fox with the human shadow …

Might be about time to re-read a lot of Patricia McKillip’s stories.

The other kind of summary, this circumstantial summary, is interesting! I hadn’t thought of that as a particular kind of summary, but I think that’s accurate and, now that I think of it, I can think of plenty of times I’ve used this kind of summary too. In fact, the opening of The City in the Lake uses exactly this kind of summary:

But after darkness falls, it will be the tigers of the bridge that look real and alive. They shake themselves out of stone and come down from their pedestals, the lambent fire of sunset in their eyes, to stalk on great velvet paws through the night — so it is said.

And there we go — that’s exactly the type of circumstantial summary described above.

Anyway, that’s summary! What about spacers?

Spacers are the white space you leave when you jump ahead in time. Sometimes they’re filled with a little symbol, though personally I sometimes find the little symbols distracting. Sometimes they’re plain; just an extra line that’s left blank. The linked post has a good suggestion here: If you don’t know where to end a scene, if you can’t get out of a scene, if the scene keeps going on and on and you can’t wind it up — put in a spacer and jump ahead to the next day or the next week.

Good advice! Especially for me, especially right now, as I work on getting through a couple of scenes and then moving on rather than bogging down.

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4 thoughts on “Moving between scenes”

  1. I’m playing a computer roleplaying game right now with an autotravel feature for moving around the (huge) map. It’s basically a teleport, but each time you use it one of the characters makes some comment to the effect of “wow, that was quite a journey,” or “man, am I glad to finally be here” to acknowledge that you did, in fact, just blink past several days’ journey. Minimal and amusing transition.

  2. Arrange your scenes to end at a point of drama. It was amazing, one period of my writing I was always making them dribble off. . . .

  3. I’m impressed when authors blithely skip ahead weeks or months of time with just that extra line of blank space and something like, “A month later …” trusting the reader to figure out that the characters were going about their everyday lives, continuing the boring parts of the investigation, slogging through endless marshes or whatever they were doing before the time jump. I trust that if anything important had happened, the author would have told me. To me that kind of writing feels muscular and very crafted.

    Rachel’s characters tend to have too many moments of relationship tension or epiphanies or other important drama while they’re travelling, so it’s harder to skip those bits! That’s the kind of story that feels more immersive to me, because that’s what happens in life: little dramas and character growth happening all the time. I’m in it for the character interactions, so that stuff is never boring. But maybe in some parts you can tell your characters to just stay stagnant for a while as they cross the desert or where-ever, so you can say “It took two weeks to cross the desert,” and be done with it!

  4. Well, Kim, that’s certainly true of the various journeys in Tasmakat. Lots of relationship stuff = not being able to say “Two months later, we arrived …”

    Although I still expect to skip over parts of the journey from Gaur to Avaras that way. I mean, I’d better. It’s taking long enough as it is!

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