Friday, May 25, 2018

Writing SeamlessTransitions from Scene to Scene

Pam Hillmanwww.pamhillman.com

One thing that pulls me out of a story (my stories at the end of the rough draft, most of the time!) is jagged, jarring transitions. You know the ones I’m talking about.

Like when the hero and heroine are going at each other in a shouting match. Then, suddenly, in the next scene, she’s asking politely if he wants a cup of coffee without a believable transition.

Or it’s morning, and then in the next scene, your heroine is getting ready for bed, and the passage of time isn’t mentioned at all.

It’s okay to write disjointed scenes in the first draft, but in rewrites, the transitions need to be seamless, with neat, clean stitches.

Let’s look at some before and after examples from my Natchez Trace series to see if we can make these transitions from scene to scene seamless. (Say that three times fast!)

And, I’ll just go ahead now and apologize for the long post. But, the bulk of today’s post is excerpts, and it was necessary to include those to show the changes.

Excerpt from The Promise of Breeze Hill

Setup: My characters are traveling on the Natchez Trace, a dangerous stretch of road in the 18th century. They’re discussing what might happen if highwaymen attack. Connor (my hero) is new to the area, and Mr. Wainwright is the leader of the group of travelers. This except is the end of the scene.

1st draft:  [Mr. Wainwright is speaking.] “Men of this ilk have no regard for human life, not even their own most of the time. They show no mercy. If you get one of them in your sights, shoot him. You won’t get a second chance.”
Connor nodded. He’d been in similar circumstances. 
“Good then. Just pray that we won’t have to fight the ruffians this time.” Wainwright moved up the line, speaking to each man in turn. He didn’t spend as much time with each man as he’d spent with Connor. Most of the men were seasoned drovers along the trace, and they knew what to expect and when to expect it.

Final draft:
“Men of this ilk have no regard for human life, not even their own most of the time. They show no mercy. If you get one of them in your sights, shoot him. You won’t get a second chance.”
Connor nodded. He’d been in similar circumstances a few times and didn’t have to be told twice. 
[End of Excerpt]

As you can see, I completely cut out the last paragraph in the rewrite of the above scene. I end with Connor’s acceptance of the likelihood of an attack. I’m not going to include any of it, but the next scene is in the villain’s POV as he and his men watch the travelers and prepare to attack. Then we go back to Connor’s POV as they’re riding down this trail and the reader already knows that the bad guys are watching. This excerpt is the beginning of the scene.

1st draft:
Other than the jingle of harness, the occasional snort of a horse, and the swish-swish of tails beating off horseflies, all was quiet. The soft dirt drowned out the clop of horse’s hooves and well-oiled wheels as they made slow progress toward home. 
The man up ahead flinched, then slapped at a horsefly on his shoulder. Connor rolled his shoulders in sympathy. Those monsters stung, and they didn’t respect man over beast. They’d draw blood from either if the opportunity arose.
He hunkered down, his elbows resting on his knees, his gaze rimming the edges of the loamy banks that rose high on both sides of him. 
A small cascade of loose soil tumbled down the bank.

Revised draft:
The man up ahead flinched, reached back and slapped at a horsefly on his shoulder.
Connor rolled his shoulders in sympathy. Those monsters stung, and they didn’t respect man over beast. They’d draw blood from either if the opportunity arose.
Other than the jingle of harness, the occasional snort of a horse, and the swish-swish of tails beating off horseflies, all was quiet. The soft dirt drowned out the clop of horses’ hooves and well-oiled wheels as they made slow progress toward home. Slower than usual in deference to Wainwright’s injuries.
He hunkered down, elbows resting on his knees, his gaze rimming the edges of the loamy banks that rose high on both sides. 
A small cascade of loose soil tumbled down the bank, and he jerked to attention.
He caught a glint of sunlight off metal and twisted sideways even as the the sound of a high-pitched whine swooshed by his ear. The bullet splintered the foot rest between his feet. Even as he hauled back on the reins, the man in front of him slapped his back again, but this time blood spurted through his fingers. He let out a scream of agony and toppled from the wagon, hitting the ground with a thud.
[End of excerpt]

In this scene, I kept everything, I just rearranged it. I opened with the man slapping at his back (thought he’d gotten shot, didn’t you?), then Connor’s sympathy about the man being bitten by a horsefly. Then the boring plodding along, while the reader is thinking, DUCK! HIDE! RUN! After that, the loose soil catches his attention, and the man in front slaps at his back again. Except it’s not a horsefly this time.
Sometimes thing fit together better if you just rearrange them a bit.

Also from The Promise of Breeze Hill

Isabella has gone to a neighboring plantation to make a desperate deal. A storm is brewing. Here’s the opening of the scene that had to be rewritten to make it flow properly and to keep the reader anchored about where she was and what she was doing there.

1st draft:
The wind picked up, and Isabella swung the French doors wide, and looked out at the trees whipping in the wind. The sky toward the New Orleans was blue-gray with the mist of the ocean. Fear touched her heart.

Revised draft: [beginning of scene]
Alone in Nolan’s parlor, Isabella twisted her fingers in her lap.
Was she doing the right thing? 
She didn’t know, but she’d sat in the rocker in Leah’s sitting room in the darkest hours of the night, wrestling over little Jon’s future. There was one man who was powerful enough and close enough to Breeze Hill to offer protection for her nephew. And that man was Nolan Braxton.
[Some of Isabella’s thoughts removed to keep this short…]
His housekeeper, wide frightened eyes darting to the huge oaks bending and twisting in the wind, had said that he was indisposed. Isabella asked to wait out the storm, and the woman had shown her to the parlor, then quickly disappeared, muttering about devil winds and the cellar.
The wind picked up, and Isabella stood, moved to the windows and pulled the heavy drapes back. The sky toward New Orleans had turned a sickly blue-gray in the hour she’d waited, and the trees whipped back and forth in a frenzy. The storm was worsening at a frightening rate.
[End of excerpt]

I hope I’ve included enough of this to explain the problem with the 1st draft. It wasn’t seamless. The reader knew where she was going and could probably guess why. In the first draft, the reader would wonder why wasn’t she talking to Nolan, but I needed a reason for him to not be there at that exact moment. So, you’ll see how I sort of “backed into” the scene. She’s in his parlor, there’s a bit of the reason she’s there, and the housekeeper’s fear of the bad weather that was alluded to in a previous scene.

From The Road to Magnolia Glen:

1st draft [end of scene. Quinn’s POV]
Le Bonne’s henchman lifted Kiera off the dais and pushed her toward the stairs. She stumbled again, but regained her footing. Quinn had to do something. But what? In a last ditch effort, he charged toward the stairs.
Someone grabbed him by the arm. He jerked back a fist, but stopped just in time when he recognized William Wainwright.
Wainwright propelled him toward the door, but Quinn jerked back. “No. I will no’ leave her.”
“We’re not leaving her. Come on. We don’t have much time.”

Revised draft [end of scene. Quinn’s POV]
Le Bonne’s henchman jerked Kiera off the dais and pushed her toward the stairs. She stumbled again, but regained her footing. Marchette followed, neither looking to the left or the right. Their fun at an end, the crowd returned to their drinks and their slow descent into debauchery, but Quinn stood in the shadows, his gaze watching as Kiera was led up the stairs and along the balcony.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned. Wainwright clasped him by the shirtfront, grimaced. “Sorry to do this, but—”
Then he drew back and slammed a fist into Quinn’s face.
[End of excerpt]

As you can see, Kiera is in a precarious position, but in the first draft, Quinn (the hero) and his companions are going to have to do some fancy footwork to rescue her. In the second draft, they still have a lot to do, but instead of reacting to the situation, they became involved IN the situation, and the Wainwright’s fist plant is to start a brawl in the tavern. A diversion, if you will.

Here’s another scene from The Road to Magnolia Glen. And this is an easy fix to anchor the reader where they are. Quinn and some of the children have been gathering scrap iron from a plantation destroyed by a tornado, and now they’ve returned home.

1st draft:
Quinn spotted Isabella standing in the middle of the lane staring at the cookhouse, a sketchpad and a piece of charcoal in her hands.
Revised draft: 
Quinn drove down the lane, Patrick, Megan, and Lizzy squished on the seat beside him, the wagon bed full of scrap metal.
Isabella stood in the middle of the road in front of the cookhouse, a sketchpad and a piece of charcoal in her hands. She moved out of the way and let them pass.

Just one sentence at the beginning clues the reader in quickly that it’s Quinn’s POV and that they’ve returned to Breeze Hill.

Here’s one more small excerpt that is a good example of the passage of time. These minor, but key, character’s names have been changed, but I can assure you this isn’t my hero and heroine!

1st draft [beginning of scene.]
Alone, Charles sat in a rocker in the dark staring at his wife’s bed. He’d banished them all. Thompson. His housekeeper. Even Victoria’s brother, the esteemed Reverend John Muiller had failed him.
They’d let his sweet Victoria die.

Revised draft
As the sun sank in the west, dark seeped into Victoria’s room. Refusing anyone else entrance, Charles sat in a rocker staring at his wife’s bed.
He’d banished them all. His butler. The housekeeper. Thompson. Even Victoria’s brother, the esteemed Reverend John Muiller.
One by one, they’d all failed him.
And they’d let his sweet Victoria die.
[End of excerpt]

Several hours had passed from the last scene, so I need the reader to be anchored in the time. “As the sun sank…” did the trick.

So, there you go. A few examples of my attempts to create smooth transitions that keep readers firmly rooted in the story. So, how do you know if your scenes have some rough edges?
If the transition from scene to scene jars you, the author, it’s likely going to jar the reader. So, you have to be willing to rewrite that cool beginning or ending to some of your scenes.
Or in some cases, you might have to add a few words, or just delete a few. Sometimes it’s an easy fix. 
And sometimes it’s really hard, and you have to rework an entire scene. That happened with my first example from The Road to Magnolia Glen. But the rewrite was much, much cooler!
And cooler is always better, don’t you think?

Authors, I’d love to hear your stories of smoothing out the rough edges and transitioning from scene to scene. And, readers, did you even have a clue that your authors obsess over this kind of thing?


The Road to Magnolia Glen
Coming June 5th to ... well, EVERYWHERE!

37 comments:

  1. Nope. As a reader, didn’t have a clue you guys obsessed over transitions. Though I have been jarred by some bumpy transitions so can appreciate the obsession.

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    1. Mindy, those bumps make you sit up and take notice, don't they? :) We try to catch them but every now and again one sneaks through because in our heads, it's perfectly clear!

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    2. Yes, what Ruthy said. We try, we really do, but sometimes they sneak through, especially when we employ split scenes .... like in the movies when they cutaway to the heroine dangling off the cliff, then the hero fighting the villian to get to her, then back to the heroine, and then maybe to the villian, or the posse heading that way.

      It just doesn't work well if we go back to the heroine and she's filing her nails. lol

      PS... I'm here. Have coffee, tea, and all the fixings for a Southern comfort food. Biscuits, tomato gravy, eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, grits, and oatmeal. Oh, and plenty of Greek yogurt. We probably need something really healthy on the sideboard! I would tell you what all I put on a biscuit and tomato gravy, but it would probably gross you out. :)

      PPS... I'm also babysitting the grand today, so if I'm a bit scarce, you'll know why. She's old enough though to enjoy cartoons and playing with her dolls, horses, and cows, though, so I can sneak in a few minutes of computer time every now and then.

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  2. Magnolia Glen is on preorder at my house.... and Pam, I get snagged by editors fairly often on this, and have to do just what you so brilliantly showed (Note that I called Pammers brilliant, please...) Add a line or two to meld the transition into the timeline.

    COFFEE AND TEA HAVE ARRIVED!

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    1. Good gravy! Ruthy brought coffee and tea at 5:05 AM, and it was all gone when I got here. You early birds know how to guzzle the stuff! lol

      Ruth, much like my transitions, when I first started thinking about this post, I had a ton of great examples to share. Examples that would show this even better than the ones I found. But alas, I didn't make notes on where to find them, and with 100 or so "scenes" per book, you can see how hard that would be.

      And, Scrivener to the rescue again. I knew this was an important part of smoothing out the edges, filling in the cracks, and all that, but most of the time, it's hard to find good examples later on. But snapshots in Scrivener allowed me to look for these. And there are tons more where that came from!

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    2. Ruthy, I'm not surprised you called Pam "brilliant." I'd be surprised if it was MARY. Only kidding, I know you all love each other.

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  3. Such a great post, Pam! It's so important to have smooth transitions. It's one of the things I look for as an editor, especially the timeline ones. Smooth transitions make the whole story flow better.

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    1. Yes! And thank you for your service to authors and readers world-wide, Beth. I try to at least have a rough "swinging" bridge between scenes, but my editors are life-savers when they point out the cracks and broken "boards".

      Y'all will notice the absence of photos and fluff in this post. In my head, I used the excuse that this was a serious teaching post on craft, so who needed graphics. In reality, I was scrambling to find examples and fit it into a manageable word count, and didn't have time to think of an allegory that fit....

      And then, today, I'm coming up with all kinds of neat visuals: cracks in sidewalks, dilapidated swinging bridges, listing staircases. Sheesh, where is my brain when I need it?

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    2. Oh, I know when you leave me wide open doors like that I should RUN THROUGH THEM WITH BRAIN INSULTS but I can't do that to you even when you unhook the screen door and let it fly wide.... #ruthybeingnice

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  4. Wonderful post, Pam. Probably because of my background as an English teacher, I do pay close attention to transitions. Sometimes it is a struggle to get them just right.

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    1. Yep, Sandy. And the worse part is that if I write an awesome opening or closing line, then realize the transition for the previous/next scene isn't working, I've got to cut that beautiful line, or figure out a way to keep it.

      That happened recently in my WIP. It ended up on the cutting room floor, and I'm still traumatized. :(

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  5. Pam, this is deep and SO important. I'm not a linear writer. Not a pantser by any stretch of imagination, but after I plot I don't always do the scenes or chapters in order, and when I'm cutting and pasting, it can get pretty rough. Right now I'm trimming out some of the POVs in my Oregon Trail sequel and making sure my hero and heroine are on scene for everything important that happens, so there's a lot of reworking of scenes. Oh can it get ugly...
    KB

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    1. Oh, yeah, writing out of sequence can really do a number on those transitions, can't it? Been there, done that!! I feel for you, girl!

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    2. My crit partner is pretty good at rearranging stuff for me. Standing over me with a hammer if necessary.

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  6. Un-deep and still important side note: DUCK DONUTS FROM DURHAM NORTH CAROLINA HAVE ARRIVED AND WILL BE SHARED!!!!!

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    1. Do you know how long it's been since I had a donut???? Hand them over!!!!

      num, num, num, num, mmmm, num, yum, num

      Ahhhhhhh!!! Delicious!!!

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  7. Are they better than Krispy Kreme? I'm in.
    In NH we love cider doughnuts from the Chichester Country Store. I'll bring some for the Weekend Edition.
    Going off now to do Friday errands...

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    1. Can you do my errands while you're out and about? "Errands" for me ends up taking the WHOLE day! #Homebody&Lovingit!

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    2. They're different and just as good and they make them to order while you wait.... so in five minutes you have a dozen melt-in-your mouth warm donuts dipped in whatever toppings you choose.

      Look at you, doing errands! Go you!

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  8. Ooo… Duck donuts and cider doughnuts. Yes, please.

    Great post and great examples, Pam. Lots of good stuff in here. Transitions are part of the whole believability aspect. Do we believe they'd be arguing and then she's pouring him coffee the next without knowing how they got to that nicey-nice point? No, we'd think she'd be pouring the coffee over his head. Which could add some great conflict. Hmm...

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    1. Well, there ya go, Mindy. Good advice. When the transition is jarring and/or boring, do something to ramp up the conflict.

      That's what the gal did in Seven Brides, I think. Seems like she poured something over the hero or someone else at the table in the restaurant she worked in.

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  9. Great post, Pam! As a reader, I enjoy learning more about the writing process.

    Enjoy this Memorial Day Weekend!

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    1. I'm fascinated by others' process, too, Caryl. And have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend yourself!

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  10. Hi Julie…

    I mean Pam…

    I mean I should have known better given I just love your photo and think it's your best yet.

    And still…
    Lots of examples…
    Lots of copy…
    Lots to like…
    Lots to learn…

    But then again, no kissing! (A dead giveaway.)

    Anywho…


    This transition problem is one of the 'seeing as' as opposed to just 'seeing' that philosophers like to play with. (they really like it.)

    That is, the author sees the writing 'as' it should be and is intended while the reader just sees it as it is…sometimes jarring.

    This also happens when a sentence has two very different meanings but the author only sees the one she intended 'as' the only meaning.

    It happens with even greater jarringness on the first chapter which may have been rewritten fifty times and the author can no longer remember what's still in the latest draft and what has been left out. The author sees it as it should be while the reader, who does not know any of the characters yet, sees it as it is…a real head scratcher. "Who are these people? Where are we? What year is it?"

    Really, I've read the first two pages of several books that made absolutely no sense and made almost as little sense on the second reading. But once the book was read, why there was nothing wrong with those opening pages at all.

    It helps me to see my book as a movie that has to have each scene framed. The camera has to consider time of day, POV, sun and shadows, action, colors, and the scene objectives.

    James Patterson wants each scene to be its own chapter and each scene (in order not to be cut as unnecessary) to change the trajectory of the story.

    Time is money.

    Great directors also want each scene to accomplish many different goals in the shortest time. Not just one objection but many. I think of this as scene packing. One objective will move the story along. Another will foreshadow future events. Still other objectives will be set a mood and reveal some backstory. With a speech accent a character can be individualized. A scene may also start an anticipated event, resolve a open anticipatory event, build a little bit of foundation. A scene may also plant a red herring.

    There are over a dozen things a scene can accomplish and often do this in the same number of words or less. This packing is not just in the words used but in the very creativity of the scene choice itself. That is, it's not just rewrites but sometimes 're-sceneing'. Use another scene altogether.

    Now, with your important post today, another key objective can be added to the needs of a scene. That is the making of the most opportune transition. A well crafted transition can achieve more than one objecting by itself. Like five sensing. Do we have any idea of the temperature or wind? What does the forest smell like? Can these be worked into the transition?

    OMG! So many words! Blame it on Julie. :)

    Vince

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    1. Great comment, Vince, and spot on. You're right about the opening scenes. We're told to start with action, but sometimes action without context is confusing.

      And, yeah, I thought of Julie when I was writing this. lol

      My headshot was one of those wonderful little incidences where a 5 yo wanted to take pictures with my camera at my granddaughter's birthday party. And a photographer was born. He's even had his first "rights" printed on the copyright page of Magnolia Glen for use of the photo. :)

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  11. Pam, what a nice post! I'm always trying to balance "get in late, get out early" in my scenes with making the transitions natural. I love your examples!

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    1. I love that... "get in late, get out early"!!!

      And, in my last example, I'd "got out early" in the day in the last scene and there was no reason to show the reader everything that happened throughout the day, as the reader wanted to get back to what was happening with the hero & heroine as soon as possible. "As the sun sank in the west..." took care of the passage of time without me having to beat the reader over the head with it.

      Without that explanation, the reader would have been confused about what time of day this was.

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  12. Pam, I loved these examples! When Janet has critiqued for me, she just about always has to remind me to set the scene (for the beginning transitions). So I need to remember your post next time to check myself better on the second draft!

    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Missy, if I was a faster writer, (ie. got the rough draft done with TIME TO SPARE), I'd want to go over it twice as much as I am able, and one of those times would be to make sure that the transitions from scene to scene, how much is left out... or did I put in too much that should have been left out? ... flows smoothly.

      I wish I had the knack of doing that in the first draft. :)

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  13. I'm late to the party and someone has eaten all the donuts!!!

    I had a good excuse, though. Hubby and I took advantage of his new work schedule and went hiking today instead of tomorrow. We saw nobody on the trail. Zero. Not even any bad guys waiting to ambush us when we passed through the canyon...

    Anyway, this is a great post. And a great reminder to finish the first draft before the deadline! so I have time to go back and catch these!

    Thanks, Pam!

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    1. Yes, Jan, finishing with enough time to work on those transitions is key. But I wouldn't know much about that either. lol

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  14. No, I hadn't thought about these unexplained transitions but thank goodness, you do! To hanjs for an I interesting post!

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  15. Interesting post, Pam. I'm not a writer, but I enjoy all the posts here at Seekerville.

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