Instant Transitions


I was struggling with a passage I was working on once in which I had a character sitting in a coffee shop chatting to a friend. I needed to make my protagonist remember something crucial about a crime scene. The problem was that the friend had no connection to the case and the scene was relaxed and upbeat. Getting my protagonist to suddenly remember what he needed to would not so much derail the scene as pack it with C4 and blow it up. Not what I was going for.

So I wrote and wrote and the scene got longer and longer as these two happy little coffee drinkers dragged the long dead conversation round to something that might finally provide a plausible segue into a reminiscence about the crime scene and our hero’s all important realization. It was interminable, and when the subject finally came up it still felt labored. The first person I showed it too said, “yeah, I figured that was coming, but it still felt like being sideswiped by a bulldozer.”

Let’s file that under “Epic Fail.”

Not long after I was reading a book by someone else (someone much clever than me, as it turned out) in which the author executed a complete about face mid scene by dropping in the distant sound of a backfiring car. For a split second the protagonist thought it was a gunshot, and suddenly he was right back there, remembering, and the scene turned on a dime. It felt perfectly natural and it was only my own recent struggling with a similar moment that made me see the conveniently backfiring car for what it was: a ruse, an authorial interpolation designed to move the story sharply sideways.

I returned to my own story, hacked out three pages of aimless café banter and decided that something acrid in the scent of burned coffee drifting from the kitchen reminded our hero of the crime scene. Job done. It felt right, even rich—as if the extra detail made the café feel more real and the characters a shade deeper—though it was nothing more than a trick to switch the direction of the scene.

When done well, devices like this are practically invisible and they save you a huge amount of time which you might otherwise spend easing into the shift. Often you don’t need to take that change in direction slowly at all and any number of invented details might prove helpful. Try these examples for size:

“He was still laughing when he caught his reflection—slightly distorted—in the stainless steel coffee mug and suddenly he was back in the alley, the monstrous head with the gash-like mouth and its array of jagged teeth looming over him in the night.”

“She smiled at the thought, then eased her way past the damp plant which had swelled across the garden path. Its scent rose up like heat as she touched it: lavender. Instantly she was back in her grandmother’s house, aged about ten, gazing down at the knife in her hand.”

The transitions look clumsy because I’ve announced what I’m doing, so it stands out, but if this was just part of a story you were reading I THINK you’d roll with the shift because the transition moves the reader to somewhere striking, something far more interesting than the transition itself. In each case, the details (the distorted reflection and the lavender) actually add to the scene, make it feel more real, even though they are no more than a magician’s distracting flourish with his left hand, while the right one palms the card.

You’ll notice also that both examples make no attempt to suggest a gradual mood shift. I want a quick transition so I use words that make it happen and don’t apologize for it: “suddenly” and “instantly” in these cases. Again, I think such terms actually soften the blow on the reader who is being redirected because they fess up to the speed of the shift and make the surprise register in the character as well. Readers will accept a lot of things if the character in the story feels them too: it’s when characters accept without comment what any normal reader would find strange that you run into problems. “Suddenly” acknowledges that something slightly odd just happened, that the character has registered it, and then moved on. Nine times out of ten, the reader will too and you’ve pulled off your transition.

Any other tips for economical tonal transitions?


15 comments to Instant Transitions

  • Vyton

    A J, this is an interesting post. A comedian whose name I can’t remember did a bit about Jacques Cousteau’s TV show. He said that the Calypso was out to sea for months without much happening. Therefore, to add some excitement to the show, they had Rod Serling narrate the series and use words like *And suddenly, without warning…* I think words like *instantly* and *immediately* can be effective, even if they are forever-to-be-avoided *ly” words. Because of that comedian’s routine, *suddenly* doesn’t work as well for me in my own writing.

  • Vyton,
    that’s fair. I think I overuse words like “suddenly” in my suspense writing and find I have to be very aware of them in editing so I can yank them when I see too many. In this case however–and with the usual proviso that this is a technique best used sparingly–I think they are okay. Thanks for the comment.

  • Julia

    A J, thanks for the post. I’ve just been working on a “sudden flash” scene in my WIP: My character sees an object and it reminders her of a long-ago, plot-critical event. Since there’s already a lot happening in this scene in real-time, I don’t have time for a long digression.

    In my WIP, I used a similar transition line: “amusement fled in an instant,” then a line about what she sees, and two sentences about the memory it sparks. At the start of the next paragraph, the narration is already back in the present. I rewrote that moment several times, and I ultimately came to realize that I needed a transition to signal the emotional shift to the reader. Reading your post, it becomes clearer what I did and why… and it raises some questions about whether I can pare things down even further.

  • Oooooh. I like this technique. I probably have a few places where I can work it into Hellhound as well.

    What I like about this technique is that it also ties external (setting) to internal (memory/thought). It adds another point of contact and, as you said, adds a layer of realism to the scene.

    Keep the tips for tough scenes coming! I really like these. 🙂

  • Julia,
    great. In these kinds of transitions I really do think brevity/economy is key. Unless you are writing in a very “literary” genre (loathsome term) it’s all about advancing the story efficiently and smoothly. Often when I’ve tried to use slower transitions so that it feels less abrupt, the result winds up drawing more attention to itself as a device, not less.

    yes, the external/internal link is a really useful way of anchoring thought in things, in setting, and that makes it all feel more specific and real.

  • Great post AJ! I really love how you tied in the senses to trigger the thoughts you need for the scene — the scent of lavender, a sound, the reflection. As Scribe said, I think this adds more depth and fullness. And also, almost every reader understands those things — how powerfully scent is tied to memory or how a sound can take you back.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the tension of what the reader expects vs. what would be “realistic” in the real world. In the real world, your characters might have had that long conversation in the coffee shop. But you’re right — if readers are anticipating that memory flash, the scene will drag as they think “come on with it already.” Which essentially makes them much more willing to accept the sudden flash — it’s what the reader expects and wants so they’re unlikely to question it.

  • Love the post and examples, A.J. I think that using the sensory input is lovely and elegant, and I should try to do it more. The example I give below (from THIEFTAKER) does not use that, but it gets at the other issue you raise. To wit: For me, the way around the use of “suddenly”/”instantly” lies in interrupting action:

    “But maybe she was taken into the streets after she was killed.
    Or maybe someone made her go there. They could even have used a spell
    on her.”

    Ethan shook his head. “No, that’s too powerful a con–”

    He stopped in the middle of the street, swaying slightly, his
    head spinning. “I’m an idiot!” he whispered.

    “What? Are you all right?” Diver laid a hand on Ethan’s back and
    peered into his face.

    Ethan barely noticed. It was right there in front of him, like a
    trail of blood on an empty lane. All he had to do was follow the drops
    and they would lead right where he needed to go.

    The realization in this scene comes to him out of the blue, and by having his actions interrupted so abruptly, I don’t need to describe the interruption, if that makes any sense. In a scene in a diner, it can be a matter of the POV character dropping his fork on his plate with a loud clang of stainless steel on cheap China. Or in the garden scene, maybe she stumbles as she is reminded of that moment. Action interrupted combined with sensory reminders. That’s the ticket. Just my $.02

  • AJ, I love the immediacy this technique gives a story. That emotional moment tied to the mundane ratchets up the tension.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yay. Thank you so much for this tip. Transitions of all kinds of pretty much my bane, so any and all advice about them is very welcome.

  • Yeah, transitions: ugh. I wrote my first draft of my WIP as a panster, and really what I had was a bunch of interesting scenes connected very badly (or not at all). Fixing that is one use of your technique but another use is seguing into flashbacks, as you suggest. (of course now I’m having to go through and create a coherent plot out of those scenes, but that’s another post!)

    Thanks especially for giving us a concrete example of one scene that didn’t work, exactly what you saw that made your lightbulb blink on, and how you fixed the scene. I learn so much better with detailed examples like that 🙂

  • Thanks, Carrie. Yes, realism is a double edge sword, particularly in genre fiction, where you generally want to suggest just enough to feel real without throwing in every detail of every situation. Sometimes I consider trying to write out every detail of an average day. The resultant book would be a thousand pages in which nothing happened…

    great example. I like the idea of interrupting the action so that the suddenly is implied. Will steal this.

    Thanks, Faith. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of tension per se, but you are absolutely right.

    Hep, good luck!

    Owllaldy, good to know. will bear in mind for future posts. Thanks.

  • wrybread

    What I love about this transitional technique is that, while to the writer it’s an illusion, a magic trick designed to distract the reader through a possibly awkward transition to the next plot point, to the reader it’s completely realistic and natural. These strange reminders happen all the time in real life, they’re a part of being human. Smells are especially evocative, as Proust and his madeleines famously demonstrated. Its’ not hard to believe that involuntary memory could conjure an epiphany based on the smell of strong burned coffee, hot fresh pizza, or stale beer in a pub. While the author congratulates himself on having pulled the reader in, the reader will only be thinking how natural and realistic the author’s storytelling is, and it’s only a fellow writer who’ll pick up on the technique. The best fiction is decidedly not reality, but it maintains the illusion of reality, and this is the sort of technique that does that beautifully.

  • Agree with wrybread, absolutely. Our seams should be as invisible to readers as possible.

  • Hmm. It’s not exactly the same thing, but this post helped me figure out something in my current WIP, in the current scene, and gave me a way of thinking about the scene that maybe, hopefully, will help me move it along a tiny bit quicker…

    Thanks! 🙂

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