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?