Weekend Words today were inspired by a recent post in the Pub(lishing) Crawl blog by Jodi Meadows: The Weight of Time (In Your Book). Jodi pointed out a mistake lots of writers, beginning and experienced, make in first drafts. The issue is how to get from this scene to that scene without dragging the reader through the entire time span in between. Go ahead and read what Jodi says, because she’s got it right.
In a story, words are time. The reader spends roughly the same amount of time reading per word throughout the whole book (yes, it varies a bit, but not significantly). So when deciding how to cover a period of time, what we need to be focusing on is how much time we want the reader to spend with that experience, not how long the actual experience takes. This is part of what is meant by pacing. We want to slow the reader down when a lot of important things are happening, so we need to spend more words there. When nothing important is happening? Fewer word. Even no words at all.
Here are two examples from great stories by skilled authors.
The Deep Blue Good-by (1964) is the first of the splendid Travis McGee stories by the incomparable John D. MacDonald. Nobody can create characters and settings as vividly in as few words as MacDonald. He also handles time and pacing very well. About two-thirds of the way through this book (p. 149 in my copy), narrator McGee finishes up with a conversation with one character and leaves her to visit another character, Cathy. Cathy is in the hospital, following a severe beating from an ex-lover, and McGee needs information from her to find him and bring him to McGee’s form of justice. Here’s how MacDonald handles the transition, with the closing dialogue of the previous scene (with the character talking about the pants she’s wearing) and the start of the new one:
“I bought them today. I don’t feel very secure about them.”
Cathy was in a six-bed ward. I pulled a chair close, kissed her on the forehead and sat beside her.
See how much time MacDonald spent on the transition? None at all. We hear the last line and then, blink! We’re in the hospital. No need to walk through the whole process of getting there.
Pattern Recognition (2003) is an all-time favorite science fiction novel by William Gibson. Cayce Pollard is someone with an unusual sort of mental power who finds herself embroiled in an increasingly confusing and dangerous world as she tries to avoid kidnappers and soviet-era spies. The disconnected, other-worldly feel of the story is reinforced by Cayce’s frequent sleeping and waking up in new places, and having to remind herself of where she is and how she got there. (This book contains a wonderful description of jet-lag.) The up-to-the -minute atmosphere is also strengthened by frequent references to current technology. Here’s one transition, as she goes from flying in the first-class cabin to another country and connecting with Bigend, the person she’s going to meet. This is the last line of one scene and the first line of the next:
Decision out of the way, she closes Taki’s jpeg, puts the iBook away, and returns to bed-mode.
When they exit immigration, Bigend is waiting, the only smiling face in a scrum of glum chauffeurs holding hand-lettered sheets of cardboard.
Once again, there is a discontinuity in time. We don’t see her arrive, deplane, find her luggage, and go through the immigration line. There’s nothing there the reader needs to see, so no words are wasted there.
My lesson. I really need to learn to do this. When I looked at my work in progress with this in mind, I found no examples where I went from one scene to the other without at least skimming over the time in between. Things like, “After dealing with all the aftermath of the disaster, I was heading down the road…” This is going in my revision checklist. Where can I cut through that whole transition cleanly, like a film cut, jumping straight from one scene to another with nothing in between? I have to make each of those transitions prove to me that they’re worth it, or out they go.
What do you do when you need to go from one scene to another? Do these transitions give you trouble, as they do for me?