Monday 13 February 2012

Condition Of Your Transition

The simplest kind of story is where the goal of the main character is clear and all-encompassing. He has nothing else to distract him, at least not for very long. It’s all about the thing

This kind of story is usually a genre piece, a crime, a romance, a mystery, something like that is driving the MC, and their emotional state is pretty easy to work out.

However, not all stories are that single-minded. Often a character will switch moods, or have more than one thing to deal with. And when they switch, whether because of time passing, or having to deal with different people, the writer has to transition the reader from one mind-set to another.

This is a good thing, even the most engaging stories can become monotonous if there’s no variation in tone. But if you just go from one emotional state to another without due care, it can be very jarring for the reader.

Sometimes, when the context makes the situation clear, the writer doesn’t need to do very much. If Malcolm the cuckold is having a heated argument with his wife, and their 6 year old daughter walks in and Malcolm suddenly loses all traces of his anger and is very calm and relaxed as he speaks to his kid, you know why he’s done that, and even though what he says to the little girl may be completely innocuous, you will probably sense some tension in there.

On the other hand, if Johnny the fireman is having to deal with a string of arson attacks that are leaving charred corpses all over Chicago, and on top of that the prime suspect is his brother Jimmy, and the stress is really getting to him, you can see how tough Johnny’s life must be. If he then starts to have feelings for the lead fire investigator looking into the case, and she seems to have feelings back, suddenly switching to light flirting and sexy thoughts is going to come across as weird.

For someone in the middle of a personal crisis to get into a romantic situation is not unheard of . Often the high pressure encourages that sort of thing. But the tone of the character’s behaviour isn’t going to see-saw back and forth. It’s going to retain elements of the overriding storyline (in this case people burning to death).

Johnny may even go on a date with the investigator telling himself he deserves a night off from all the worry and guilt, but do you think he’ll really be able to forget his brother may be out there setting people on fire? Not unless he’s a schizo.

As well as the story throughline (how everything relates to the main storyline), there is an emotional throughline too. What a person feels, why they feel it, and how they show it, is something to be aware of at all times. It doesn’t always have to show up,  a character can act one way when they feel another, but you, as the writer need to be in control of that and make sure it’s a deliberate choice on your part, not at oversight.

When scenes change and a character learns or has to deal with new information, you have to take into account where they were (mentally) before, and how that will temper their behaviour in the future. 

You can’t just assume readers will go the same way as you have in your head, you have to give indications in the text. And if you compartmentalise their behaviour too much, so how they act bears no relation to what’s gone on prior, they will end up looking like a sociopath. Which is fine if they are a sociopath. Not so much if they’re the romantic lead.
If you found this post interesting please give it a retweet. Cheers.

This post marks my one year anniversary of being a blogger, so many thanks to all of you who follow and comment, it's much appreciated.

See you on Thursday.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Show the validity of your character's feelings!

Anonymous said...

Great points moody! On my scene checklist I have a spot to write in what happened previous scene so that when I'm revising, I can make sure the emotions match what just happened...

dolorah said...

I agree; the reader wants to experience the character's growth.


MSBjaneB said...

I hate stories that seem to throw gratuitous emotions in to please some genre definition. You are on the mark about carrying the emotion throughout.

mooderino said...

@Alex-and a little complexity never hurt either.

@Angela-an excellent idea (that I will nick).

@Donna-I think often because the writer is already aware of the growth they skip it in the text.

@jane-thanks.On the mark is where I want to be.

Anonymous said...

Those transitions can be tricky so often I stay away from them. I'll have a cool down period between action scenes. The reader needs to follow a natural flow and when writers upset their equilibrium then it can be upsetting. Or weird as yo put it.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I agree. Transitions are hard but crucial.

Unknown said...

Very interesting! Once I got past that freaky picture of that hairy man I really enjoyed your article. Tweet Tweet!


Margo Berendsen said...

Good point about the story throughline and the emotional throughline and staying true to it.

Lydia Kang said...

I've read these abrupt transitions and tried to analyze why sometimes they are seamless and sometimes jerky. Not an easy thing to do well.

John Wiswell said...

In either the simple or the complex characterization, execution is always the key. Either can be delivered successfully. Well, congratulations on your year!

Diana said...

I'm embarrassed to say I jumped a bit when your blog loaded. lol. Nice pic. ;)

You gave me some great things to think about. Congrats on your blogging anny.

Cheryl Reif said...

Love your examples :). You've given me a new angle to consider when revising (which is top of my mind right now!). Thanks!

mooderino said...

@Stephen-I think it's the sudden shifts in tone that throw people.

@Michael-very, very tricky.

@Kathy-no love for werewolves?

@Margo-easy to forget that the writer knows what's going through the character's mind, bu thte reader doesn't.

@Lydia-me too. I don't think there's just one way to do it, but it helps if you're aware of it.

@John-as long as you put some thought into it, I think you can do it numerous ways. And thanks.

@Diana-am I the only person who thinks 80s movie monsters are cute?

@Cheryl-I'm in revisions too. Good luck to both of us!

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