The Itch of Writing Bookself 3: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Ring-fencing Writing Time

Getting from one scene to the next

Dear Emma, I saw in your twitter feed that you're looking for blog ideas. How about scene changes, especially getting the prose right while establishing time and place. My writing gets quite clumsy at this point as I try to avoid 'It was Saturday and we were sitting in the kitchen.'

It's taken a while to get to this, but it's such a good question - which is only to be expected from Sophie Beal, whose blogpost Dark Matter, Dark Glass and Anne Tyler was Highly Commended in the Postiversary Competition. (If you're not sure how you'd define a scene in prose narrative (as opposed to a play), click here.)  Fiction and time are related in complicated ways, as I explored here, and the real time of the story is affected by what I've called the storytelling time; it helps to think of the two possibilities as the jump-cut, and the narrated slide.

The jump-cut does what it says on the tin: the narrative stops dead at the end of the previous scene, leaves a double-line space in which the reader teleports instantly through time and/or space, and then drops us straight into the beginning of the next scene.

The advantages are obvious: the writer doesn't have to imagine any of the minor, unimportant intervening stuff which must actually have happened, which advances the mechanics of the plot, but does nothing for the story of character-in-action and change. And the reader doesn't waste time reading that stuff. We can, literally perhaps, cut to the beginning of the chase. It's fast, it's dramatic, and we're increasingly adept at reading narratives constructed in this way, because it's how movies work, since they can't narrate, only juxtapose.

Imagine an important scene: a set-to between Tom Brown, who wants to do his A Level Maths project on the mathematics of the Mars probe, and his father, who tells him to do it on the mathematics of banking because that's what he will be studying at university. For the first time in his life, Tom fights back, refusing to do what his father wants either now or at university, and the next important scene shows Tom persuading the Head to back him against his father. But how do you go from one to the other? The jump-cut is simple:

"You're doing Banking, and that's that. I'm not paying out for years for you to indulge some stupid David Bowie fantasy of twinkly stars," said his father, turning his back and putting on his gumboots to go and lock up the pigeon loft.
        Tom got up. He felt incredibly calm. Peaceful, almost, but a white-hot sort of peaceful. "My Mars project is going to be the best ever and get me an A. And then I'll do Physics, and if you won't pay, you won't pay. I'll find some other way, and I'll make sure every single member of the Rotary Club knows I did it on my own!"


"You're going to tell Mr Arnold that you didn't do your project because you forgot," said Flashman, putting his lighter back in his pocket. "And if Mulder or I hear so much as a whisper through the staff room window that that little shit Tom Brown has been saying anything different, Scully will break your legs." 

The disadvantages are more subtle, but that deliberately muddled effort illustrates them. You're having to start the story-engine up again from zero, each time, including establishing us in the new situation and cast, and maybe having to fill in later the one relevant thing which happened in between*. In the effort to make sure the reader isn't baffled, it's horribly easy to end up starting a new scene like this, but please don't: 

"Instead of you handing your project in to the headmaster Mr Arnold, Tom Brown, I'm going to make sure that the fire in this dustbin burns up every page," said Flashman, touching the flame of his lighter to the other corner of the folder ...

Of course some voices and stories make it easier than others to come up with an opening line which establishes us securely and sounds completely natural. But horribly often the reader spends those precious first couple of sentences semi-consciously working out where we are in time and space. If only they weren't taken up with that, they'd be busy thinking where next? and why? and what next? Those are what narrative tension is made of.

What's more, the more often and more abruptly you jump-cut, the more disjointed and fragmented our experience of the story will be. Of course, sometimes you want that - but that's even more of a reason to jump-cut only where it's a deliberate choice for a good reason, not just a habit. Remember that there's a larger rhythm to our experience of a novel. The abrupt cut-off at the moment the crisis-line has been spoken (the kind that leaves you hearing the doof-doof-doof of the Eastenders drums), the blank, and the abrupt crash into the next scene, can become addictive. It might be great to end that scene on "... I'm going to do Physics, and you can't stop me." But such endings are, if you like, crudely dramatic as fast food is crudely tasty. Fed too much of either, too often, the reader begins to feel bored and restless. Not all ends-of-scenes will be suited to a doof-doof-doof ending; not all beginnings of scenes should be a crash-landing.

The narrated slide is my name for the other way: the narrative leads us, from the end of one scene, through a compressed bit of time and space, to the next. The thing is, both real and fictional humans are temporal creatures - characters-in-action: our actions exist in time and we experience narrative the same way. Most of the time, I suggest, you want the reader to have a slight, underlying sense of the real time of the story ticking along, however compressedly you tell it. So how do you do that without, endlessly, starting the new chunk with "It was Saturday, and..."?

I often have a sense of a novel as a train, with each big scene like a railway-carriage: here we're thinking about the couplings. I explored how to cover the narrative ground without sacrificing vividness in Are You Showing Too Much, and this is really the same issue: how to make your Telling Showy. So rather than re-cap that post, here are some possible kinds of coupling to lead on from ... "I'll make sure every single member of the Rotary Club knows I did it on my own!":

Perhaps a compressed version of a normal sort of narrative:

As soon as tea was over, Tom ran upstairs and set about making his project on Mars the best, the most brilliant project on Mars that anyone had ever written in the history of ... well, the universe was a bit too much to hope for. But certainly Rugby City Academy.
    He didn't get much sleep, but it was done, and in the morning it still looked great as far as he could tell while he bolted his weetabix because he'd overslept and was afraid he'd miss the bus.  The bell for Assembly was ringing as he scooted through the back way behind the science block.
            Flashman stepped out from the fire exit. "Hand it over," he said, quite quietly. Mulder had got Tom's elbow and Scully had his bag. He wasn't going to fight - he wasn't going to cry - he wasn't going to run away. He was going to stand there and watch as they set fire to his beautiful project on Mars.

or a very in-control narrator:

... Mornings at Rugby City Academy were always busy and, relatively speaking, quiet. Streams of boys here, strolls of boys there, and a teacher or three sending home improper uniform and making boys get off their bikes on school property. Busy and quiet, so no one specially noticed Tom Brown scuttling in, nearly late, with his Mars project under his arm, nor how he had to take the short cut behind the science block, nor how Flashman and his gang caught him, and the project, and did the one thing that no paper project will survive.

or something a bit closer-in to Tom's experience, with his voice colouring the narrative

... They caught him in that corner behind the science block where no one would see, not in the morning when all the staff were out the front fussing about the wrong colour of socks. Stupid to have gone that way, but it was that or be late handing the project in. And there was Flashman, and the others too, waiting. They caught him, emptied his bag, found the folder, tossed it in the art room dustbin that just happened to have walked there.
        And they set set fire to it.
        Tom watched as the pages curled up into flames, stained by the heat, one after the other, until all that was left was the index.

or something as ground-covering, but looser, more impressionistic, becoming a download of Tom's consciousness:

The morning was simple: a matter of walking slowly so his project didn't get crushed in his bag, nearly missing the bus, leaping on, stand, leap off and quick - bell ringing - stupid to be late after all this work - round the back - shit - Flashman - Mulder and Scully - no - yes - oh, shit! that hurt and they'd found the project - rasp and click and there was nothing he could do but stand and watch. The heat licked his face.

before we settle into the beginning of the next scene:

... "You're going to tell Mr Arnold that you didn't do it because you forgot," said Flashman, putting his lighter back in his pocket.

Notice how all of these depend to a greater or lesser extent on working with psychic distance: on the relationship and interplay of the voice of the narrative, and that of Tom. And notice how any of these could be shorter, longer, or different, and how all the possibilities have equivalent versions in first person, if Tom is narrator as well as actor (or Flashman, of course. But I think someone's already written him.)

But, even more crucially, they all depend on the writer not teleporting Tom and the reader out of one scene and crash-landing us all in the next, but using the narrative to move Tom and the reader there, through time and space.


* I have a theory that the increasing reliance on the movie-like jump-cut is what lures so many so-so writers into paroxysms of had-hads, and other lumps of past perfect and zig-zag storytelling. They need to cope with the one thing that happened in between the two scenes, which later we need to know, but are too wedded to the doof-d00f/crash-landing of jump-cutting to put it where it belongs in time. So they have to keep doing mini-zig-zags, to catch us up with stuff:

The clock struck noon, and Flashman of the KGB guard took up his position. Brown had had his breakfast early, after he had realised it would be his last meal before the banquet, and now his tummy rumbled.

If only the writer would only learn how to move the narration through time and space ...