Ever since the first movie reel rolled, pundits have decried the end of the novel as we know it. To be sure, the novel has changed remarkably in the last fifty years and yet we only need to look to some of today’s greatest stylists to prove that long-winded asides or lengthy descriptions are far from dead. To assert that our current golden age of television, at-our-fingertips movies or Twitter streams are changing how readers receive novels is bold. At the same time, however, don’t we all find ourselves skipping a novel’s transitional paragraphs? Subconsciously, it seems, our brains foresee a flashback or a forward time hop, so accustomed are we to the methods of video. Movies and television have long utilized the jump cut. Can we do it in novels too?
Without the multi-sensory pyrotechnics of television and movies, novels rely upon words to move us through time and space. Cut transitions entirely and we risk setting readers adrift without enough grounding to settle into the story. We don’t have the luxury of a make-up department to gray our character’s hair or generate instant wrinkles. Leaves can’t change from green to orange without our writing it. Our words must do the work. How do we make those words earn their keep?
Effective transitional scenes must go beyond the core mechanics of telling the reader place and time. They must provide imagery, enhance voice and deepen character in as few words as possible. Good ones convey tone and mood so well we hardly notice we’ve been jostled around.
Certain elements seem to recur in the work of writers who do it well:
- Seamless integration into previous scene
- Repetition of an action or phrase
- Sensory triggers
Jesmyn Ward, in Sing, Unburied, Sing weaves a present-day scene into a flashback.
In the lead-in to the transition, Jojo, happened upon two goats having sex and asked Pop if that’s how it is for people too. Here’s the next paragraph:
“The female head-butts the neck of the male, screeching. The male skitters back. I believe Pop. I do. Because I see him with Mam. But I see Leonie and Michael as clearly as if they were in front of me, in the last big fight they had before Michael left us and moved back in with Big Joseph, right before he went to jail….”
Boom, we get the flashback. Then there’s this transition out of an ancillary story Pop is telling, a single sentence:
“Sometimes I think I understand everything else more than I’ll ever understand Leonie. She’s at the front door…”
In both examples, Ward keeps it tight and terse. She weaves the scenes together with a mere sentence.
While Anita Shreve once said she did away with transitions in The Stars Are Fire, it seems that she in fact shortened them. Because of her use of imagery and repetition, she transports us, unnoticing, through time.
In a previous scene, the protagonist is at the doctor’s office, confirming a suspected pregnancy and it ends as follows:
“Abruptly he says to get dressed, and then he leaves the room. If he had something to tell her about the pregnancy, he would have. She and the baby must be all right.
The waiting room is full of patients.
Beautiful day melds into beautiful day. The beach becomes so crowded that not a single blanket will fit after ten o’clock in the morning. Claire begs for the wading pool as soon as she wakes up. Grace dangles Tom in the tepid water. The icehouse runs low, and there are days at a time when Grace has no refrigeration in the kitchen. She and Rosie begin to shop every day at Gardiner’s so that they can eat what is fresh and not be worried about cold storage. The corn is good. The tomatoes are fleshy. Cantaloupes are as small as softballs, and watermelons enormous. At night Gene and she eat the watermelons outdoors and spit the seeds into the grass.
One evening, after the kids are asleep, Gene says, ‘Let’s go to bed.’”
Shreve leverages our senses to pass us through several weeks but does it with such assuredness and precision that we aren’t left to wonder what’s happening. The baby wants her wading pool. The icehouse runs low. The corn is good. We feel the heat and drought. She then utilizes the idea of repetition to move the passage toward the next scene, (which, incidentally is one encompassing unsatisfactory sex) with the phrase at night Gene and she eat the watermelons. So, we know in the next snippet of dialogue that they’re outside eating watermelon when Gene proposes sex.
Paul Beatty uses a variant on the sensory, stimulating perhaps a different part of our cerebral cortex, to help us make the leap from one scene to the next. In what would probably be the greatest challenge to any writer, he shifts from a scene in which the police have just shot his father to a meeting at the Dum Dum Coffee Shop. Here’s how he does it in The Sellout:
“After all the evidence photos had been taken, the witnesses interviewed, and macabre homicide jokes cracked, without dropping my shake, I lifted my father’s bullet-riddled body up by the underarms and dragged his heels through the chalk outline, through the yellow numbered shell-casing markers, through the intersection, the parking lot, and the glass double doors.”
One sentence does a heck of a lot of work. One sentence! I’ll continue the paragraph because the next bit completely sets the scene for what’s coming:
“I sat my father down at his favorite table, ordered his “usual,” two chocolate frosteds and a large milk, and placed it in front of him. Since he had arrived thirty-five minutes late and dead, the meeting was already in progress, chaired by Foy Cheshire, fading TV personality, erstwhile friend of my father, and a man all too anxious to fill the void in leadership. There was a brief moment of awkwardness. The skeptical Dum Dums looking at the heavyset Foy like the nation must have looked to Andrew Johnson after Lincoln had been assassinated.”
While preposterous, the scene grounds us with details and offers up nuggets of character insight. What kind of son moves his father’s body without dropping his shake? Better yet, what kind of father merits that treatment? Then there’s the heels dragging through the chalk outline and the yellow numbered shell-casing markers, specific sensory items that capture the horror of the event without resorting to the obvious blood stains.
Emily Fridlund uses a more straightforward repetition device coupled with imagery to move us forward in History of Wolves:
“May, and who needs boots anymore anyway? Lilacs were exploding early. Crabapple blossoms covered branches the way snow once did—white as that, but poofier. Petals caught in Paul’s hood as we walked. Chickadees were doing loops.
May, and Paul was getting bored of the woods…”
Using May to launch each of the paragraphs grounds us in time and eases us into the next passage about Paul.
In all of these examples we can see how hard these few transitional sentences are working. It probably would have been easier for Ward to simply say, I remembered the day Michael left and how he and Leonie fought. Simple, straightforward, but oh so humdrum. Humdrum—like that ponderous student film your college roommate made—simply doesn’t cut it.