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Are your characters falling through gaps in your writing?

I spend a lot of time on this blog helping explain what writers can do to improve their characters. Today, I’m doing the opposite: talking about a mistake writers should not make in their scene transitions and chapter breaks because it can sabotage their characters.

If you’re wondering how scene transitions can sabotage a character, welcome to the club. I was quite shocked the first time I discovered this phenomenon because it’s so unexpected. Scene transitions are only gaps in the narrative, where you presumably skip over boring stuff the reader doesn’t need to see in order to move on to the next moment that’s meaningful to the plot. But “skipping the parts people don’t read,” as Elmore Leonard put it, is a good thing, right? How in the world can gaps reflect badly on your characters?

If you do them right, they don’t. But if you do them wrong, they can leave all sorts of impressions about your characters that you didn’t intend at all.

The Discovery

The first time I discovered this it was in a client’s manuscript where I felt that the main character was way too passive, which was weird because I could see him doing stuff at many points in the story. As I was writing my feedback for the client, I was asking myself why he seemed so passive. And then it hit me. The problem wasn’t in the writing, it was in the gaps between the writing.

The writer was ending a lot of scenes in typical cliffhanger fashion, thus motivating the reader to keep reading to see what the main character was going to do about that end-of-scene crisis. That’s a great technique. But then the next scene would pick up later, after the crisis was over. The writer presented enough recap so you knew how things ended up, but then moved on with the rest of the story. So while the main character certainly did a lot of things during the scenes of the book, I never actually got to see him respond to these cliffhanger crises. It left the impression that he didn’t do anything about them, and thus, that he was too passive.

The Theory

That’s just one example. But an awkward transition can create all manner of misconceptions about a character, depending on the context. It goes something like this.

At the end of a scene, readers have a picture in mind. They know who’s doing what, where they are, what their goals are, et cetera. The scene itself has built this picture for them. Further, at the end of the scene, your readers will have some kind of guess as to how the events may unfold.

But then the scene ends, so at the beginning of the next scene they have to build new mental pictures. If the second scene doesn’t sufficiently lay out the new picture while also linking back to the previous one, your characters can fall right through that gap. Let me see if I can create this effect for you in a short example.

Backstory: A husband and wife are having marital problems following the death of their first child, some five years prior. They’re dealing with the 5 stages of grief in their own ways and on their own timelines. He’s ready to move on and have another child, but she’s not and every time they talk about it they always end up in a fight.

Scene one: Having a pretty good day, the husband and wife decide to go for a walk. Without really paying attention to where they’re wandering, they find themselves atop on a wind-swept bluff overlooking the sea, their picturesque stone cottage in the background. Only, it’s the very same bluff from which their first child fell to his death. They both become silent and sullen. Neither can say anything, so in a moment of tenderness, they embrace, clinging to each other for support.

Scene two: Back in the cottage, the wife is in the kitchen sniffling and wiping away tears while preparing dinner. The husband, still seeming sullen, is stoking up a fire in the fireplace. Later, the doorbell rings and guests arrive for dinner. Husband and wife put on brave faces and attempt to entertain as best they can, although the evening is not a raging success.

Now ask yourself: why was the wife crying in scene two? What happened in between those two scenes? Don’t over-think it, just go with your gut. It’s probably telling you that back on the bluff, the husband must have brought up the subject of having another child again, resulting in another fight on the walk back to the cottage.

“But no,” screams the writer after it’s much too late to protest, “that isn’t what I meant at all! I only meant to show that she was chopping onions. It’s show, don’t tell, just some colorful detail in the kitchen scene. He didn’t bring up having another baby, and they didn’t fight!”

Ok fine, Mr. Writer Guy, but your rough and awkward scene transition reflects badly on the husband. It quite likely leaves readers thinking the guy is an insensitive jerk. They’ll be judging him for not recognizing that she’s still hurting, and critical of him for not giving her the time she needs to heal.

The scene break may be perfectly justified on structural grounds. That walk back to the cottage doesn’t, in fact, advance the story. There’s no conflict in it, so it has to go.

The problem occurs when a reader’s guess about what happens next is neither confirmed nor denied. The walk back to the cottage is the bridge from the first scene to the second. Even if you shouldn’t show it directly, you can’t leave it out entirely or the husband falls to his metaphorical death in the reader’s eyes.

The Solution

Two things need to happen at that scene transition in order for the husband not to come off looking like a cad, or more generally, for writers to avoid unintentionally showing something negative about their characters.

First, the scene break had better be in the right place. In the above example I’ve posited that it was, but that’s not always what writers do. Ending a scene too early is particularly dangerous, because you leave things very vague for the reader. The gap to the next scene can be too wide, leaving the reader with too many possible outcomes to consider. Don’t end the scene until you’ve given the reader a clear sense for exactly what you’re about to skip over. Don’t try to eliminate every possible incorrect guess that may be in the reader’s mind. You can’t build the whole bridge here. But that’s ok. A bridge has two ends, and this scene is just one of them.

Second, the following scene must establish its own mental picture quickly and clearly, in such a way that the reader can see how this scene logically follows from the previous one. Here is where you build the other end of the bridge by dealing with any remaining uncertainty left by the previous scene’s ending. Your job is to give the reader that brief moment of realizing “Ok, I see how we got from there to here.”

Build a Bridge

A scene transition is a gap. Always bear that in mind. Your job as the writer is to provide a bridge over that gap so your characters don’t plummet into the churning waters below.

A scene creates a mental picture for the reader, but it also leaves the reader having a guess as to what might happen next. If the following scene doesn’t clearly confirm their guess or lead them to a different understanding, then your bridge has a hole in the middle. Don’t make your readers guess at what happened. Let them imagine it, sure. But don’t make them guess.

December 15, 2009 19:34 UTC

Tags: character, flaws, transitions, mistakes, writing, bridge, gap

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2 Comments:

Posted by Jen B on December 16, 2009 14:23 UTC

This is a really excellent point. I hadn’t thought of it much before and usually went with the “skip to the next exciting bit” track instead of looking at where that left my characters. Thank you for bringing it up!

Posted by Margaret F. on December 17, 2009 18:08 UTC

Thanks for this very important reminder. It becomes even more critical in a novel with multiple POV characters because that cliffhanger ending might not be revisited until 2 or more scenes have passed.

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