Monday, February 22, 2010

Transitions...or lack thereof...

I've been thinking again...uh oh! :) I've just read so much lately that certain things are hitting me over and over until I actually wake up thinking about them. Like the lack of transitions, especially in so many of the small press books I read.

You all know I read a ton of eBooks, both from the big NY publishers and the small presses. And something has really started frustrating me - it's the lack of transitions from one scene to the next. I can't decide if the issue is an editing one, a technical one, or simply author laziness.

I'm leaning toward technical, but then somebody needs to fix it. I think you all know what I'm talking about. It's when the characters jump from one scene to the next without any visual clue (scene break) for the reader or any transition being made by the writer (more about that later). If the space breaks don't translate into Sony or Kindle formats, then they need to put a # or *** or something to indicate a scene break rather than spaces.

It's really jarring (like tripping over a rock and falling on your face jarring) to be reading along, really into the book, and suddenly you're trying to figure out where and when you are, not to mention who you are with. This particular phenomenon has pulled me out of the story over and over again in my reading in the past months. I mean, one minute the characters are in the middle of some major emotional moment and the next we're visiting their dog in the park with no idea how we got there. Okay, maybe not quite that - but darn close!

Which leads to another observation, too many authors nowadays are not giving any kind of setting clues when scenes switch. When I was learning to write, I was told (by authors who knew what they were talking about) to anchor my scenes within the first paragraph or two (preferably the first) of a scene. That means giving readers clues on who, where and when - without coming off reading like a travel brochure. I don't always get it right, and I don't expect other authors I read to either, but it just seems like no effort is made at all. I mean whole weeks could have gone by, but there are no clues given by the author to anchor the reader's expectation of where and when.

This jumping around without thought to taking the reader with you is particularly annoying in a story with a complicated plotline. But even a straight romance (and I don't necessarily mean het, just one with no huge external plot) can be really confusing when the author jumps from scene to scene without attempting the most basic clue to help the reader transition.

Once in a great while, this type of non-transition is a usefull literary tool in and of itself. Just like the sentence fragment. ;-) It can make an important impact for a particularly intriguing scene change, but overused, it just comes off as sloppy writing. Lazy writing. Annoying writing.

To give you an idea of what I mean, here is an anchored transition from my upcoming book, Close Quarters:

But Roman wasn’t listening as he headed for the door. The brass never thought they were responsible, but nine times out of ten? They were. Roman knew it, being team lead himself. It didn’t matter how many bars or stars you wore on your uniform, the fact was, when men or situations under your authority got compromised, you held ultimate responsibility.

And he had no respect for a man who didn’t see that.


The buzz of excited chatter outside the medic hut pulled Tanya Ruston’s attention from the inventory report she’d been working on in the small office off the main exam room.

You see how I've anchored the scene? You don't yet know you are in Africa, but you will within a couple of lines. The important thing is, I've shown you POV, a good indication of where and who with some clues to the Africa vibe (huts aren't typical terms for medical clinics in the US, are they?). It didn't take a lot of words, but it did take a lot of time to work this particular sentence out and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Scene transitions are some of the biggest time suckers for me in the editing process.

As writers, this is something we need to understand on a fundamental level. As readers, I think we recognize it instinctively. Either way, sloppy transitions, whether due to technical malfunction or author choice, can make what would have been a great book, unfortunately mediocre, or even bad.

I know I've used the non-transition on purpose myself and probably unknowingly as well, but when I went looking, couldn't find an example. If you remember one from one of my books, share it in the comments. I'd love to show a live example, but will not use another author's writing to bolster my rant. That would be cranky and I'm Pooh-Bear in thinking mode, not Oscar the Grouch. :)

Your turn: what are your thoughts on lack of transitions between scenes, or when an author doesn't choose (or simply forgets) to anchor a scene so you know when and where you are in the book?
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New question added in the comments from Lucy: What do you think is the hardest transition to make without visual or word clues from the author, a POV shift with a new scene, a time shift or a setting shift?


Judy said...

Oh! I hate having to go back and re-read because I'm lost. I'm not sure most people realize how often things are lost in translation from one medium to another or even from one computer to another.

More often I see the loss of transition between characters. It happens sometimes in a long dialogue. A quotation mark is put at the end of the sentence when there shouldn't be one because the same character is still speaking. I suspect that something was cut and the quotation marks forgotten. Or there's the change of point of view without warning. That's something I'm guilty of doing, but I'm working on improving.

Maura Anderson said...

I went back and looked at my stories that are out and I found a place or two that I could have improved the transition. But I was taught early on that I have to know where I am right away and I have to make it clear when there's a change so I don't lose my readers.

As a reader, I HATE having to do investigative work to figure out how come I'm lost - both in scene and in dialogue. It's part of what makes me absolutely LOATH head-hopping too.

Lucy Monroe said...

Judy, I know exactly what you mean - and to be honest, I've seen that particular issue with small press books than those out of NY. It's a technical/copyediting issue and way too easy to miss in the production phase. :)

Maura...I've only read a couple of authors (out of hundreds) that do head hopping well enough not to jar the story. Julie Garwood is one, but there are a lot more authors that use that literary device ineffectively.

The technical aspect of writing can be a bore for authors, but it is an aspect to our writing we need to strive for more than mere competency in.

Amy said...

As a reader I hate getting confused when reading a book because of the lack of transition between some of the scenes.

Lucy Monroe said...

Thanks for weighing in, Amy. :)


What do you think is the hardest transition to make without visual or word clues from the author, a POV shift with a new scene, a time shift or a setting shift?

Maura Anderson said...

Hmm - I think the hardest to not get lost in as a reader is the shift from location to location without a transition. I don't know how many times I've been caught thinking something like "car? in the building?" and had to read on a bit to realize the characters had moved without telling me.

Just IMHO, of course :)

Judy said...

Location, location, location. :-) POV is pretty easy to realize has gone awry, usually within a sentence or two. Being off by time is jarring, like slamming on the breaks. But realizing you're in the wrong location requires resetting everything in your head.

I do remember reading one book where a guy was holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a plate of food in the other, then he's hugging people; the plate is accounted for, but the cup disappears and never re-appears. That was unsettling. :-D

Lucy Monroe said...

Maura and Judy...I think location change without clues is severely jarring and maybe that's what's been knocking me on the head as I'm reading so much.

Judy said...

I was thinking about why location changes are so jarring. With a time or POV change, it's minor, but a location change involves every aspect of the scene. People interact differently depending on location, ie, sitting in a posh restaurant as opposed to sitting across from each other at the kitchen table or next to each other in a car. Where you are automatically sets up a broad spectrum of what is expected including behaviors, sites and sounds, and the possibility of interaction from other people, even if those people are only noticing what's going on.

Lucy Monroe said...

Good observation, Judy. I think you're right - it's too big a change not to note.

Judy said...

Like the joke about the guy who sends an acquaintance to pick up his wife at the airport. The two have never met, but manage to find each other. When they meet up with the friend/husband he asks, "So did you find each other all right?" His wife replies, "It would have been easier if you'd told me he was African/American." And the buddy agrees, "It would have been easier if you'd told me she was pregnant." Details count.

Lucy Monroe said...

LOL that sounds like me giving directions!