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The following is an excerpt from Part III of the book Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. The first two parts are very much worth reading as well. The book is available in paperback.


You often need ot get your characters from one period of time to another, or from one place to another. Or you need to shift from one set of characters to another, or to move from one point of view to another. Such transitions, handled smoothly, do not disrupt the fictional world. Handled abruptly, they make readers conscious of the writing, and momentarily violate the fictional world.

Establishing action in time must be done clearly. Readers need to know when actions occur in relation to other actions. The simplest transition occurs through the narrative voice. A scene ends, and the next paragraph begins, "The following Tuesday the bus arrived" or "They did not see each other until the next summer." The intervening time need not be dealt with at all. This keeps the narrative crisp and focused.

Until you make place clear, the writing has a kind of talking-heads feeling. A transition that opens with an image of where the characters are creates immediacy at once.
I was gone for two years. When I walked up the drive, she was sitting on the porch as if she hadn't moved in all that time. She smiled lazily when she saw me. "Hey," she said, "catch any?"
A slightly more detailed transition succinctly gives the sense of the time that is being passed over. A major scene ends, and a couple of sentences bring readers to the next scene:
Andrew spent the spring planting herbs that would not grow and reading books he could not finish. The first week in June she called. She would be waiting in front of the post office.
Merely skipping a space suggests a change of time and scene:

Or use an asterisk:
That's simple and succinct. The next section can be later in the day or in a different century. Your opening sentences can embed information so that your readers know where and when and with whom the new scene is taking place. Description, dialogue, thought, or physical action can accomplish that almost invisibly.

Transitions from place to place are similar to time transitions. A skipped space in the text tells readers that one scene has ended. The opening paragraph of the next scene establishes where the characters are and the transition is accomplished. If you want to say how a character got from place to place, just summarize. "Andrew drove the Renault down to the post office."

Transitions in point of view from one character to another can also be done in various ways. A skipped space or an asterisk, again. Some writers use dingbats. In As I Lay Dying Faulkner uses the name of the speaker as the title of each section. But usually the opening lines can be written so it's clear whose head you are in.

Going between characters within a single scene demands that you move fluidly. If you're deep within one character's head and abruptly switch to another character's head, it will be jarring.

Here are some methods to help you switch points of view. Establish in the opening that readers should expect the story to be told with multiple viewpoints. A sentence as simple as "Neither Greta nor Ben was happy about having to visit his mother's dog" gives you license to move into the minds of whomever you like. You can slide into a character's mind with a transitional sentence that describes the character doing something. If you add another sentence that has to do with perception the transition is clear and smooth. When you want to leave that character's head, come back out the same way, then slide into the next character. Seeing and touching play an important part in moving from one person to another.
Agnes felt like screaming as she watched Dick playing with his fingernails. "Here," she said, handing him a pair of scissors. Dick scrutinized the scissors. There was a little flower pattern etched in the surface. They looked Belgian, he thought. He looked at Agnes curiously.
Perhaps the clearest instruction comes from carefully reading a master like Flaubert. For example, in Madame Bovary, Emma yells at Charles, and in the next paragraph we are in Charles's head. Emma asks Leon to run an errand, and in the next paragraph we are in Leon's mind. Emma asks the notary for help, and in the ext paragraph we are in the notary's thoughts. Flaubert shows how gracefully writers can move from consciousness to consciousness.

Dealing with transitions in time, space, and point of view might not fit in with the romantic notion of the Writers as Tortured Genius, but notice how deftly, how invisibly, the writers you admire handle such matters. The more you recognize their craftsmanship, the more fully you understand what you can learn.

See Narrator, Point of View, Reading, Showing and Telling.

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