Monthly Archives: November 2016

How to write transitions

I got tired of the double space asterisk break, and decided to write some stuff with transitions and not breaks.

Can I tell you how to write the transitions? I have no idea. It depends on whether or not I actually know anything, and it depends on your writing style and voice, and certainly on the material you’re working with. All I can tell you is how I do it.

The thing I relied upon was the character’s feeling. Of course, the setting helps guide the the character’s thinking, and her interior feeling. That’s what triggers the transition for the character and provides the logic for the reader.

Here’s the first transition from the party to the beach (examples from the Amazon short “Nikki This Hollywood Life” by Vanessa Gordot:

A glass of wine in one hand a cigarette in the other, Nikki eased away from the guy beside her. Not Benjamin. Benjamin was over on the other side of the room yelling in the ear of a skinny kid in rimless glasses.

The guy trying to talk to her was okay and actually about as out-of-place as she was, older if maybe thirty was older, clean-cut, jacket, no tie. He looked like a professor at a girl’s school. She couldn’t hear a thing he was saying. She’d really had it with this party.

“Gotta go!” she screamed, “Nice talking to you!” turning away, not caring if he heard or understood. Jesus, what a zoo.

She used her elbow to push open the sagging screen door and made her way down the dilapidated wooden stairs. Wary of her silk dress, the flaking paint, she stepped carefully, watching out for the cracks between the boards. Following a narrow alleyway, she emerged onto the wide sidewalk that separated the buildings from the beach.

And there was the Pacific Ocean.

The sun had just gone below the horizon and a swath of neon pink and fuchsia splashed across the sky. It looked like a set decorator’s idea of a sunset, a wash of vibrant color on a pale blue scrim, way over the top.

“Fake,” she breathed.

Here’s the transition from the beach to the flashback. You know the fiction notion of starting a scene as far into as possible? This occurred to me at the time, so I started the flashback at the very end of it, as she’s leaving it: [Caution, adult language ahead]

She sat there, holding her shoes in her lap, watching the night fold out over the Pacific, thinking about Michael Brockton and the Oscars and how the trades always mentioned his captivating crooked smile, weighing what she would have to do to retrieve the lighter she’d left upstairs against how much she didn’t want to end up letting Benjamin take her home and screw her. He always wanted to put her on her hands and knees, as if he wanted to be Christian Bale in American Psycho. Whatever happened to plain, old-fashioned face-to-face fucking?

Maybe it was the ocean, the sky, the sunset, the inexorable gathering of day into night, this perfect seascape evening sliding down the western slope of the world. Maybe it was a moment of lonely calm. From wherever it came, the awareness floated into her mind that she didn’t like herself anymore.

It was creepy, this wanting to float off into nothingness, to let go of the endless pretending, to never again have to look at her face in a mirror. The icy feeling curled around inside her.

She knew it was the aftermath, the fall-out.

Tuesday of last week she’d come out of the hotel room, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Beach hotel room, the heavy door swinging closed behind her, the lock clicking into place with a steel-embedded-in-oak finality. It was like the last sound that echoes through the theater at the very end of a really good noir picture. The audience is hushed, then the sound of that clicking lock breaks the tension and everyone knows it’s over and they can start breathing again.

The door closed behind her, she walked down the hallway, even the hallways rich and luxurious, feeling strangely proud of herself. Hell, that wasn’t so bad. If that’s all it took, if that’s all it was. She could do that. Not as a regular thing, no. But if that’s what it took, she could do it.

She’d been tipsy, well actually pretty blotto, but that wasn’t an excuse. She knew what was happening every moment, saw it with the clarity that comes with enough champagne cocktails. You might not be able to drive too well — though actually after it was all over she had driven herself home, no problem — but you could see the face and the eyes of the person you were with, see what was behind them.

[There’s a full discussion of writing this story elsewhere.]

Here’s the transition from her apartment to the metro in the first part of  “Zoe in Real Life.” It seemed to me that if I was describing things, if Zoë was clicking right along, all I needed was a short sentence.

The bastard! It was time for a change.

She dressed quickly, throwing on a tiered chemise in a buttercup shade that showed off her figure, a cream colored pleated skirt, sandals and a cropped silk jacket in a nautical stripe. She wore her dark hair loose. She ran a comb through it, ruffled it with her fingers, shook her head and she was ready. She caught the metro.

The train was full, all the seats taken, a throng pressed together in the aisle, jostling against each other as the train wove its rumbling way through the black, crooked tunnels, bumping through switches, stopping and starting, the yellow lights flickering. Someone was pressed tight against her from behind, and Zoë cast a quick glance.

Here’s the transition from the metro into her daydream, which becomes a brief scene:

As the car lurched the young man’s leg pulsed against her derrière in a not altogether unpleasant way. Zoë shifted to increase the contact. Warmth seeped into her tummy and she thought of the woman in the pictures, the model for Enrique’s porn. Who was she? What was her name? She was young enough, was she perhaps attending the university, a friend of the young man rubbing against her?

Zoë felt her sensibilities become hazy. The porn girl, Veronica, she would call her. And the student behind her, he was Clément, a gentle, loving soul, but poor, oh so poor. Yet he was brilliant, gifted beyond so many others. But he had no connections, no patron, so he depended entirely on Veronica for his support. Veronica, with little education and no connections of her own, with nothing but her unusual beauty and long legs, had turned to a shark, a greasy Sicilian, borrowed money she could not now repay. Of course the inevitable came to pass. The Sicilian caught up with her on a street in the Sixth, took her elbow, directed her to a corner table in a café away from the few other customers.

Here’s a transition from a flashback within the restaurant scene into another of Zoë’s daydreams:

They’d been the very best of friends ever since the day four years before—they’d been fifteen—when they pledged their loyalty on a summer afternoon beneath a bridge beside the shimmering Seine.

They’d stood close, facing each other. “Put one hand here,” Heidi said, placing Zoë’s right palms on her breast, “and the other here.” She put Zoë’s left hand on her crotch. Zoe felt Heidi’s pubic bone, her fingers curled into the unusually wide space at the top of her thighs.

Then Heidi put her hands on Zoë’s breast and cupped her minou.

“Now we kiss,” Heidi said. “Don’t forget to open your mouth.”

Their lips touched delicately, sensuously, and Zoë felt Heidi’s pink tongue come slipping into her mouth, tickling, teasing at her own. The kiss went on for minutes, the two of them like statues, only their tongues exploring, dancing together. When they broke Zoë was breathless. Heidi’s eyes glittered like the sun on the water.

“I adore you,” Heidi said simply.

“And I you,” Zoë admitted, a bit embarrassed at the state the little blond vixen had brought her to.

They’d been meilleures amies ever since.

Recalling the feeling, Zoë’s mind swept back to the girl she’d imagined earlier on the metro, Veronica. Veronica, who was both Clément’s girlfriend and also Enrique’s porn girl. What had happened? Oh, yes, Salvatore had sent her to meet a strange man with the promise of a thousand euros. But for what in exchange?

It was a modest hotel, small lobby, tidy elevator and hallways, though not of the first rank, and Veronica tapped lightly on the door of room 403.

A masculine voice: “It’s open.”

It was a sitting room, fairly large, patterned green carpet, furniture from perhaps twenty years ago, long off-white sofas on either side of a glass-topped coffee table and beyond them tall windows with sheer curtains, and a man looking down at the street, hands clasped behind his back.

When he turned, Veronica recognized him: the owner of a shoe store and nearby dress shop on Avenue Montaigne. His precious little mustache was centered in a round face. He wore a morning coat and pinstripe trousers.

There you go. Hope it helps.


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Stringing out the tension

Peter D. wrote:

I like Terence Malick movies and he does this thing where you will be in the midst of a battle scene, and the camera will just look away to show a lizard or a crocodile or something.

So there is the idea. I like to use it to break up dialog. In the midst of the scene launch into a paragraph describing some element of the scene. It doesn’t have to be important to your story. It is just there to ground the scene in reality. To make it seem that your story is happening in a real world.

So what is my question? Does anyone else use this technique, and does it have a name, other than “The look away”.

And do you think it is a good idea?

It is a technique and one I’ve used (example below). I don’t know that it has a name, maybe postponing reader gratification, or maybe (better?) stringing out the tension.

Interesting that you point to Malick’s example of being in a battlefield, where (one assumes) tension would be high.

I think the fundamental of the technique is that when you have the reader really wriggling on the hook (“oh, my God, what’s going to happen?”), at that point you play the game of seeing how far away you can go and still keep the reader wriggling.

I was finished.

Flat on my back. My left arm hurt like hell where the slug had gone through my bicep. Gordo stood over me holding the .45 pointed at the middle of my chest, five feet away.

I had no way to get up, much less get up fast. And to get out of the way of a .45 slug coming at a thousand feet per second, when it’s only five feet away—no chance.

Gordo sneered. “You think you can be like the others, the straight people?” he said. “Doan make me laugh. You one of us, you on our side a the fence. You can’t go over that fence. It ain’t in you. You ain’t got it in you. You done too much shit over here to go try and clean up your act over there. It ain’t never going to happen, homey.”

The bastard. It sounded true, and I hated that it sounded true.

I sank back, let the tension go, felt my body mold itself into the damp earth beneath me. I gave up. Here I would end. Finito. Adios.

I could see Gordo’s big brown hand wrapped around the pistol’s grip, his big fat finger starting to tighten on the trigger.

I didn’t want to watch. And I sure didn’t want to think about what was probably happening to Taylor, left alone back there with that ugly pock-marked fucker called Facil. Yeah, he was easy, all right. Easy to hate.

I looked up. We were out in the orange grove. I saw the tops of the trees, the green leaves and beyond them blue sky. I could hear tires humming along the distant highway. I pictured the people in the car, a guy at the wheel, a pretty girl beside him, happy, laughing, cigarettes going, listening to music. No idea what was happening in the middle of that orchard over there.

A bird called out. A bird that didn’t have sense enough to get away from the shit going down in his neighborhood.

“Stupid fucking bird.”

I guess I said it out loud.

“Huh?” Gordo said.

One hell of a blast made me flinch like a girl, and I must have closed my eyes. The thought went thorough my head that’s it, I’m dead. Shit, it didn’t even hurt! And I can still think. Hell, this being dead, it’s not so bad.

So is he dead?

Well . . . then he couldn’t be narrating, could he?

The rest of the scene:

I opened my eyes and it was all in slow motion: Gordo standing there, except now where the .45 had been there was only a bloody stump on the end of his arm and there was a misty spray of blood settling out of the air.

Gordo’s eyes were open even wider than mine. He turned his head, took a half step and looked over to the side of clearing.

I looked, too, and there was Taylor, cradling a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun at hip level, a wisp of smoke rising from the barrel. She was naked to the waist, a skinny girl with a wild look in her eyes, blood on her cheeks and dripping from her chin, blood on her chest, her arms and hands. She jacked the action on the Winchester to put another shell in the chamber, and it made that serious steel-on-steel racking sound they make. She was holding it loose and low with the muzzle pointed right at my head and I froze in fright, even more scared than I’d been when I thought Gordo was about to off me. If she’d been squeezing the trigger when she jacked that shotgun, I wouldn’t be here telling you about it.

She swung it up and over on Gordo. He said “Fuck!” in that insulted and pissed-off way you say it if somebody spills coffee in your lap.

Taylor just looked at him for a second or two as he stood there, holding his stump of an arm up as if that might somehow stop the spurts of bright red blood shooting out of it.

Taylor pulled the trigger and there was another blast from the shotgun. I don’t know if she was aiming or just lucky, but this one caught Gordo right in the groin. The impact lifted him off his feet, knocked him back a couple steps and sat him right down in the dirt on his big fat ass.

He looked down to survey the damage and said “Jesus!” like you’d say to a kid look what you’ve done now.

Taylor took three quick, silent steps in her bare feet across the clearing and stood over Gordo like he’d been standing over me. She racked the Winchester again and held it right on Gordo’s fat gut and pulled the trigger. The shotgun clicked on an empty chamber.

She didn’t seem to notice. She kept racking it and pulling the trigger and the shotgun kept clicking on empty.

I stumbled to my feet and put my arm around her shoulders, pulled her against me and took the shotgun out of her hands. It made my arm ache like hell.

She relaxed into me.

I asked her, “Are you okay, are you cut?”

She looked down at the blood on her hands and arms, on her chest.

“It’s not mine,” she said. “It’s that guy’s.”

She looked up at me and got a weird half-smile on her face. “I bit off his dick,” she said. She made it sound like she’d brought home a report card with an A on it. “I bit off the end of it and spit it out in the dirt and he fell down and couldn’t get up. He couldn’t take his hands off it, holding his dick, trying to stop the bleeding. He couldn’t get up.”

“You did good,” I said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

I tried to start her away, head back to the car, but she stopped me, pulled me around.

“We need to kill him,” she said, looking at Gordo.

He was sitting there, pasty-faced, his eyes a little glassy with the shock, holding his stump in the air, looking at us. His crotch was a mass of blood and flesh and shredded Levis. He was sitting in a widening black patch of blood-soaked dirt.

“He’s dead,” I said. “There’s a big artery that goes right from the heart down to Gordo’s particular problem area. He’s dead already.”

As I said it the air went out of Gordo. He slumped and then slowly keeled over on one side.

“Come on.” I pulled Taylor away and we walked slowly back through the orchard to my yellow Camaro.

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