Falling Through the Cracks

Sat Nov 12 2016

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about what's in the writing and how to improve it. Today, we're talking about how what's not in the writing can sometimes make your characters looks bad. Specifically, how rough scene breaks can break your characters.

If you're wondering how scene transitions can sabotage a character, welcome to the club. I was surprised when I discovered this phenomenon because it's so unexpected.

A scene transition is only a gap 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. How in the world could a gap turn out to be a crack the character falls through?

It's because while the scene break is itself a gap, the scene-ending and next scene's beginning on either side of that gap have to form a continuity bridge between the two scenes. If the bridge is out, you force readers to leap haphazardly over that gap. And where they land may not be at all where you intended.

The Discovery

The first time I saw this happen was in a client's manuscript where I felt that the main character was way too passive. This was odd because passive characters are usually ones who aren't doing anything. Yet this particular guy was doing stuff at many points in the story.

Eventually, it hit me. The problem wasn't in the writing, it was in the gaps between the writing.

The writer ended a lot of scenes with typical thriller-novel cliffhangers, to motivate readers to keep reading to see how the guy would deal with the end-of-scene crisis. Nothing wrong with that. Usually it's a very effective technique.

But then in the next scene, this writer's habit was to resume the story after the crisis was over. The writer presented enough recap to inform readers how the crisis was resolved, but didn't actually show the resolution happening.

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.

Gap Theory

That's just one example. Generally, awkward transitions 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. The scene itself has built this picture for them. By the end of the scene your readers will have some kind of guess about how the events will unfold.

But then the scene ends, forcing readers to build a new mental picture at the beginning of the next scene. 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. Take this hypothetical 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 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. 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, preparing dinner, sniffling and wiping away tears. The husband, still somewhat sullen, is stoking the fireplace. Later, the doorbell rings and guests arrive for dinner. Everyone has a pretty good time.

Now ask yourself, why was the wife crying in scene two? What happened in between those two scenes?

This shouldn't take much thought. It's obvious, right? 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. Just a colorful detail in the kitchen scene. He didn't bring up having another baby, and they didn't fight!"

That may be, but you can't exactly fault readers for coming to the obvious conclusion. One that happens to make the husband look like 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 is entirely justified on structural grounds. If he didn't bring up having another baby, then there's no conflict in that scene. The scene wouldn't advance the story, 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. It should at least be mentioned, because if omitted entirely, the husband falls to his metaphorical death in the reader's eyes.

Building Bridges

Any scene break, no matter how well executed, tells the reader, "Hey, I'm putting a gap here. You're going to have cross it yourself."

The difference between a good break and a bad one is that a good break builds a bridge for the reader to cross, while a bad one makes the reader jump for it.

A bridge between scenes, like any real bridge, has two ends. Two things need to happen at the scene transition for writers to avoid unintentionally showing something negative about their characters. That is, for the husband not to come off looking like a jerk.

Starting the Bridge

The bridge starts at the end of the scene before the gap. This scene must end with a clear sense of direction. Usually, this means not ending the scene too early, when there are still too many directions the scene could go before reaching the natural place for the scene break to occur. Don't leave readers with too many different directions we might choose when we jump for it.

Instead, end after giving readers a clear sense for what events you're about to skip over. You might end scene one in our example with something like this, picking up from the moment where the couple embraces on the bluff:

Wind crested the bluff, blowing their hair into tangles. A gull floated up on the currents, veering sharply around them. Neither Bertie nor Alice saw it, consumed as they were in the comfort of each other's solid presence. After a time they broke, but remained hand-in-hand as they returned to the cottage.

Pay attention to the last sentence of the example. That's the starting point of the bridge, and all it does is point readers in the right direction. Now they know he didn't bring up the touchy subject again--at least not right then. The scene ends as a moment of healing between the two of them.

Some ambiguity still remains. Did they talk on the walk back? Did he bring it up then? Maybe. We don't get to see that, so we don't know. But that's ok, because a bridge has two ends and this scene is just one of them.

Finishing the Bridge

The bridge ends at the beginning of the scene after the gap. This scene must begin by establishing its own mental picture quickly and clearly, revealing how this scene logically follows from the previous one.

The end of the bridge is how you dealing with any remaining uncertainty left by the previous scene's ending. For example:

Bertie took Alice's coat as they entered the cottage. "The Greenlys will be here soon," he said. "I'll go start a fire."

"Right." Alice kissed his cheek and headed for the kitchen. "I'll go start the onion quiche."

Finishing the bridge doesn't take much. Just a quick indication of the new situation plus a little something to show their emotional state. The kiss on the cheek resolves the ambiguity about their walk back to the cottage. Maybe they talked, maybe they didn't, but whichever it was we can be pretty sure he did not bring up the touchy subject or else she probably wouldn't have kissed him.

A properly finished bridge gives the reader a brief moment of realizing "Ok, I see how we got from there to here."

Don't Make Readers Guess

A scene transition is a gap. An intentional crack in the story. Your job as the writer is to provide a clear and safe path over that crack. Because the risk, if you make the reader jump for it, is not to them. Readers will land wherever seems most sensible to them to land.

The risk is that your characters will plummet into the chasm.

Readers end one scene with a hypothesis as to what will happen next. The job of the bridge is either to confirm their hypothesis or lead them to a different understanding. Don't leave them wondering what happened. Let them imagine it, sure. But don't make them guess.