Monday, May 3, 2010

Transitioning through real time and real life.

It's a bore. Really. It doesn't matter what the hell it is, in real-time it's a bore. Author's lives, novels about undergoing great quests, whatever. Hell, even war or mountain rescue or hunting your dinner. Most of it, and indeed most of life is really repetitive, slow-moving and, um, boring. Okay, one man's tedium is the next's Te Deum (because being alive and not under stress is something to be grateful for. I am, every day that I am here on the far end of nowhere in particular, thankful to the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, as much as some of you may question their judgement)... but let's face it, real life (even fraught and miserable, or wildly exciting) is full of real time tedium, rather like real conversation is full of real banality. And like the army it's moments of extreme excitement interspersed with a lot of not much happening. In the army, that's mostly good. In a book, it isn't.
When people are paying up to read a piece of escapism (because yes, even misery books (my mother abused me, my father beat me or my punk-boyfriend ran off with my poodle, and took all the diet coke) are in fact some form of escapism. Yes, you have to be living a very banal and spoiled upper-middle class life to enjoy escape into grunge or misery... but there are people in that sad, meaningless existence that revel in the misery of others, otherwise there'd be no market for these sort of books. )... They want escapism.
And that means that they don't want the boredom of real-time, real-life. Any great quest involves sleeping, getting up, urinating, drinking something, probably eating something, and walking or riding... heck, breathing, sweating and farting unless you happened to be writing sparkly emo vampires, in other words business as usual, in between very short moments of intense excitement, mental turmoil and the stuff people paid to read about.
I think the key here is ‘real-time'. Any book is actually really 90% the exciting bits with the parts about blowing their noses and cleaning teeth and trying to get warm seriously foreshortened if not truncated completely. And yet you will hear the terms ‘realism' applied not infrequently to books that people admire. People feel they were there... no matter unlike real life the pace was. And even if no-one says ‘Like' ("like you know like it all like happened like, really fast.")
So: we're talking about writing here: how does one pull this little sleight of hand? How do some writers do it so slickly that you don't even realise it was done, and others leave you confused and re-reading (It must be deep. I had read every paragraph 3 times!)? And how, oh how, do those of us that have to write about the mundane make it entertaining (says he who tries to blog every day)?
We're onto the black magic zone of transitions here. And if you can't do these, you can't write. It's one of the more frequent and less written about problems of new writers. There are even some less-than-new writers who battle: to whit - me.
The key techniques I have been able to identify are...

1)Just leave it out. If the reader is able to leave the character bog-snorkling, and then easily work out that the story picks up with character x again after three hours of slogging through the bog later as they crawl onto the enchanted islet... well and good. No need to repeat bog-movements.

'This is awful, thought Mary, pushing deeper and deeper into the ooze. Sulphurous bubbles rose around her as she moved slowly forward forcing her way deeper into the muddy swamp. She knew there was no way back now. Just onward toward the enchanted islet out there in the mirk.
***
Mary was exhausted after forcing her way through thigh deep mud for what seemed like eternity, but couldn't have been more than an hour. She grabbed the rocks of the Enchanted islet and hauled herself out. For a while she just sat there and panted. And then looked at herself. sniffed. Here I am, off to meet a Prince and I smell like a frog-pond and look like Marshall's ex-girlfriend.

2)Change point of view. This works very well. But not in first person...

'This is awful, thought Mary, pushing deeper and deeper into the ooze. Sulphurous bubbles rose around her as she moved slowly forward forcing her way deeper into the muddy swamp. She knew there was no way back now. Just onward toward the enchanted islet out there in the mirk.
***
Watching from the high rock on the enchanted islet Prince Dairmid saw the woman pushing out into the bog. "Doesn't she know about the leeches?" he wondered, as she struggled forward. She was certainly determined. He watched her, fascinated, for ages, until she got too close.

3) use some of the tedium in (interesting) introspection with little aside to show the passage of time or distance. Beware. This can be boring too. Takes a light hand.

'This is awful, thought Mary, pushing deeper and deeper into the ooze. Sulphurous bubbles rose around her as she moved slowly forward forcing her way deeper into the muddy swamp. Suppose it pulls me down. But she knew there was no way back now. Just onward toward the enchanted islet out there in the mirk. She tried focussing he mind on her goal, or even on her mother-in-law. But the reality of step after glutinous step pulled her back to the grim reality of the bog. It sucked. So did her life.

4) seriously foreshorten by using narrative - tell don't show. Yes, there IS a place for this. 'This is awful, thought Mary, pushing deeper and deeper into the ooze. Sulphurous bubbles rose around her as she moved slowly forward forcing her way deeper into the muddy swamp. Suppose it pulls me down. But she knew there was no way back now. Just push onward toward the enchanted islet out there in the mirk. So she did. it seemed endless, but at last she grasped the rocks.

5)Finally, where there is just no escape (ie. Me writing a blog about a day of hard work, writing) either make it funny, or draw on experiences from more interesting times.

Ok - suggestions? Ideas?
A quick transition to a padded cell?

36 comments:

Jonathan D. Beer said...

This is a great post, Dave, and one in which you are right on the money - as a starting-out writer, I walked face-first into this problem in a big way around the 15k word mark, when I realised that my plan called for a character from A to B without any thought of what was going to happen in that intervening period. Three full rewrites later I cracked it, but I now have a keen appreciation of, as you say, the "realistic" part of writing.

As for particular methods, I think you have outlined them nicely; can't say that I can think of any others. I think that if you are confident in how you move between the "action" the reader will generally go along with you - I think the reason my favourite writers are my favourites is because when I'm reading I'm not thinking about the tradecraft present, I'm just enjoying the writing.

Dave Freer said...

Thank you Jonathan. It gave me some headaches too. Still does, sometimes. You REALLY need to make sure your reader comes with you. That's the key - that and that a transition (no matter which method you use) needs to be both effectively invisible and of course effective. Tricky that! If the reader feels like they got from A to D without a nod to points B & C... the reality is disturbed. But a nod and wink to those points (we know they happened, but they're not important... and it feels right). I certainly struggle more with transitions than I do with active scenes.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, great post. I was talking to someone about this very thing this weekend. Now I can send her this link because you have explained it much better than I did.

As for ways to make the transition, I think you've pretty much covered them. I tend to like the change of view points. Perhaps because that seems to be easiest for me. Which is one of the issues I'm having right now as I edit a novel written in first person. Don't ask...Sarah made me do it and I'm sticking to that story. So I'm trying to follow the rule of, "if it makes my eyes glaze over, it will the readers' so it needs to be deleted." The problem is, this is one of those books that once written, my eyes glaze within three paragraphs, not because it's a bad book (at least I've been assured by my beta readers it isn't), but because it is so different from what I usually write.

Any way, thanks for a great post and for giving me something to think about before I start the edits again today.

matapam said...

"my punk-boyfriend ran off with my poodle, and took all the diet coke"

Now there's an opening line with a hook.

Mind you, the sort of things I write the punk will have to be a space alien, the diet coke an acceptable reactor mediating fluid, and the poodle thinks he smells like a lady dog.

So those tedious weeks in between stars will be filled with the escape-artist poodle trying to hump his leg while he tries to figure out the puzzling loss of basic foodstuffs and the weird programming and reprogramming of the kitchen appliances. By the time he discovers the stow-away girlfriend . . .

I usually use changes of the POV, but humor combined with telling-instead-of-showing works nicely.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL, Dave. Why did I choose Tuesdays? You're a hard act to follow!

One of the most interesting meetings we had at the Vision group was on transitions. People got quite irate debating the best way to skip the boring bits!

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I'd read that.

I also agree, changes in POV work well - that's one of my primary means in my own story. Although, obviously, it makes the skill of transitions all the more important in first-person as Amanda has said. To be honest, I look forward to trying a first-person POV, just to really be forced to tackle the problem head-on.

I also agree with matapam - I am on the whole a slave to show-don't-tell, but I think there are absolutely times when telling needs to be done, and a good transition can certainly be one of those times when telling can be snuck in with no detriment (and sometimes a lot of improvement) to a story.

Stephen Simmons said...

Dave, are you reading my mind? I've been wrestling with the same chapter for three weeks now - and losing three out of five falls - because of this very problem. I have to introduce a new character set, provide these particular background facts, and get everyone to another room in time for a specific event they have no control over. Defining those dots was simplicity itself. Connecting them has been kicking my butt. I think I have it now, finally, but I need to let the electrons dry and re-read it before I'll know for sure.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, you're re-reading too soon IMO. (that's a major cause of eye-glaze with my own work, for me)

Dave Freer said...

Matapam that would be entertaining and involve a gutsy heroine actually doing something;-) The real thing would involve her angsting for 200 pages and then turning to heroin and dying.

Jim McCoy said...

There are things you just HAVE to leave out I think. An hours long slog across a swamp is not something I want to read about. That much being said, I think you can go with "tell but don't show" if it's done quickly and not overused. POV switch also works and honestly, a boring situation provides the ideal time to switch to that other character. You know which one. He's the one doing the exciting stuff. You can always come back later whenever the boring stuff is over.

Dave Freer said...

Rowena, you're a hard act to follow too ;-) Think of Sarah. Seriously - transitions are hard to do well, and essential to do well. It's surprising how little the subject is addressed.

Dave Freer said...

Stephen - what you're talking about - multiple transitions AND orchestration/continuity is what makes my brain hurt particularly with the Heirs books which are big canvas, many points of veiw. My advice - to myself, and to anyone starting out is to try and keep the number of points of view down and the story as linear as possible. Of course this is not always possible. Each story has its own framework of possibilities.

Dave Freer said...

Yeah, Jim shift Point of veiw to a character doing something else entirely. I should have mentioned that. Good point.

matapam said...

Angsting for 200 pages only works if the heroine has a chainsaw and is cursing and cutting her way through obstacles while listing all the wrongs the world has done her.

And even then 200 pages might be a bit much. Best leave the middle 198 pages to the readers imagination. Which is what one relies on when fast forwarding past long trips, swamps, daily chores and such.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, for audiences you and me 2 lines is maybe overkill. But there was a fashion in 'misery' just before the recession, with titles like tears, misery, abuse etc. They were about some awful things - and also about some people putting rather fanciful interpretations on minor things, by a report I read. Even in sf/fantasy there were a bunch of grunge novels that seemed a pointless revel in guck, in which the characters did little but make things worse. They had a market. I concluded it must be jaded and cocooned people to whom this was exotic.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, only if a year is too soon. No, this truly is one of those books that demanded to be written -- fully supported by Sarah who said, "writing in a different genre will be good for you." I couldn't reread it then and I can't now. Maybe my body was possessed for the weeks it took to write this by someone else? That could explain it all, right?

Dave Freer said...

I have to ask, Amanda, what genre is it?

matapam said...

Maybe it was catering to the Baby Boomer's menopausal emotional crises? And the crest of that wave has passed? Dog knows mine is past and I never want to go there again.

Or maybe it's just personal. I keep trying to write a dark urban fantasy and the Characters just refuse to angst. They start analyzing the weird stuff, and then they start controlling it, and next thing you know they're having fun.

Stephen Simmons said...

ROFL! Dave, NOW you tell me ...

This story insisted on (at present count four significant plot-lines, just in Volume One, with multiple POV characters in two of them. And then in Volume Two, it starts to get complicated ... I only seem to have two "natural" writing lengths: flash, and multi-volume epic.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, I'd rather read your version.

Dave Freer said...

Stephen - maybe you have one of those great minds that deal with it without effort :-) I wish I did!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

"my punk-boyfriend ran off with my poodle, and took all the diet coke"

Dave, write it, you can sell it as YA.

Someone recently pointed out to me that in Enid Blyton the kids never go to the loo and rarely bother to wash or change clothes (depends on the book for that last actually) also all they seem to eat are these... FEASTS.

I thought back to the age at which I first read EB and heavens... if she had the kids go to the bathroom, the book would have gone across the room. Of course, what I liked about them is that they were never ill mid adventure. I was ill so often

Actually you could view what I do now in my life as just that eliding of time between itneresting bits by being sick. When my mind turns to cotton wool my decisions make no sense at all, which certainly moves the plot forward -- often disastrousbly.

(Looks up) HEY, You, this best not be one of those pointless modern novels in which everyone dies. SERIOUSLY.

And Rowena... Don't get me started on following you!

Stephen Simmons said...

"Without effort"? No, I certainly wouldn't say that. I set out to write a simple one-book story. But the Characters keep running into other Characters along the way, and when I ask the interlopers where they came from, they insist on telling me ... The notes are longer than the text at this point, just trying to keep everything straight.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, I'd much rather write the one about the girl who now looked like the thing from the black lagoon after bog-snorkling ;-). Yes, the point is not to fill in the details, but how to leave them out so no-one cares.

Stephen Simmons said...

Sarah,

thankyou,thankyou,thankyou. You just called to mind a MAD Magazine parody of LotR that I read AGES ago. Happy memory. They did a song parody to the tune of "Clouds" (You know, "I've looked at life from both sides now ..."):

"Ingrown toenails, Asian flu,
And kidney stones that won't pass through,
And other ills that bother you
Will never come our way.

Because we live the Good Life here.
Disease and sickness can't appear ..."

Amanda Green said...

No, Dave, you don't have to ask. You really don't. ;-p (I'll answer off list. I promise.)

Kate said...

Transitions? What are they?

(So sayeth the Kate whose transitions tend to be not so much transitional as leaping off a cliff or running into one)

Dave Freer said...

Kate - The time spent in an airport 'lounges' planes and bus-terminals of a story :-)

Kate said...

Dave,

You mean you're not supposed to just skip the boring bits? Oh noes! I've been doing it wrong :)

Dave Freer said...

Kate - all is explained. had you been writing about the write... right bits you would have had all the major publishers after you in a great slathering horde of immense droolsomeness. As you keep writing about the interesting bits readers want, they're ignoring you ;-)

Chris McMahon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris McMahon said...

Great post, Dave. It is a tricky balance making those transitions. I guess because I plot out most of the structure beforehand I usually have a good idea how I am going to handle this.

As for the boring bits - my general rule is that if I am bored writing it - skip it. Back fill as required. Take two scene changes with food and call me in the morning.

Dave Freer said...

Chris - it's the with food part that is important. Otherwise, try an android ;-)

Mike said...

I'm probably missing something, but it seems to me that part of the question isn't how you leave stuff out, but how you write the parts around it? E.g. cliffhangers and hints and whatnot before the missing part to make the reader jump that gap and then setting and hooks and all that after the missing part to get the reader right back in afterwards? Think of the transitions like chapter breaks, scene changes, etc. and use all the tricks that fit those corrugations in the wordscape of the reader?

Dave Freer said...

Mike said "I'm probably missing something, but it seems to me that part of the question isn't how you leave stuff out, but how you write the parts around it?"

Yeah, you're right. If you set theings up so the reader isn't even aware (or doesn't care) that you're skipping 1000 miles and three months... cool.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, it would get my word count up appreciably if every book had thirty or forty days of feeding, grooming, saddling, bridling and un-everything later that day, along with the occasional loose shoe or girth sore or equipment failure...My characters could sweat, take potty breaks in the high brush (if it was a mixed gender group), complain about the food, bargain with farmers for a couple of old hens so they had three days of fresh eggs followed by two chicken dinners.

I suppose they could angst over the chickens? Despair when they took a one day break to wash all their clothes and they were all wrinkled.

GD&R

MataPam