In reviewing works of other aspiring authors, one common “trap” I often see them fall into (at least in earlier drafts) is stepping away from the story to give too much focus on the mundane, everyday rituals of the main character. In short, we the reader does not need to know what your MC had for breakfast, that he or she showered, pooped, brushed his or her teeth, etc. unless those things have a direct bearing on the story.
So how do you move forward in a scene when there’s a need to relate to the reader that such things happened? It comes down to recognizing the triggers in your scene/novel. If your reviewers are giving feedback like, “it just kind of goes on and on” or “I found myself skimming,” chances are there’s some fluff in there you should consider trimming. If something happens to a MC on a Friday, which may leave a minor cliff hanger that we know will be resolved on the mundane, there might be a need to give some narrative detail on how agonizing the waiting was for the MC over the weekend, but only to a point. If nothing else happens over the weekend, there’s a point where your narration of the weekend will develop some pretty hefty fault lines. The disaster here is that you lose the reader to the point where he or she doesn’t care about the outcome of the cliffhanger. Gauging that balance, in this case, is essential. Instead of a long narration of physical symptoms of the character’s anxiety, or using too much introspective/hypothetical questions asked by the narrator, try trimming those things and identifying the essentials. Or, make sure there’s some meat there. In other words, if you want to build up the tension after the cliff hanger, insert some sort of actual happening that supports the reveal that is to occur on the Monday.
Here’s an example I just made up. Tommy is being bullied. On Friday, the bully tells Tommy that if he doesn’t finish his report for him over the weekend, he’s going to beat him up on Monday. Tommy agonizes over this all weekend, but we really don’t need to over-dwell on this fact. It doesn’t take much for the reader to understand the situation, and most of us will understand the anxiety that accompanies this whether we were bullied as kids or not.
One way to write the transition from Friday to Monday is to make it simple and short: “Tommy agonized all weekend over the bully (yadda yadda yadda). At one point, his mother even wondered if he was too sick to go to school. However, when the thermometer read that he didn’t have a fever, this idea was quickly overturned.”
But let’s say you don’t want to write it so simply. Let’s say the agony felt by the MC needs to be given more attention—needs to be intensified. Be careful not to rely solely on adverbs or rhetorical questions or a series of random thoughts or any other gimmicky devices that will make readers yawn. If you really want to intensify the MC’s angst, you need to be cleverer than that. You need to show it. This really comes down to show vs. tell, which I believe the vast majority of writers don’t understand—even if they might understand it in concept. You need to insert a scene that shows the angst and that scene must move the story forward rather than serve only as a device to show the MC’s anguish (because readers will see through this, too). Perhaps Tommy starts writing the bully’s report, but something or someone compels him to stand up for himself. Perhaps he finishes the bully’s report, but on Monday morning the dog eats it or his father spills coffee on it and ruins it or what not. Show the anguish via action, and then ensure the scene does something to contribute to the MC’s growth or gradual fall (something that moves the character in one direction or another. Otherwise, you have stasis which is not good in a story).
Hope that makes sense. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments section.
Also, for more insight into mastering scene transitions, check out this great blog article I ran into by Author/Editor, C.S. Lakin.