One thing that pulls me out of a story (my stories at the end of the rough draft, most of the time!) is jagged, jarring transitions. You know the ones I’m talking about.
Like when the hero and heroine are going at each other in a shouting match. Then, suddenly, in the next scene, she’s asking politely if he wants a cup of coffee without a believable transition.
Or it’s morning, and then in the next scene, your heroine is getting ready for bed, and the passage of time isn’t mentioned at all.
It’s okay to write disjointed scenes in the first draft, but in rewrites, the transitions need to be seamless, with neat, clean stitches.
Let’s look at some before and after examples from my Natchez Trace series to see if we can make these transitions from scene to scene seamless. (Say that three times fast!)
And, I’ll just go ahead now and apologize for the long post. But, the bulk of today’s post is excerpts, and it was necessary to include those to show the changes.
Excerpt from The Promise of Breeze Hill
Setup: My characters are traveling on the Natchez Trace, a dangerous stretch of road in the 18th century. They’re discussing what might happen if highwaymen attack. Connor (my hero) is new to the area, and Mr. Wainwright is the leader of the group of travelers. This except is the end of the scene.
1st draft: [Mr. Wainwright is speaking.] “Men of this ilk have no regard for human life, not even their own most of the time. They show no mercy. If you get one of them in your sights, shoot him. You won’t get a second chance.”
Connor nodded. He’d been in similar circumstances.
“Good then. Just pray that we won’t have to fight the ruffians this time.” Wainwright moved up the line, speaking to each man in turn. He didn’t spend as much time with each man as he’d spent with Connor. Most of the men were seasoned drovers along the trace, and they knew what to expect and when to expect it.
“Men of this ilk have no regard for human life, not even their own most of the time. They show no mercy. If you get one of them in your sights, shoot him. You won’t get a second chance.”
Connor nodded. He’d been in similar circumstances a few times and didn’t have to be told twice.
[End of Excerpt]
As you can see, I completely cut out the last paragraph in the rewrite of the above scene. I end with Connor’s acceptance of the likelihood of an attack. I’m not going to include any of it, but the next scene is in the villain’s POV as he and his men watch the travelers and prepare to attack. Then we go back to Connor’s POV as they’re riding down this trail and the reader already knows that the bad guys are watching. This excerpt is the beginning of the scene.
Other than the jingle of harness, the occasional snort of a horse, and the swish-swish of tails beating off horseflies, all was quiet. The soft dirt drowned out the clop of horse’s hooves and well-oiled wheels as they made slow progress toward home.
The man up ahead flinched, then slapped at a horsefly on his shoulder. Connor rolled his shoulders in sympathy. Those monsters stung, and they didn’t respect man over beast. They’d draw blood from either if the opportunity arose.
He hunkered down, his elbows resting on his knees, his gaze rimming the edges of the loamy banks that rose high on both sides of him.
A small cascade of loose soil tumbled down the bank.
The man up ahead flinched, reached back and slapped at a horsefly on his shoulder.
Connor rolled his shoulders in sympathy. Those monsters stung, and they didn’t respect man over beast. They’d draw blood from either if the opportunity arose.
Other than the jingle of harness, the occasional snort of a horse, and the swish-swish of tails beating off horseflies, all was quiet. The soft dirt drowned out the clop of horses’ hooves and well-oiled wheels as they made slow progress toward home. Slower than usual in deference to Wainwright’s injuries.
He hunkered down, elbows resting on his knees, his gaze rimming the edges of the loamy banks that rose high on both sides.
A small cascade of loose soil tumbled down the bank, and he jerked to attention.
He caught a glint of sunlight off metal and twisted sideways even as the the sound of a high-pitched whine swooshed by his ear. The bullet splintered the foot rest between his feet. Even as he hauled back on the reins, the man in front of him slapped his back again, but this time blood spurted through his fingers. He let out a scream of agony and toppled from the wagon, hitting the ground with a thud.
[End of excerpt]
In this scene, I kept everything, I just rearranged it. I opened with the man slapping at his back (thought he’d gotten shot, didn’t you?), then Connor’s sympathy about the man being bitten by a horsefly. Then the boring plodding along, while the reader is thinking, DUCK! HIDE! RUN! After that, the loose soil catches his attention, and the man in front slaps at his back again. Except it’s not a horsefly this time.
Sometimes thing fit together better if you just rearrange them a bit.
Also from The Promise of Breeze Hill
Isabella has gone to a neighboring plantation to make a desperate deal. A storm is brewing. Here’s the opening of the scene that had to be rewritten to make it flow properly and to keep the reader anchored about where she was and what she was doing there.
The wind picked up, and Isabella swung the French doors wide, and looked out at the trees whipping in the wind. The sky toward the New Orleans was blue-gray with the mist of the ocean. Fear touched her heart.
Revised draft: [beginning of scene]
Alone in Nolan’s parlor, Isabella twisted her fingers in her lap.
Was she doing the right thing?
She didn’t know, but she’d sat in the rocker in Leah’s sitting room in the darkest hours of the night, wrestling over little Jon’s future. There was one man who was powerful enough and close enough to Breeze Hill to offer protection for her nephew. And that man was Nolan Braxton.
[Some of Isabella’s thoughts removed to keep this short…]
His housekeeper, wide frightened eyes darting to the huge oaks bending and twisting in the wind, had said that he was indisposed. Isabella asked to wait out the storm, and the woman had shown her to the parlor, then quickly disappeared, muttering about devil winds and the cellar.
The wind picked up, and Isabella stood, moved to the windows and pulled the heavy drapes back. The sky toward New Orleans had turned a sickly blue-gray in the hour she’d waited, and the trees whipped back and forth in a frenzy. The storm was worsening at a frightening rate.
[End of excerpt]
I hope I’ve included enough of this to explain the problem with the 1st draft. It wasn’t seamless. The reader knew where she was going and could probably guess why. In the first draft, the reader would wonder why wasn’t she talking to Nolan, but I needed a reason for him to not be there at that exact moment. So, you’ll see how I sort of “backed into” the scene. She’s in his parlor, there’s a bit of the reason she’s there, and the housekeeper’s fear of the bad weather that was alluded to in a previous scene.
From The Road to Magnolia Glen:
1st draft [end of scene. Quinn’s POV]
Le Bonne’s henchman lifted Kiera off the dais and pushed her toward the stairs. She stumbled again, but regained her footing. Quinn had to do something. But what? In a last ditch effort, he charged toward the stairs.
Someone grabbed him by the arm. He jerked back a fist, but stopped just in time when he recognized William Wainwright.
Wainwright propelled him toward the door, but Quinn jerked back. “No. I will no’ leave her.”
“We’re not leaving her. Come on. We don’t have much time.”
Revised draft [end of scene. Quinn’s POV]
Le Bonne’s henchman jerked Kiera off the dais and pushed her toward the stairs. She stumbled again, but regained her footing. Marchette followed, neither looking to the left or the right. Their fun at an end, the crowd returned to their drinks and their slow descent into debauchery, but Quinn stood in the shadows, his gaze watching as Kiera was led up the stairs and along the balcony.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned. Wainwright clasped him by the shirtfront, grimaced. “Sorry to do this, but—”
Then he drew back and slammed a fist into Quinn’s face.
[End of excerpt]
As you can see, Kiera is in a precarious position, but in the first draft, Quinn (the hero) and his companions are going to have to do some fancy footwork to rescue her. In the second draft, they still have a lot to do, but instead of reacting to the situation, they became involved IN the situation, and the Wainwright’s fist plant is to start a brawl in the tavern. A diversion, if you will.
Here’s another scene from The Road to Magnolia Glen. And this is an easy fix to anchor the reader where they are. Quinn and some of the children have been gathering scrap iron from a plantation destroyed by a tornado, and now they’ve returned home.
Quinn spotted Isabella standing in the middle of the lane staring at the cookhouse, a sketchpad and a piece of charcoal in her hands.
Quinn drove down the lane, Patrick, Megan, and Lizzy squished on the seat beside him, the wagon bed full of scrap metal.
Isabella stood in the middle of the road in front of the cookhouse, a sketchpad and a piece of charcoal in her hands. She moved out of the way and let them pass.
Just one sentence at the beginning clues the reader in quickly that it’s Quinn’s POV and that they’ve returned to Breeze Hill.
Here’s one more small excerpt that is a good example of the passage of time. These minor, but key, character’s names have been changed, but I can assure you this isn’t my hero and heroine!
1st draft [beginning of scene.]
Alone, Charles sat in a rocker in the dark staring at his wife’s bed. He’d banished them all. Thompson. His housekeeper. Even Victoria’s brother, the esteemed Reverend John Muiller had failed him.
They’d let his sweet Victoria die.
As the sun sank in the west, dark seeped into Victoria’s room. Refusing anyone else entrance, Charles sat in a rocker staring at his wife’s bed.
He’d banished them all. His butler. The housekeeper. Thompson. Even Victoria’s brother, the esteemed Reverend John Muiller.
One by one, they’d all failed him.
And they’d let his sweet Victoria die.
[End of excerpt]
Several hours had passed from the last scene, so I need the reader to be anchored in the time. “As the sun sank…” did the trick.
So, there you go. A few examples of my attempts to create smooth transitions that keep readers firmly rooted in the story. So, how do you know if your scenes have some rough edges?
If the transition from scene to scene jars you, the author, it’s likely going to jar the reader. So, you have to be willing to rewrite that cool beginning or ending to some of your scenes.
Or in some cases, you might have to add a few words, or just delete a few. Sometimes it’s an easy fix.
And sometimes it’s really hard, and you have to rework an entire scene. That happened with my first example from The Road to Magnolia Glen. But the rewrite was much, much cooler!
And cooler is always better, don’t you think?
Authors, I’d love to hear your stories of smoothing out the rough edges and transitioning from scene to scene. And, readers, did you even have a clue that your authors obsess over this kind of thing?
The Road to Magnolia Glen
Coming June 5th to ... well, EVERYWHERE!