Chris, Ariel, and Oren discuss transitions in writing and other media. They describe what transitions need to accomplish and various techniques for transitioning between scenes. While they’re at it, they debate whether Harry Potter should have died, if BBC’s Robin Hood is conducting experiments on viewers, and how much tragedy should befall tea parties.Download Episode 62 Subscription Feed
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Sleeper from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Bushwhacked from Firefly
Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Mike Hernandez, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: Today’s episode is brought to you by our sponsor: Kathy Ferguson, professor of Political Theory in Star Trek.
Chris: Hi, this is the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me are…
Oren: Oren. Did we stop doing the ‘special guest’ thing for Ariel? Is she just another co-host now?
Chris: Umm… yes.
Chris: Yes, that was completely intentional; she is another co-host.
Oren: Alright, that’s good. I’m glad this was an intentional procedural change, and not just something we forgot.
Chris: That is a good question. How many times does a guest-podcaster podcast before not being a guest-podcaster anymore?
Ariel: Apparently, only one. [Chris and Ariel laugh]
Chris: Don’t tell that to Jim. [laughs]
Oren: It’s- apparently, it’s a variable bar based on how much we need you for a given topic.
Chris: Well, to be fair, Ariel is our copyeditor-
Oren: That’s true.
Chris: -so, Ariel is generally more involved at Mythcreants on an ongoing basis than some of our other guest-podcasters.
Oren: And the listeners might know her from that cool post about pets she did. That one got a lot of good feedback, cause it had an adorable parrot-thing on the cover. Was it just a regular parrot, or-?
Ariel: That’s a phoenix.
Chris: [simultaneously] That’s a phoenix, thank you very much, Oren.
Oren: It was really close up, okay? [Chris laughs] It was just a picture of its face; it looked like a parrot.
Chris: He was crying. It was healing tears.
Oren: Parrots might cry.
Chris: If not for the healing tears, Oren, Harry Potter would have died, okay? You don’t want Harry Potter to die, do you?
Oren: Yes, actually, I kind of do. More specifically, I want him to stay dead. He died once, and apparently, then he got brought back by Dumbledore-Christ. So, that was a little upsetting.
Chris: I should probably tell you now, we do actually have a topic for this podcast, which is something other than Fawkes and Harry Potter time.
Ariel: Excellent segue. [Chris laughs]
Chris: This podcast is actually on transitions.
Oren: Which, we just did a very smooth one right there. [Chris laughs] It was just like, ‘hey, guys, no. We actually have a topic; we’re not just going to goof around about Harry Potter.’ Which is too bad for me because that’s all my notes are on. But, you know.
Chris: So, let’s just start with what we mean by transition. And I think we’re going to talk about transitions- and probably in writing in particular, but also in different mediums a little bit.
Ariel: It’s more fun to talk about transitions in other mediums.
Chris: It’s true because it’s so fancy and pretty in other mediums! But like, it’s good to know what translates to narration and what doesn’t, cause otherwise, people will sometimes try to translate visuals into their narration, and that doesn’t always work out so well.
Oren: I mean, I guess in theater you signal a transition by turning off the lights and moving the set around. [Chris laughs] That’s my experience with transitions.
Chris: Well, it’s not that different from having this break where there’s nothing in writing. Technically, that’s like turning off the lights, right? Cause there’s no words.
Oren: Yeah, basically.
Chris: Anyway, so: my normal definition of what the actual transition part is, is the stuff- so, in writing, as you said, there’s usually like, for instance, an empty paragraph break, and that’s usually what it looks like in the actual word format. And I tend to think of the transition as the text that’s like, right before and right after that break.
Ariel, it sounds like perhaps you were also thinking about- so, when you have a scene, there’s the part of the scene that’s in real time, where you’re listening to people speak and seeing things as they occur; and then you have the summary portion, where you’re summarizing the time passing a little bit, sometimes, and just doing it much briefer.
And so, sometimes you have a scene where it’s like, real-time scene, and then you have a more quick summary, and then you go back into a real-time scene. In your definition, would that be- would you call that a transition?
Ariel: I’m not sure… I think of transitions in two ways: so, there’s a transition scene- so, the thing that happens between scenes; and then, to me, there’s also transitions of getting from point A to point B to point C in either fiction or non-fiction.
Oren: So, you say a blank paragraph. Do you not- are you not a fan of the center three-asterisk?
Chris: No, I’m fine with those, too.
Oren: Okay. I always preferred those. If I see just a blank paragraph, I feel like something is missing, like I have a flawed copy of the book or something. [Chris laughs]
Chris: I think asterisks are fine. Whatever. Whatever makes you feel good- [laughs] -about your jump in the timeline.
Oren: I need something there, okay? I can’t just look at a- like, a blankness and expect me to cross that gap. I need a stepping-stone.
Chris: Well, to be fair, that is why I started putting a little doo-dad before the conclusion on the Mythcreants blog posts, because before, we just had a jump, and some people were like, not okay with that empty space. So, now there’s a little pretty thing that fills up the empty space.
Oren: And now I’m okay with just like, leaving that space, whereas before, I used to try really, really hard to make it so that my conclusion paragraph didn’t need a break, because I really hated that blank spot. It just- it bugged me that it was there, and it was empty, and I was like, ‘I hate having it constantly!’ [Chris laughs] I had nightmares.
Chris: Oh, wow. Okay.
Oren: Not about that, but I did have them. [Chris laughs]
Chris: So, anyway- the point is that a transition, obviously, is transitioning two things. Let’s talk about what they’re for. What they need to do. Do you want to start, Ariel?
Ariel: Sure. We use transitions to sort of cut across all of the boring and mundane, because we can’t really account for every single second in our characters’ lives. So, if you don’t want to talk about how they got up that morning and they brushed their teeth before they went to slay the dragon, then you can just cut to slaying the dragon, and a transition will get you there.
Chris: For my part, I would say that the purpose of a transition, of the actual transition text and what it needs to do, is to, anytime that there’s a significant change, to make sure that change is not jarring and confusing. So, if you’re changing to a different viewpoint, if you’re changing place, if you’re changing time, the goal of the transition portions are to make sure that feels smooth and feels very clear, without later learning, ‘wait a second. I’m in a different place?’ Or just feeling confused.
Oren: Oh, and I just want to- cause I want know there’s some smarty-pants who’s listening right now who’s thinking ‘oh, but there was this one story where they described brushing their teeth and eating breakfast, and it was great. Why can’t I just do that?’ I guarantee you, whatever that story is you’re thinking of also had transitions that skipped over the boring parts. But in that story, the brushing teeth and eating breakfast was probably done for comedic effect.
Like, Terry Pratchett does that sometimes, where it’s like, ‘you don’t normally think about what the hero did before he went out to slay the dragon.’ It’s like, ‘this is the hero having trouble with his shoelaces,’ and like- [Chris laughs] -that’s the joke, but there’s still lots of stuff that he skips over, right?
Oren: Cause no one is going to do the entire real-time story of their character if their story takes place over more than a few minutes. Not even 24, which is- the big claim to fame was that it was all real-time; even they used skip-ahead transitions. They were just cleverly disguised.
Chris: Did they show everybody going to the bathroom?
Oren: They did not.
Oren: They did not do that, because- [Chris laughs[ -that would have been boring, and no one would have wanted to see that, so…
Chris: Has everybody- anyone read a work where that showed people going to the bathroom?
Oren: Only- as was pointed out on other podcasts, only because something terrible was going to happen to them.
Oren: Or like, something meaningful, or something.
Chris: If something meaningful actually happens in the bathroom.
Oren: In the world of fiction, every time you go to the bathroom is an adventure.
Oren: Because there’s nothing- like, you don’t ever go there to just use the bathroom. There’s always some meaningful conversation, or some weird portal you’re going to run into, or something.
Ariel: Or a troll.
Oren: Or a troll. Troll’s common.
Chris: I do admit, occasionally for some fiction, I wonder how the bathroom logistics are being managed. Like, in The 100, for instance- it’s post-apocalyptic, and they have this little walled village they’ve created for themselves. It’s not a huge space.
Chris: And like, they’re about to be attacked, and so, people don’t go outside that wall unless they get permission, cause somebody could kill them. And so, I do kind of like- naturally, it doesn’t ever show where they go to the bathroom or like, them digging themselves a porta-potty. I kind of do sometimes wonder.
Oren: Look, you can become nose-blind to a lot of very intense smells given enough time, and let’s just be very glad that no one yet has invented ‘Smell-o-vision.’ [Chris laughs] The Expanse, actually, they don’t describe ever going to the bathroom, but they do spend a lot of time talking about the technology of going to the bathroom in space. So, I’m willing to give them a pass on that one. [Chris laughs]
I’ll be like, ‘alright, I believe that people are using the bathroom on these spaceships. I will extend to you that credit.’
Chris: So, Oren, do you have any other comments on what transitions are for and what they need to do?
Oren: I mean, transitions are one of those things where if they’re done well I don’t notice them. But yeah, skipping over a period of time if you need to jump ahead. It’s especially important if you need to jump ahead like, a few months or a long period of time when something important could have conceivably happened in that time, but it didn’t, and your story requires that you go forward in time a bit.
Those are the ones I always have trouble with, is like, it’s never clear to me how much I need to put in there. And I’ve read some stories where the transition is not clear enough and I’m lost. I’m like, ‘wait. Are we- how far forward are we now? And like, did nothing happen in the interim that I need to know about?’ That sort of thing.
Ariel: It’s interesting that you say it’s important to put in a transition when you jump forward, because I think it’s more important to put in a transition if you’re going to jump back, like, flashback transitions.
Oren: That’s true.
Chris: That’s true, because I think- transitions are partly about what the audience expectations are, and making sure that, if it is actually different from what they expect, that you kind of correct that expectation.
Oren: I have found flashback transitions to be easier than flash- than forward transitions, just because a flashback is a much cleaner break. Like, the easiest type of transition for me is the break. It’s like, ‘alright, so, we were with this character. Now we’re going to another character in another time or place.’ Or even the same character in a point in the past.
And that’s a break. Like, no one expects that to have a linear timeframe. But if you’re skipping forward like, eight months, there’s sort of an expectation that you will know what happened in that eight months if it’s relevant. And if you don’t tell enough, it’s for the reader to get lost, and of course, if you tell too much it’s boring, and that’s a bunch of wasted paragraph space.
Although, I’ve always wondered if there’s some trick to telling your audience that you’re in a flashback now beyond the wibble-wobble visual effect that television producers can use. Cause I tried that in my book, and it didn’t work very well. [Chris laughs] The lens flare effect on the page wasn’t super helpful.
Chris: I think a lot of times in a narrative’s- they have like, ‘hey, there’s a sensory stimulus. Sensory stimulus reminds me of this one time,’ and then they sort of start making a whole scene out of it. What about you, Ariel, as far as conventions for putting in a flashback in a narrative? Anything that comes to mind?
Ariel: Yeah. The ‘once upon a time, I remember this,’ or the- just sort of, you’re starting a new chapter, and you get a whole lot of like, period visuals written in. Like, ‘oh, well now I’m using a horse-and-buggy,’ whereas we were just in like, a car.
Chris: That makes sense.
Oren: This is a kind of funny thing that had happened on Star Trek: Voyager: there was a character named Lieutenant Carey who was, technically speaking, the second in command in Engineering, but we basically never saw him after the second season. Except, we saw him in flashbacks. Like, there are flashback episodes that we do where we see Carey, and this happened twice, even though he’s still alive in the present. [Chris laughs]
Chris: I was going to ask if he died.
Oren: No, he was still alive.
Chris: I think that’s a great thing to do, if an important character dies, right? Have them visit once in a while in flashbacks.
Oren: And they did eventually kill him in the very end of season seven. And that was the first time we’d seen him in the present for like, five seasons.
Oren: We saw him in flashbacks, and then they brought him back and killed him. It was really awkward. It was almost like they thought he was dead, and then someone remembered they never actually killed him.
Chris: It was like, ‘oh, wait. Quick, correct that. Bring them on screen and kill them.’
Oren: Like, it was in some scene they had to cut for time, and everyone just remembered that he was dead.
Chris: Oh, well that’s actually possible. Or- it reminds me a little bit of Invader Zim, where they found out that their budget was being cut and they didn’t have the budget to make all of the episodes that they planned. And they decided they liked their Christmas special episode better, but the episode that came before it, they had to not do, and it introduced a new character.
Chris: So, they had this random character show up, and they just joked about, ‘hey, you’ve been here the entire time!’
Oren: [high-pitched] ‘It’s Minimoose!’
Oren: Everyone loves Minimoose. [Oren and Chris laugh]
Chris: So, I guess you never know when stuff like that happens in the production. But anyhow; what are some other common tropes that we see in transitions. We talked a little bit about a few things we’ve seen.
Oren: Ooh, I got one.
Oren: Explosions. Explosions are a great way to signal a transition.
Chris: Wha- wait, give me an example.
Oren: I don’t know. I mean- okay, just for- in a book that I was recently reading, there was an asteroid impact, and it was like, a big, scary, stunning event. And the characters saw it, and that was a very natural ‘dun-dun-dun!’ moment, and it would like, fade to black if it was a television show.
Chris: So, it was kind of like a cliffhanger, then.
Oren: Essentially. It’s like, something- when something momentous happens that is often a signal that we are shifting transition- we are shifting points-of-view, because that creates a sense of the reader, of like, ‘wait, but what happened?’ And now the reader is in suspense waiting to find out what happened with that momentous event that we just cut away from.
Chris: Sure, if the writers are jerks. [Chris laughs]
Oren: Look, that’s a very common thing, okay?
Chris: No, it’s not that bad. But I have to say, cliffhangers as transitions in general are kind of double-sided. Like, yes, it does keep the reader hooked, but some readers get kind of pissed at that kind of- you know, there are other- especially readers, right? At least in a tv show, the scenes tend to flit back and forth pretty fast, so if you’re left hanging, usually the next thing is also exciting, and you’re not left hanging for very long.
Ariel: Unless it’s a ‘to be continued.’
Chris: Yeah, that’s- [laughs] -that’s one of your pet-peeves, isn’t it, Ariel?
Oren: That’s less of a problem nowadays, because fewer and fewer tv shows are like, held hostage by the summer break schedule. But that was the original problem with watching Star Trek back in the day, was that like, after Best of Both Worlds on TNG, suddenly every season had to end with a giant cliffhanger.
And very often they didn’t actually know what was going to happen when they wrote the cliffhanger. [Chris laughs] Which is why some of the episodes feel really disjointed, cause they did a bunch of setup, and they had no idea what their conclusion was going to be.
Chris: Well, that’s awful. Yeah, I have to say, when books purposefully have every chapter end on a cliffhanger, that does annoy me. Probably because I feel like the whole point of a book chapter is to be like, a place for you to stop, and I don’t understand that.
From the author’s point-of-view, they want their reader to keep reading, but it still feels kind of- almost antagonistic to the reader to purposefully do that. Cause a book chapter is fairly- okay, well, it varies in books. Sometimes they’re not lengthy. But in a lot of books, a book chapter is fairly lengthy, and the next chapter often is an entirely different viewpoint, so you might not return to it for quite a while. So, yeah, I’m not a fan of that.
Some other tropes… I find that, when marking time, seasons are used. All the time. Like, Harry Potter, Whomping Willow grows leaves and sheds leaves, for instance.
Oren: Some books just straight up have ‘winter’, ‘fall’, ‘summer’, just like, a page with that on it. [Chris laughs] Twilight did that, as I recall. There were other books that did it, too, but Twilight’s the one I remember.
Chris: Right. I think the nice thing about seasons is that it does give us a fairly good idea of how much time has passed. But it’s- you know, I wouldn’t do it all the time. It does get old after a while. And you’re kind of assuming people will not notice it. I feel like, once you start noticing that all the transitions are scenes, all the time in all the books you read, it would start to get more and more kind of grating.
Oren: Well, now you guys will notice it now, so, congratulations. You can’t ever ignore that ever again. [Chris laughs]
Chris: One thing I do like that I think works really well in books or television is mentioning a character before you cut to their scene or their point-of-view. The reason I like it is because, a lot of times, it’s a very convenient way to set up the stakes for the next scene, kind of like, ‘oh, Johnny better get back soon with those razor blades, or we’re all doomed!’ [laughs]
And then you cut to the scene with Johnny trying to get the razor blades, or whatever. And so, it makes it so that that next scene, you know exactly what the stakes are, and then there’s higher stakes that will affect the other point-of-view character. So, I find that those transitions, mentioning a character before flipping to their viewpoint, sometimes work out really well.
Oren: What do you guys think about the current trend of just labelling each chapter with the name of the character whose point-of-view it is?
Ariel: I mean, if the point of a transition is to ground the audience in time, place, point-of-view… It makes sense.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if I like it or dislike it, I just noticed it. As I’ve been seeing it more and more, it like- I guess, maybe it was popularized by Game of Thrones? But it feels very tell-y. Like, it’s a little bit- it’s sort of like sticking a date on the front of your book, which you can do, but it feels a little bit like cheating, like you can’t accurately communicate the date without just telling the reader ‘it’s this year.’
Chris: Well, I know writers have various levels of like, how much subtlety and creativity should be applied to the transitions. You know, whether it’s okay to just say how much time has passed or where the place is, or whether we have to throw in hints with the description, et cetera, et cetera. I think the point of the names is that they’re not really supposed to be part of the story, they’re supposed to be like the chapter number. They’re supposed to kind of fade into the background.
Personally, I would say, like- I think it’s really nice if you can sort of blend it into the narrative and give subtle hints and make that all work, but in the end, clarity is a lot more important than that kind of creativity. And if you can’t- and it’s still tricky sometimes, to be creative and be subtle, but at the same time be clear. And ultimately clarity is more important. So, I personally wouldn’t mind anything like that.
Ariel: And I think the reason that it’s so important in Game of Thrones is because there’s so many characters that get point-of-view.
Oren: That’s true.
Ariel: So, just keeping track of the characters is exhausting without signposts.
Chris: Yep. Although, I have to say, I think showing people what character it is with a point-of-view is probably one of the easiest things to mark, because as soon as you mention the character’s name in like, the first couple opening sentences, that’s usually pretty clear. I think that’s probably one of the easiest things to signpost.
Oren: I’ve noticed that a tendency- at least in The Expanse, tends to get used as a- because The Expanse has like, very often, a new chapter will start with some really immediate action thing happening. Like, we’ll drop into a new POV just as that character is tumbling out of an airlock. And it’s, I guess, a little bit- it saves a little bit of time.
Like, you can start with the name of the character, and then you can write ‘the airlock tumbled past,’ and we know who is tumbling through the airlock and you don’t have to identify them immediately.
Chris: Another transition technique that I really like- just in film. I don’t think it would work in a book. Every time you have a situation where there’s a group of heroes, and they’re planning something, they’re planning this big heist or whatever it is, they pretty much always use the same technique, where there’s- they have one scene where one of the characters is explaining to the other characters what their plan is, and then they always intermix that with them actually carrying out the plan.
And it skips all the in-between stuff, but it also- otherwise, if you just watch them execute the plan, you might not know what was going on. So, it’s also really- very convenient way to explain what’s happening.
Oren: And it breaks up the planning section, which would otherwise be- if it was just a long scene of planning, that would be really boring. So, it’s an effective way of communicating without having it get bogged down.
Chris: Right. But obviously, it relies on having narration simultaneously with visuals, cause usually the visuals are them carrying out the plan, and a lot of the audio is them talking about the plan. So, it’s not something that, as far as I know, works with just narration without visuals, but it’s kind of a very unique transition method that sort of combines the two things you’re transitioning together in sort of a montage-y manner.
Oren: Although, I would point out that when that happens, I feel like there’s an inherent expectation that something that you’re seeing in the visuals, at the end, will not match the setup. Like, they’ll be saying, ‘and then we’re going to get into the casino, and this guy will sneak in by contorting himself into a box, and then he’ll grab the money and escape through the skylight,’ and then they’ll get to that part, and the guy will get to the skylight, and it’ll have like, metal bars over it.
And that’s sort of the- that’s sort of the twist at the end that makes the setup worth it. Cause I’ve seen a few shows or movies that don’t have that twist, and it just feels like a huge waste of time. Like, ‘what was the point of describing all of that if it all just went exactly as planned?’
Chris: It’s almost like they didn’t give enough tension to it.
Oren: Right. Like, Sherlock kind of did that, where, Sherlock- the movie. The Robert Downey Jr. movie, which has what I consider to be these really irritating fight scenes, where it goes into Sherlock narrating what he’s going to do to the other guy, and then he just does it. Like, he narrates it, and we see it happening in slow motion, and then we watch it again, but in real time. And like, the only reason I can think about- [Chris laughs] -for them to do that was if, at some point, the real time was not going to go the way he expected it to go.
Oren: Otherwise, just like, why did we even bother seeing it in real time after that? We already knew what happened.
Ariel: I appreciate the scenes in past tense. Like, at the end of The Prestige, when you learn exactly how they did the trick. [Oren and Chris agree] I like watching it in reverse, knowing how it worked out already.
Oren: Wait, you mean it’s not real magic? My life is ruined. [Oren and Chris laugh]
Chris: So, any other transition tropes, or do you have some favorite transitions that you want to mention specifically.
Oren: Before we move on, there’s one thing that’s very useful for transitioning, which is cell phones. Or any kind of communication device; hanging up a communication device is a great transition. Or at least, it’s one that authors use all the time. Like, if you were on some kind of remote communication, and then the person on the other end hangs up, that is, for some reason, a signal that you are transitioning. I don’t know why.
Chris: Well, I guess it’s a natural stopping point, right? Like, we think of ending a conversation and ending a scene. I do have a- one of my favorite transitions is actually a phone call. So, there’s a scene in Buffy season seven that I feel like is particularly interesting, where we have Spike, who has- he’s just learned that he is actually killing people, and he didn’t know because he has no memory of it.
And so, you see him make a phone call, but unlike normal in most shows, you don’t actually see who he’s talking to. And then we do a scene transition to Buffy, and then Buffy picks up the phone and we realized that he called Buffy. And the reason why they didn’t just show it right away is because by calling Buffy, he has shown that he cares more about stopping himself from killing people than his own welfare, because she just might turn around and kill him. And that’s a very strong possibility.
And so, it was really interesting that they used that scene transition- they held things in suspense for a little while, cause we didn’t know who he was calling for help, and then did that kind of reveal in the transition. So, that’s probably one of- I’ve found the most interesting transitions.
I found that- now, if I was reading a narration, and that was from Spike’s viewpoint, I might find it a little disingenuous, cause generally when you’re in somebody’s viewpoint, you kind of expect to know what they know, and hear their thoughts. And so, if the author then deliberately held that information, it might just look a little like, ‘why don’t we know who this person is talking to?’ But if you had- if it wasn’t a point-of-view character, you could do that in narration, too.
Oren: Right. It’s the same frustration that you can get when you’re reading a mystery story, and the only reason you haven’t figured out the mystery is because the author has withheld information from you that the character knew.
Chris: Which is why Watson is the point-of-view character in Sherlock Holmes, and not Sherlock. What about your favorite transitions, Ariel? Or other tropes you want to talk about?
Ariel: Right. So, I’ve been reading the Discworld books…
Oren: Aww, yeah, Discworld! [Chris laughs]
Chris: Now, our segment on Discworld.
Ariel: I started out with Death’s storyline, just because that was the book that was available to me at the time. And Terry Pratchett does one of the TV Tropes called a ‘Twisted Echo Cut.’ So, at the end of a chapter-
Oren: A what now? Do you want to run that through Google Translate for me? [Chris laughs]
Ariel: Twisted Echo Cut: at the end of a chapter, somebody asks a question like ‘who’s at the door?’ And in the next chapter, someone completely different seems to answer that question, but it’s a new scene now.
Chris: Oh, yes. I know what you’re talking about.
Ariel: So, at the end of the chapter, ‘who’s at the door?’ The next chapter, ‘Dᴇᴀᴛʜ.’ But it’s completely- like, it has nothing to do with whoever was at the door. It’s a new scene now.
Chris: Right. Yeah, occasionally, that’s done in film, where you have- let’s say there’s- somebody is in a hotel room, and they’re frantically packing up because an assassin’s coming to kill them. And you see- you cut to the assassin; the assassin is coming down the hall, and you cut to them frantically packing up, and then back to the assassin; the assassin’s at the door, and you hear knocking from the character who’s packing up point-of-view.
And then the assassin bursts in, but it turns out they’re in a different- bursting into a different hotel room. Like, that kind of- it sounds like it’s like that.
Ariel: Something like that. And then, what made this one really interesting was that Terry Pratchett knew that this particular transition works more easily in visual media, because you can see who is saying what. And he made fun of it. He broke the fourth wall to be like, ‘well, actually, this wasn’t the answer to the question.’ [laughs]
Oren: He does that a lot. Terry Pratchett does not believe in the fourth wall; he’s pretty much had it removed at this point. [Chris laughs]
Chris: What about bad transitions?
Oren: Oh, do I not get to say my favorite transition?
Chris: No, actually.
Oren: Good, cause I don’t have one. [laughter] Like, I tried really hard to think of a good transition, and like, the only ones I could think of- I’m a fan of that scene in Firefly where they’re doing the interrogation, and it’s like, they’re cutting-
Chris: Oh, the cutting between Wash and Zoe!
Chris: That’s priceless.
Oren: Or like, the guy is- the Alliance captain is talking to Inara, and he’s like, ‘do you love him?’ And the audience is expecting her to answer this question about Mal, cause we’re already into that dynamic. And then it cuts to Zoe, and she’s like, ‘I don’t think that’s any of your business.’
Chris: And then what’s fantastic is- so, Zoe’s like- they’re trying to ask Zoe questions about her marriage, and she’s like, ‘and you know, we’re very private people,’ and it cuts to Wash, and he’s like, ‘her legs. Definitely her legs are the best part. Wait, also the part above that.’ And like, talking about very private things.
So, it’s a very humorous cut. Which, Joss Whedon is very good at his humorous cuts. Like, he also does the like, ‘oh, I’m sure this will go fine!’ And then it’ll cut to disaster.
Oren: Dark Matter did the same- tried to do a similar thing in a similar interrogation scene. Because Dark Matter is nothing if not trying really hard to be Firefly. And it did not work as well, for whatever reason. I can’t pin exactly why; maybe it’s just that I don’t- I’m not as into the characters? Is that’s why. I was just a little bored by it. It didn’t strike me as particularly clever.
Chris: Alright. So, Oren, since we did actually end up skipping you, you actually had a favorite transition after all. [Oren laughs] Do you have a least favorite transition?
Oren: Like, any transition where- okay, so we talked about- or maybe we didn’t. One way that you can do a transition is to have some kind of quip. Some kind of quip where it’s like, ‘well, I guess things are serious now.’
Chris: Right. Which is kind of like a mini-cliffhanger; it’s a way of like, doing a little bit of a plot hook at the end or setting the tension a little higher before you transition.
Oren: I don’t have a specific example of this because again, I very rarely remember this kind of narrative detail in the stories that I’m reading. But there are books where someone will end with a quip like that, or even in a tv show, someone will end with a quip like that. And I cannot imagine how the conversation continued after that. I’m just imagining the other character looking at him like, ‘what? Like, that didn’t answer my question.’ [Chris laughs] ‘Like, that’s ominous, but that’s not what I asked.’
Chris: [ominously] It’s like somebody just randomly makes a really ominous statement.
Oren: Or like, on Dark Matter, when one of the characters- I think 2, asks 5 ‘what’s in the room?’ And 5’s like, ‘secrets.’ And that’s the scene cut; and I’m just imagining 2 being like ‘no, but really. What’s in the room? That’s not what I asked.’
Chris: In Dark Matter when the River character is like, ‘in the cargo bay, there’s a thing,’ and like, ‘what’s in there?’ ‘Secrets.’
Oren: Which is an awkward line to start with because we already know it’s secrets. That’s why we’re asking. [Chris laughs] And also that this character is going like, full River-mode an episode in, where River spent a couple episodes building up to that. But it’s also just hard to imagine, how did that conversation continue after the cut, right? Cause theoretically, 2 didn’t just turn around and leave.
Chris: I think the only continuation I ever see is like, silence and people looking at each other. You know, taking that worried look at each other. [laughs] Ariel is doing a great imitation of the worried look right now.
Oren: It’s true; we’ll make this a video podcast next time. No, but like, there are comedic skits on the internet that make fun of that, where they’ll do the dramatic line, but then, instead of cutting away, they’ll stick on the scene, and everyone will look kind of awkward, cause they’re like, ‘how do we follow that?’ Like, ‘what do we do now?’ [Oren and Chris laugh]
Chris: Cock their guns, maybe?
Oren: Maybe. Pump the shotgun if you- I would really- on a side note, I would really like to see someone go through all the times when someone unnecessarily pumps a shotgun and just see a shell eject. [Chris laughs] Cause like, every time you do that, you’re ejecting a shell. There’s probably already one in the chamber. Anyway, moving on.
Chris: What about you, Ariel? Least favorite?
Ariel: Oh. My least favorite has got to the annoying sound. It’s an alarm clock that wakes you up; it’s a school bell that goes off to let you know it’s time for class; it’s a police siren or a fire alarm that tells you something horrible is happening.
Chris: But isn’t that like, a really good way of marking the time?
Ariel: It is, but it’s so annoying! [Chris laughs]
Chris: Do you just not like noises?
Ariel: No, it’s- everyone hates the sound of the alarm clock. Everyone does. No one wants to wake up to [alarm clock noises]. No. Just, no.
Oren: By the same token, do any alarm clocks still make that sound?
Ariel: Mine does.
Oren: Why does- why? [Chris laughs] Do you not-?
Ariel: Cause I hate myself.
Oren: Do you not own a phone? The phone will play music.
Chris: So, I think I’ve uncovered the real issue here, is that Ariel’s really mad at her alarm because it still makes that annoying buzzing sound.
Ariel: No one likes that sound. [Chris laughs]
Oren: Yeah, which is why they have alarms that don’t make that sound anymore.
Chris: So, if a character wakes up to like, nice, soft radio music, is that better?
Ariel: [quietly] Maybe.
Chris: Maybe? [laughs]
Ariel: Why do we have to see the character waking up?
Oren: What if it’s like, just some soft ocean waves? Or like, some de-stressing noises? We use that for scene transitions instead.
Oren: Well, think about this for a second: if we had a- [Chris and Oren laugh] -if we had a character, and we didn’t see them waking up, it’s a lot harder to establish what time of day it is, right? So, if they’re just eating breakfast, we might guess they’re eating breakfast because they’re eating eggs and bacon. But like, that’s still- technically, people can eat eggs and bacon for other meals of the day…
Oren: Can and do! [laughter]
Chris: So, I just feel like it’s a really convenient- and usually they’ll like, skip ahead to when they’re dressed, right? We don’t- usually. [laughs]
Oren: Also, let me put this out there: if we didn’t have the character waking up out of bed in tv shows and stuff, that would put a lot of makeup designers out of work, because there are makeup designers who are very, very good at perfecting the look that signals that you just got out of bed but also still look perfect and amazing. [Chris laughs]
That’s not easy; it’s really hard to make a character look like they just got out of bed, but also look beautiful and sexy. That’s hard, and I think we should respect those makeup designers who do that, and not try to put them out of bed, Ariel. Or out of work, excuse me. [laughter]
Chris: Okay. So-
Oren: Do we have a question? [laughter]
Chris: So, on my least favorite transition: okay, so, in Lies of Locke Lamora- [Oren laughs] -it really- [laughs] -made me unhappy. So, first of all, they like to transition different scenes between when Locke is an adult and when he’s a kid, rather than just doing things in order, there’s lots of back-and-forth.
And sometimes, they don’t have a transition at all. It’s just like- and sometimes, they have a transition, but it includes this fictional world time system. It’s like, ‘the seventy-seventh year of one god,’ then ‘the seventy-seventh year of the other god,’ and I don’t know what that means. And he tries to give you context to sort of figure it out, and it’s not like- you know, if you’re reading somebody’s book and you are- you can expect to have to learn their world.
At the same time, a transition is a really bad place to make somebody learn how your world works. And so, using your fictional time system to mark what time it is, is really- I had one scene, like, it starts when Locke is a kid, and it jumps to him being an adult, and I read like, three pages in before I was like, ‘wait a second. Is Locke an adult now?’ I didn’t know for an entire three pages.
And I would say that, even if you’re not using a fictional time system, just putting dates is not a really good solution, even in epistolary. Did I pronounce it wrong? “Epi-stolary.”
Ariel: There’s two ways to pronounce it; they’re equally good in my book. [Chris laughs]
Oren: How about this: “Eepa-stole-ary”? That’s just wrong on all accounts. Anyway, continue.
Chris: Like, even when you have journal entries where you’re saying what the date is on each journal entry, it’s still a good idea to say how much time has passed, just because you can’t expect a reader to remember what the previous date was, and then in their head compare and find out what the time is. That’s just too much work for a reader. Like, even a paragraph later, you can’t expect a reader to remember details like that.
So, yeah. The date- using just dates and expecting people to figure them out, or not transitioning at all, I would say.
Oren: Although, I’ll tell you, in the audiobook version, those transitions were a lot easier to keep track of, because the narrator uses a different voice for the chapters where Locke is a kid and when he’s an adult. So, it was really easy to keep of.
Ariel: Yet another advantage that visual and audio media have.
Oren: Yep. Although-
Chris: Technically, you could kind of use a different voice in writing, but that’s trickier than just- like, it wouldn’t be different in audio. It wouldn’t be different wordcraft.
Oren: Although, usually, audiobooks have it harder, because in audiobooks, if you’re not paying attention and you miss a sentence- if, for example, your name is Oren and you’re listening to audiobooks while you work, and something comes up and you can’t pay attention to the audiobook for a minute, you miss a sentence that established the scene, it’s very hard to just go back and read that sentence again.
So, it’s often much harder to get transitions right in audiobooks, and I’ve gotten very confused on a number of occasions, and then I’m like, ‘wait, where are we now? What happened? I don’t know what’s happening.’ And I’ll eventually figure out how to go back, and it’s a big hassle, and I’ll realize that it wasn’t really the scene’s fault, it was just that I was momentarily distracted, and I could not just reset my eyes easily.
Chris: Yeah, I guess that’s the disadvantage of being able to listen to something when you- multitasking, basically.
Oren: And that’s like- one of the things is that, in a- one of the key differences between an audiobook and an audio drama is that audio dramas are intended to be listened to, whereas most audiobooks were written for prose, assuming that they were going to be read, and then they were recorded for sound.
And that’s usually fine, but with audio dramas, you can tell that they are meant to be recorded- or meant to be listened to, because they have much more constant reminders of scene-setting. Which you don’t need in a book, because again, in a book, if anyone ever gets confused, they can skip up a couple of lines and read again.
But in an audio drama, they are constantly reminding you of where you are and what is happening, because it’s very hard- if you forget or miss something, it’s very difficult to go back and try to hear it again. And you don’t need to do that in tv either, because in tv, you can see it. So, audio dramas occupy that weird, unique space.
So- you know, if you want to know something about a completely out-of-date medium that no one does except for fun anymore- which is an amazing medium that I love, but it’s not really a business medium anymore. But now you know about how to transition in it. So, good for you. [Chris laughs]
Chris: What about other transitions that don’t work well, either work in only some media and not others, or work better or worse.
Oren: Well, I have yet to see the book equivalent of one of those weird star-wipes. Do you know what I mean?
Oren: Okay. So, I- if you’ve ever done like, home video editing, the home video editing software that you have, be it Nero or iMovie or whatever, they’ll have a bunch of different options for wipes. And-
Chris: Oh, like in different shapes and stuff?
Oren: Yeah. And one of them is a wipe in the shape of a-
Ariel: [simultaneously] Like, the checkers?
Chris: Okay, but let’s be honest, you shouldn’t use those wipes anyway, even if you’re doing film.
Ariel: No, you should use a different wipe for every scene.
Chris: [melodramatic] Nooooo!
Oren: Look, some people apparently think that that is the truth. [Chris continues yelling ‘no!’ in the background] I have seen that on television shows.
Ariel: The wavy wipe, the checker wipe, the star wipe…
Chris: No. No, that’s-
Oren: The star wipe’s my favorite [laughs]
Chris: No. See, that qualifies as introducing technical novelties to your story that you should not be doing.
Ariel: A little novelty can go a long way!
Chris: Not technical, no. It’s like making your commas bright pink and swirly. You wouldn’t do that, cause you’re not supposed to pay that much attention to commas. There are technical necessities.
Oren: I would absolutely do that. I’m gonna do that. [Chris laughs] That is my next Mythcreants post. I’m gonna turn that in.
Ariel: I will leave that. I will leave that in.
Chris: Hopefully, I don’t think you have the administrative privileges to carry that out. [Ariel and Chris laugh]
Oren: I’m pretty sure that I- if I get the rest of the Mythcreants crew on this, we can stage a mutiny. [Chris and Oren laugh] Okay, so here’s another one that I just remembered that I absolutely can’t stand. There’s a BBC tv show about Robin Hood that is really bad for any number of reasons. But one of the things about it that is just weirdly bad is that they use the sound of an arrow flying by to indicate a new scene.
Chris: Okay. That’s weird.
Oren: Yeah. It is exactly as weird as it sounds.
Chris: It’s like, calling attention to your transitions is not really what you want.
Oren: So, it’s awkward for that reason. But arrows fly by all the time in this show; it’s goddamn Robin Hood. And it’s- so, every time I hear one, I think, ‘are we in a new scene now?’ [Chris laughs] And like, sometimes an arrow will fly by just as they cut to camera two, which will make it feel like it’s a new scene, but it’s the same scene. And it’s really confusing.
Chris: Little did you know that they actually have psychologists that are performing experiments on their viewers, and they were like, ‘we’re going to behaviorally program him to expect a scene transition every time we have this arrow sound. [laughs]
Oren: That is exactly what it did. It was just a really weird decision in a show that’s full of arrow sounds. I don’t get it.
Chris: Somebody thought it would be cool. Just like someone thinks star wipes are cool.
Oren: Someone’s a jerk, okay? Someone got paid money for that, and it upsets me. [Chris and Ariel laugh]
Chris: I have to say, my favorite transition is just purely visual. My favorite transitional time is actually in the movie Stardust. So, there’s two antagonists that are searching for the hero by using runes. Runes-
Oren: Wait, runes?
Oren: Okay, cause there are also ruins in that movie.
Chris: They’re like little tiles that have a symbol on them.
Chris: And you like, toss the runes, and they foretell. It’s a way of telling the future, or whatever.
Oren: But are they tossing the runes in the ruins? [Chris laughs] I’ll stop now. [laughter]
Chris: So, one of the antagonists throws them up in the air, and we kind of follow the runes up into the air, and then it transitions to the other runes in the air, and then they come back down again and you’re with a different character. And it’s just gorgeous. It’s like, really, really pretty, and they have, of course, wonderful music playing at the same time; and so, that’s my- and again, usually if transitions are done right, you don’t normally notice them. But this one really stood out as being exceptional.
Oren: Just real smooth, and it’s like, ‘aww, yeah.’ It perfectly counteracts your- it plays against your expectations, but also fulfills them at the same time. No, that’s perfect. I totally get what you mean.
Chris: Yeah. Other transitions that only work in some mediums…? Or…
Ariel: So, Star Trek has sort of bookmark visual- bookend visual transitions, where at the beginning of the episode, you see the ship flying through space, and then at the end of the episode, you see the ship flying through space, and you know that there’s going to be some sort of introduction and then some sort of conclusion. So, you could try to do that in writing, but it’s not going to be as effective.
Chris: I would say, with writing, you can use visuals- connect visuals between transitions, use visual symbolism. But the problem is that it just doesn’t mean as much; it doesn’t have the impact of seeing it. So, for instance, if you had a transition where you show like, a teacup, it’s sitting outside on the deck, and it’s sunny. And then you transition to showing rain filling up the teacup.
Like, that’s a pretty image, but it’s not going to mean as much if you just put it in narration, and nobody can see it. I think it would just feel kind of random. As opposed to like, in narration, giving things meaning to the story is really what makes something stand out. So, instead, if you had a character that’s like, leaving the teacup on the sunny table and there’s somebody else having tea with her, and she’s like, ‘I’ll be right back.’
Ariel: And then they never come back.
Chris: And then you later show that teacup; now you know she never came back. And so, it has story meaning.
Oren: This is a sad story, you guys. [Chris laughs] Way to bring the mood down.
Chris: Oren, stories need conflict. I have some people who don’t like starting stories, cause they just don’t, like, ‘it’s so sad to put in problems!’ Like, well, stories need problems.
Oren: But not in teatime, okay? Is nothing sacred? [Oren and Chris laugh]
Chris: So, anyway, I feel like if you were to use cool visuals that have actual meaning to the narration, like, that could work out. But like, just visuals for the aesthetic appeal don’t really mean the same. Granted, if you were writing- if you weren’t writing genre fiction, if you were writing, like- [laughs] What is the other… I can’t even remember the name of the fiction where people don’t care about plot, they just care about-
Ariel: [simultaneously] Literary.
Chris: If you were doing a literary work, I’m sure people would be thrilled with-
Ariel: With your symbolism.
Chris: With your symbolism. But- [laughs] -but the rest of-
Oren: I don’t want to speak for all literary writers here; I’m sure there are plenty of literary writers who do care about plot. I have noticed certain literary- reviewers don’t seem to care about plot, and specifically, a couple of them have critiqued spec-fic for like, caring more about plot than about characters, and so, that is where this comes from, just, if you’re a literary fan out there. We’re not just hating on literary works here.
Chris: No, I just want to- for me, the purpose is to point out that everybody has different priorities. And that’s a good thing to keep in mind when talking to writers, too, is that you don’t know what their goals are when they’re writing. And so, when they say something like, ‘well, this is not- we wouldn’t appreciate the aesthetics of a teacup,’ and it’s like, well, if your priorities around reading and writing are totally different, like they are in literary fiction, then maybe you would.
But obviously, we cover genre works, and so, generally we would say that that’s probably not going to have a lot of meaning unless you tie it to the story.
Oren: One thing, of course, that doesn’t work in prose is some kind of sound cue. Dramatic music is a famous one.
Oren: Yep, that’s the one. 100% of the time, it’s actually only that sound effect. [Chris and Ariel laugh] We’ve heard it so often that we’ve started interpreting it differently to keep ourselves sane. That’s even more important in a purely audio format, cause it is- you need to have something that signifies a transition, because otherwise-
Chris: You would just be surprised when somebody else talks that wasn’t in the scene.
Oren: Yeah. Otherwise, you’re relying purely on the dramatic line to indicate a transition; which is really awkward, because again, that leaves the character- the audience wondering, ‘well, what did the person say in response to that?’ Or something like that. But if you have the- you get the sound effect, and you establish it early, then everyone just kind of accepts it as a utility tool, and you can keep going.
Chris: Okay. So, really, that arrow noise, if it had been in an audio drama, would have worked really well.
Oren: Uh, no.
Chris: Well, except for the fact that they had arrows everywhere. [laughs]
Oren: Yes, because they still had arrows everywhere. You don’t generally want it to be a sound effect, you want it to be some kind of music, because it’s unlikely that the audience will run into that music in some other context within the story. Like, if it’s a Star Trek audio drama, you do the Star Trek theme as often- or like, a few bars of the Star Trek theme. Something like that.
I heard- I’ve listened to a Star Trek audio drama that had a similar problem, where they used a transporter effect to signify their scene transitions. And, unless you are transitioning from the beam-up to the beam-down, which is- that works. You can use a transporter for that.
That’s a terrible way to do things because that trains the audience to think that the transporter means a scene transition, and sometimes it doesn’t, cause sometimes you just transport people in a scene. So, don’t do that, I guess.
Chris: And one thing that’s- and I don’t know if it’s like this for an audio drama too, but one thing that’s definitely different when you have music is that like, shows have themes. They have a theme song that is used for transitions.
So, a lot of times, a show obviously has a warm-up theme and then it will have an ending theme, but a lot of times, the shows will also use a miniature version of that for commercial breaks, where they’ll go to like, either just a still image that is reminiscent of their opening theme to go to commercial on, and then the same still image sort of back.
Oren: Let me tell you, it is really weird watching the first Star Trek movie, The Motion Picture, after watching a bunch of Next Generation, because The Next Generation theme was just a piece of music they had lying around from The Motion Picture.
Oren: Yeah, and they just extended it a little bit. So, in The Motion Picture, it’s just a normal piece of mood music that they use.
Chris: [laughs] And so, you were wondering why Next Generation music was playing?
Oren: Yes. Like, every time you hear it, you’re like, ‘why is the Next Generation theme playing in this movie?’ And it- like, you’re used to that theme music going along with this very dramatic shot of the Enterprise flying by, and they use it in some pretty mundane scenes in The Motion Picture. [Chris laughs]
And so, it just feels very strange. So, if you feel like messing with your Star Trek experience, I would recommend doing that. It’s really the only reason I can think of to watch The Motion Picture again.
Chris: Anyhow… So, let’s talk about how other things change our transitions. Does having a different point-of-view or atmosphere or anything else in your scenes, is there some special considerations you need to think about when doing your transitions, depending on the context?
Ariel: I mean, it’s obvious like, if you’re going for a scary atmosphere, if you insert sort of a hilarious transition, then you’ve lost all of your suspense and tension. Which, maybe you want to lighten up the mood a little bit every now and then, but if you’re really going for that horror…
Chris: And I would say, it would be weird to like- you know, I can see, sometimes it would be appropriate to end on a cliffhanger and go to a character that’s not immediately in danger, but you wouldn’t usually have humor. Maybe. I guess that that kind of transition is- going from a tense mood to a lighter one is fairly typical for when you have a prologue, and you’re trying to set up foreshadowing in your prologue, and then you go to the beginning of the story.
At the same time, I think- like, most plots need to be kind of very intentional with how the emotional rhythm goes, right? Like, you have- [Oren makes a sound] -go ahead, Oren.
Oren: Look, we can only take so many scenes of tragic teacup story, okay? [Chris laughs] We need to lighten the mood sometimes a little, okay?
Chris: So, we should immediately follow that with a happy teacup scene, is what you’re saying?
Oren: Yes. Exactly, because tea has to be safe, is what I’m saying, okay? [Chris laughs] You can’t feel unsafe when you’re drinking your tea. Like, someone might just not come back. [Chris laughs] That’s not okay.
Chris: But yeah; I guess if you have the right transition- if you ever transition between moods between two scenes, having the right transition would probably soften the impact a little bit.
Ariel: Yeah. You just have to be careful about, what is your intention when you’re choosing a transition?
Chris: Have you seen some mood-wrecking transitions before?
Ariel: I’m sure I have. [Chris and Ariel laugh]
Oren: I mean, if you have a- if you’re building attention, and then you shift to a different scene, that often breaks the tension in a way you didn’t want. Because maintaining tension is asking a certain amount of your reader, right? That takes effort on the reader’s part. And if you ask them to have this tension, and then you shift to another scene which is not about whatever they were feeling tension over, they can’t keep that up while you deal with this new scene.
Chris: Or they’ll be annoyed.
Oren: They’ll be like- they will lose the tension. And then you go back to whatever it was originally, and that tension is gone. I mean, that happens in Game of Thrones sometimes, unfortunately. And it’s not- it doesn’t always happen when you- like, for example, you can transition- in The Expanse, they use something momentous happening as a scene transition.
And it has a certain degree of cliffhanger, but they don’t usually do it where it’s like, ‘this character is about to die. Now, let’s transition to somebody else.’ It’s usually like, ‘this character is watching from a distance as something terrible happens. And there’s not an immediate danger to them, so, we’ll shift over to someone who is in immediate danger.’
Chris: So, it’s more like foreshadowing, then. Which is- again, it’s kind of the technique of putting in a plot hook before you move on to something else.
Oren: Or like, in- James A. Corey- or James S.A. Corey, apparently is what he’s actually called.
Chris: They. They are called.
Oren: Or they, they are called, cause it’s two of them. But they are also fond of a character turning on a news feed and seeing the report of some tragedy, and then that is a shift into a character who is actually there at the event.
Chris: That’s probably a good way to give some extra information about it, right? Tell the audience where that character is, et cetera.
Oren: It’s like, ‘Tycho Space- in the news tonight, Tycho Space Station is being attacked by monstrous space squid,’ and the character’s like, ‘uh-oh, that doesn’t sound good.’ And then we switch over to the character who is on Tycho Station fighting a space squid, and it’s like- [Ariel laughs] -there’s a little bit less setup that is necessary. There are no space squid in The Expanse, I feel like should be clear. Although, Corey, if you’re listening: a space squid. I’m telling you. [Chris laughs]
Chris: So, when are careful transitions needed? When should you watch your transition extra closely? Obviously, we just talked about atmosphere changes; that would be a reason. Any other reasons?
Oren: I have no idea; I would really like to know the answer to that.
Ariel: Yeah, what is- what do you mean by ‘careful transitions?’
Chris: Basically, when one’s a likely place that your transition will not work out very well and you need to pay extra attention to it.
Chris: For me, one of the things that I will say is that, if you have narration, and you have a novel with multiple viewpoints- you have multiple viewpoint characters, and you’ve already introduced one character, the transition where you transition to a new character that the audience has not met yet for the first time, I would say would be that instance.
I feel like a lot of authors make the mistake of just being like, ‘oh, we’re just shifting to another viewpoint,’ when this is a new character in a new place that we haven’t seen before. Usually, it’s not just a new viewpoint; it’s actually like, the beginning of another story. And I find that a lot of authors don’t treat it that way.
They don’t realize that they don’t just have to tell the audience that they’re following this character, they have to then do the same work to make the audience interested in that character. Futz over that one opening line that everybody likes to obsess over and do that kind of work to get that going.
So, that would be someplace where I would say like, ‘well, you have to transition from the previous parts of the story, but you also have to gear up a new story, so, that would be particularly tricky.’
Oren: I feel like- this might be evidence that your earlier scene is not necessary, but there are a number of books that start with a scene, and then the next scene is significantly later in the story, and the character’s different than they were. Like, this next scene is three years later, or whatever. And there’s- that character’s not going to be the same person they were three years ago, and sometimes, that’s an indication that maybe you don’t even need that first scene. Just start with the character as old as they need to be.
But sometimes, it’s important. Like, if something very traumatic has happened in the character’s life, and you feel it’s important to show that so that the audience understands it, and not just hearing about it later; and then, you need to jump forward several years to the character who has not gotten over it but has tamped it down enough that they think they’re dealing with it. That kind of transition is always very difficult.
It’s especially difficult for me when I’m writing it, because I’m not- it’s never clear to me how much I need to put in that transition. And if you leave out too much for the sake of brevity, which is normally very important, then it’s very jarring, because it’s like, ‘wait. This character’s completely different than they were two pages ago.’ And even though intellectually, you might know that that was three years ago, just as you’re reading, it still feels like the character’s inconsistent.
Chris: Right. It’s almost like you have to put in a transition that not only tells the audience that you’re three years later with the character, but makes them feel like time has passed, so that they feel like this character would have evolved.
Oren: Yeah, and you need to give them some indication of the direction that character is going, so that the character who, in your opening scene is broken and crying because of this terrible event where someone went out to get tea and didn’t come back- [Chris laughs] -then later, you open up and they’ve transformed that grief into like, being snarky and hating tea.
You need to show that they are going in that direction, or at least I feel like you do, in the transition somehow. Or otherwise, it will feel very jarring, and like, ‘wait, how did they go from being sad about the tea to being snarky and hating tea? That doesn’t make sense.’
Chris: I’ve definitely known some people to be annoyed when character change, development, happens off-screen.
Oren: No doubt.
Chris: It’s like, ‘well, this character has finally changed, but I didn’t actually get to see that change. I didn’t get to see them learn their lessons or change their coping tactics; they’re just different now.’ And so, I’m- there are definitely reasons to do that, but I would definitely- people like to see characters change and like to see them have those struggles and make new choices and things. So, if you can put it right into the story, that’s better, a lot of times.
Oren: Yep. Or, if you’re going to do that, you should pair them with a character who also didn’t get to see them make that change and is equally curious about it.
Chris: Right, so they can like, ask them, and they can have- it’s like in shows, if you want to know what the character’s inner feelings are, some other character’s gotta really want to know, and start like, ‘hey, I’ve got a theory about your personal feelings. Let’s talk about it for a while.’ [Chris and Ariel laugh]
Oren: Or like, I’ve seen some stories successfully reintroduce an old villain as like, a new character, and they act kinda different cause they aren’t a villain anymore and they have had a change of heart because they were in prison, or they were trapped in another dimension, or something. And we didn’t see that happen so that you have the other good guys, who are like, ‘I don’t trust you; you were evil and now you’re acting nice. What’s going on with that?’
And that makes it feel a lot less jarring, right? The audience doesn’t feel like they missed something, cause the other characters are all acting suspiciously.
Chris: Yeah, that makes sense. I would also say that there are some works that take place over a long period of time.
Like, if your novel takes place over twelve years- [laughs] -that’s something- it’s just like, you have to, throughout, make sure that doesn’t become disorienting, because if you think about one transition being like, ‘I’m not exactly sure how much time passed,’ or just kind of know time passed, and then you do that a bunch of times, I think the uncertainty over how much time has passed would definitely build up, so that one person reads that, thinks that one year has passed, another person reads that and thinks that twenty years have passed.
And like, they both could be very- it could be very jarring when they find out that it’s like, five years, for instance.
Oren: I mean, a transition is one of those points where you have to be extra careful to make sure everything’s consistent, just because jumping around in time is one of those things that the audience will not give you a huge amount of slack on; if there’s anything that feels contradictory, they’re going to get on you right there. They might not wait for you to clarify later.
Chris: Any thoughts, Ariel, on when transitions are tricky?
Ariel: I was- when I read the question about careful transitions, I was thinking about when you have to be careful not to cross a line with your audience.
Chris: Oh, that’s interesting.
Ariel: So, like, in YA, if you don’t think that the audience is ready for [dramatic] the big romp in the sheets- [Chris laughs] -steamy sex scene, then you can use a transition to get to a suggestive part of the scene and then fade to black.
Chris: Oh! That’s careful to do that, right? Yes. Okay, yeah, that’s like, we’re very carefully not showing you these things. Although, I thought YA wasn’t censored, but I suppose some authors are not going to write that stuff for young people, so…
Oren: Well, at least in my experience of reading YA, it tends to start off with more fade-y-to-black, and then you get into the more explicit stuff later. At least, I read a couple books that were like that. I assume YA is a diverse and different genre, so there’s probably many different ways to tackle that. But I did feel like there was a little bit of handholding involved with the author.
It was like, ‘okay, in this scene, they’re gonna do some kissy-faces, and then we’ll fade out. But then in this next scene, now we’re gonna get to like, third base.’ [Chris laughs] And I’m like, ‘okay. Sure, author, if you want to go there. Fine, we can do that.’
Chris: Alright. How about- how can you tell if your transition isn’t working?
Ariel: If I’m lost. [Ariel and Chris laugh] Like, if I, the writer, am lost.
Chris: I think this one is really hard, because if you’re writing, you know exactly how much time has passed and who is there, and so, knowing what somebody else would pick up from your writing is pretty tough. There’s some questions that I would ask to sort of help with that. One is like, ‘try to think through what the reader would reasonably assume,’ I think is a really good exercise for writing in general.
For instance, I had one short story I was writing, where- the setting is inside a temple, but there’s a tree inside the temple. And like, by default, if somebody sees a tree, they think it’s outside. So, like, then I had to insert some hinting early on to hint that we’re actually inside a temple, and not outside. Things like that, like knowing what the reader- thinking through what the reader would reasonably expect.
And you’ll never get it perfectly, but I think, again, that is a good exercise. And making sure that, ‘okay, it might actually-’ sticking to the things that they would reasonably expect, or by deviating from them, and sure that if you’re deviating from them, that you have some signal that it’s not what they would normally expect. And then you can also be like, ‘okay, am I detailed enough, or am I possibly being too vague, or- am I making them stop and think about it?’
Cause that’s always a bad sign; they should never have to stop and like, figure it out. And if you think like, ‘oh, well, they’ll put these two and two together, and then like-’ you know, that’s also kind of a bad sign. I would say, a lot of the time, though, you’re going to need somebody else to look at it. Or if you actually put it down for a while and pick it up yourself later, that can also really help.
Oren: I have an alternate suggestion, because I always assume my transitions aren’t working, cause they never do, so, my suggestion is to just write flash fiction and not have any transitions. [Chris and Ariel laugh] It solves the problem really nicely, and then, it’s just so much easier.
Ariel: Flash fiction has smaller transitions, like ‘then,’ and ‘meanwhile,’ and ‘suddenly.’
Oren: That’s true. Maybe you should avoid ‘suddenly.’ ‘Suddenly’ is a little irritating, and I-
Chris: Yeah, ‘suddenly’ is pretty…
Oren: And I don’t mean to imply that flash fiction writing is easy, cause it’s not. I’m also terrible at that. But it does avoid the- most flash fiction, anyway, avoids having to do the six-month transition. You generally wouldn’t put that in a flash-fiction story. You can generally keep your flash-fiction almost entirely in real time.
Chris: A lot of flash fiction- you know, there’s some flash fiction that is not completely in real time, but a lot of it is just a single scene.
Oren: You can certainly do it and no one will look at you sideways. Whereas if you tried to do an entire novel in real time, that would be irritating and boring. [Chris laughs] Please don’t. Don’t do that. Don’t ask me to read it if you do; I won’t. [Ariel laughs]
Chris: We just need some chance to rest.
Ariel: Maybe a bigger issue in knowing whether or not your transition is working is how much repetition you add in while you’re writing it. Like, a lot of sequels have this problem, where they want to re-ground the readers in what happened in the first book, but I just finished reading the first book.
Chris: And it’s really awkward. Really awkward.
Oren: Although, I appreciate that when it’s- when I’m reading a series as it’s coming out, and it’s been a year or more since I read the last one…
Ariel: You should always re-read.
Oren: Sorry, I’m not going to do that. [Chris and Ariel laugh] I-
Chris: Do you expect that of your readers, that they’re probably going to run into problems?
Oren: Sorry, I just don’t have- I don’t have the commitment, okay? I’m just not going to do that.
Ariel: I just think that there should be a balance between making sure your readers have everything that they need, and not boring or annoying readers with repetition.
Oren: Or you could just not read series until they’re done. I mean, that would be terrible for authors, because then authors would have a really hard time selling a long series. But it would certainly be easier for the reader.
Chris: Yeah. That’s for sure. You know, I didn’t- I thought that was just because authors were trying to- in case the person didn’t actually read the first book. But now that I think about it, you’re right, if you released a book every two years, then people are going to forget a lot of things. I’m sure there are ways of working in a review of the first book without being awkward, but it’s one of those things that’s hard and most people probably don’t accomplish it very well.
Ariel: I noticed each of the Discworld books mentions that ‘this is the Discworld, it’s on the elephants and on the great A’Tuin.’ And then that’s it. That’s the only grounding that you really get consistently.
Chris: Right. But there are, like- most Discworld books are standalone, too. Story-wise, as opposed to a lot of series where it’s-
Oren: They all are, actually. I read Discworld in a completely random order. [Chris laughs] Like, I did not read- there are these really complicated charts of what order you should read Discworld in, or you could just read them in publication order.
I didn’t do either of those things; I just read whichever book was suggested to me at the time, and so like, I started it in the middle of some character arcs, and then I skipped to the end, and then I went back to the beginning. And it was fine. I never felt like I didn’t know what was happening.
Chris: But since they’re independent storylines, that’s a lot easier. I think a lot of times, when you get the review, it’s a series that, there’s really just one story structure over several books, and that’s much harder.
Oren: That’s true. Also, Terry Pratchett was a wizard, I’m pretty convinced. I think he was just magic. [Chris laughs] So, the pages may have just beamed the plot right into my head. I can’t say for sure. Maybe I didn’t actually read them. Who knows? [Chris laughs]
Chris: So, when do you know it’s time to transition, rather than stay in the scene?
Oren: Well, it is about the one-hour-and-five-minute mark on the podcast, so it might be time to transition out of the podcast. [Ariel and Chris laugh] So, you know…
Chris: Are you trying to avoid this question, Oren?
Oren: A little bit.
Ariel: It’s like, ‘did I put this one at the end on purpose, or-?’ [Oren laughs]
Oren: I have no idea what the answer is. I don’t know, it’s- if your editor starts sending you a lot of exclamation marks in their editing notes, it might be time to transition. [Chris and Ariel laugh] I don’t know. How frustrated are your beta readers?
Chris: Personally, I would say- it’s like, when you get through the juicy parts, the conflict of your scene is resolved, and you start getting to the next step that the character’s going to do is the really boring, mundane details. That’s what I would say- that’s the sign to cut. Now, I would have another addition to that, in saying that, sometimes there’s mundane details, but the audience would want to know some level of them.
Like, let’s say you have a character who’s just arranged to room with a banshee, and they’re going to be roommates, and you don’t know what it’s like to be roommates with a banshee. Now, you’re not going to show, in real time, them moving in together and moving all of their boxes and stuff, usually, because that’s pretty boring.
At the same time, the audience might want to know how that goes. Like, whether they get in a fight over furniture or something like that. And so, that’s when, instead of just doing a plain scene cut, cut into another scene, you might summarize how the moving goes. If it’s- you don’t know if the audience would be curious as to exactly how that works or what happens.
Whereas, if it’s mundane details and it’s obvious, like, ‘hey, the character’s in bed.’ It’s obvious that the next step is to fall asleep. Like, you wouldn’t ever even summarize that.
Oren: If it was a tv show, you could have a little montage of like, moving in with a banshee, and the banshee being mad cause they don’t like this new chair that you brought in cause it’s really ugly, and then the next scene of you being upset cause the banshee is making your ears bleed, you know, traditional roommate comedy stuff.
Ariel: You start putting up soundproofing. [Chris laughs] If it’s effective.
Oren: It’s a good show; we should pitch this. “My Roommate’s A Banshee.” I like it. [Ariel laughs]
Chris: But as far as the podcast goes, it’s done when we’re done with our questions and we don’t have anything else to say.
Oren: Which, are we now? I lost track. [laughs]
Ariel: Let me check it… yeah, probably.
Ariel: Yeah. Have I said what I needed in that scene, and set expectations for what comes next?
Oren: Yes, I think so. I think what comes next is us telling you that if anything we said made you upset, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. And then what comes after that is the intro music. But until then, we will see you in a few weeks. [“intro music” (closing song)]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?