MisCon 28: Transitioning Through Time – Scene vs Summary
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: Transitioning Through Time – Scene vs Summary
Panel members: Diana Pharaoh Francis, J.A. Pitts
Panel description: How does a writer move the reader through time?
Whether you’re writing a sweeping generational saga, or a short story that takes place over the course of a day, how do you move your characters through time, transitioning them from one moment to the next without relying on worn-out cliches? Join us as we talk about transitions, time stamps, and other tricks of the trade for moving your story forward.
JAP: I used to think that I had to put in every single minute in my stories.
DPF: I used to think I had to show the characters going to each destination.
JAP: If I have to get to A to B, just show B. Driving is boring. Same with porn. It’s engineering when dealing with story. Don’t be afraid to say “the next day.” The reader will go with you.
DPF: Films cut from one scene to the next. We have been well trained by films to make those jumps so take advantage of that. Use signposts to situate your reader. You don’t have to tell how you got there.
JAP: You don’t have to say “ten minutes later.” Use the setting. Don’t show all the minutiae.
DPF: For instance, if you’re writing about a guy in a bar, use the crowd as an indicator.
JAP: Is indicating the time critical? In 24, it is critical. In Lord of the Rings, it’s not critical to know the time they took to get to a place. I learned that it is rare to have more than one full moon in a month.
DPF: Pay attention to things that happen through time, like the change in seasons.
JAP: There are exceptions. Nightfall had no nights. Game of Thrones had no winter.
DPF: You want to know what the groups of characters are doing in relation to each other, so you need to keep track of time.
JAP: In science fiction, you have to consider time dilation on a generational ship in contrast to time on Earth. If you have someone driving from Missoula to Seattle, you can’t have them talk on a phone ten minutes later.
DPF: Show the important stuff. Take a short exposition to tell time as a brief rest for the reader but quickly move past that. Do a summary to facilitate jumps in time. Don’t devote too much time on the journey.
JAP: If you’re retelling, don’t drag the reader through it again. Don’t bog down the reader in the transition. Many editors don’t like flashbacks.
DPF: Flashbacks can kill your pacing. Make a conscious choice for why it works.
JAP: It’s like any other tool. Use it wisely, not excessively. With a shorter work, use different tools.
Q: Is there an alternative way to use flashbacks?
DPF: Yes. Do a summary.
JAP: But not as a “as you know Bob.” Learn the rules first before you break them. What will work with your piece? Robert Jordan took 500 pages to tell about three days.
DPF: The journey matters. Readers should be engaged with the story line. The flashbacks disrupt it and may anger them. So you have to decide. “I told you that story to tell you this one” – but only if done well.
JAP: As a storyteller, your job is to make them turn the page.
Q: I have a character who gets distracted by his past. Is a flashback reasonable?
JAP: Constant tension will burn out the reader. You need some down time. In Die Hard, there are funny quips to lessen the tension. If it’s only used to be distracted, just skip it.
DPF: It depends on how important it is to the plot and character.
JAP: It has to move it forward.
DPF: If they have to stop and think in a battle…
JAP: That’s three minutes before they die.
DPF: Flashbacks shouldn’t be in the middle of an action scene. Continue until they’re safe. But there’s opportunity to include it while they’re going to battle.
Q: Is it reasonable to put the time as chapter headings?
JAP: It can be done well.
DPF: If it works for your story, use it.
Q: If you’re translating a martial arts film to the page, how do you transition without losing the audience?
JAP: Is it critical to see every single move? No. Just include enough detail for the reader to understand. You can tell how long it takes but don’t show every single step. Trust the reader to fill it in.
DPF: I had a food scene in a story, but my editor wanted it cut. I ended up cutting it out because it didn’t fit in the story. Step back and see if it works. Also ask for feedback.
Q: But I’m confused why we do see all the martial arts in films.
DPF: But that’s the point of the film.
JAP: You have to look at your genre and the type of story. Some are more heavy with setting or character. Find the balance.
DPF: Change it up and bring them back.
JAP: You can make it as drawn out as you want, but read other writers doing similar things and learn from them. As an exercise, I typed out Stephen King’s dialogue to learn.
Q: What about movie descriptions?
DPF: Pick the details that matter that push forward the plot.
JAP: There’s the problem of the white room setting and not knowing where the characters are. If there are no transitions, then the reader will assume that it’s in the same scene. You need to put in signposts. Page breaks, section breaks, chapter breaks.
DPF: When you have a time jump, you can do a hard break. A character could be hurt and then jump straight to the hospital. “Book saidisms” is using anything except “said.” Or using too many adverbs. “Said” becomes invisible. Others are too visible. In the early Harry Potter books, everyone talked mysteriously. There were too many adverbs. Don’t call attention to it.
JAP: Read aloud when you can. Many bestsellers don’t use said. But you fail if the reader actually notices. The number one mistake is that you don’t write. The number two mistake is that you don’t finish what you write.
DPF: The flipside is that you revise one thing over and over again and never move on to the next thing.
JAP: Rewriting is dangerous. The more you do, you suck the voice out of the story. Read. Refill the well. Learn. Practice. You need to practice your craft by continuing to write. Most new writers don’t understand because they don’t have patience.
DPF: The creative mind and the editor mind are not the same mind. Stay in the creative mind to finish then go fix later.
Q: How do you shut off the editor mind?
JAP: Ken Scholes has a mental exercise for that. Rope up the editor and put it in a box. I train myself with music. If it plays, it’s creative time.
DPF: Another author has specific music he listens to. Use Write or Die. Write every day. Get into the habit and it will flow better every day. If I miss a day, I have to concentrate more. It’s like swimming in a river.
JAP: I’m a binge writer because of my day job. I get in the mood to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. I have friends who have different places for editing and writing. They write on the computer and then edit on paper.
DPF: Some people have separate hats.
JAP: It’s psychology. “Shut the fuck up and write.” It should be cross-stitched on the wall. Use any trick you can come up with. A rookie mistake is to spend all your time researching rather than writing.
DPF: Don’t polish every word.
JAP: Be bold.
DPF: Be willing to hear critiques.
JAP: No editor will come to your house to see if your story is on the computer.
DPF: No one will call you to check.
JAP: So you have to finish your work. If you’re writing about real people, change them into elves or just don’t tell them.
DPF: My parents read my books. They have sex scenes, but we don’t talk about it.
JAP: People will miss things. Kids won’t understand everything. In the beginning, what you’re writing is all about your life and you’re not good at masking it.
DPF: Graham Green said that every writer has a “sliver of ice in your heart.” Writers still take notes during an accident. Your writing situation will never be perfect.
JAP: Just write. Online, they say there are only twelve stories or whatever. Who cares. You will approach writing in a unique way.
Q: What about TV Tropes? Does it help or hinder?
JAP: There’s not just one answer. Research where you find fulfillment.
DPF: Writing is the best job in the world. Have fun!