Since seeing Michael James tweet about finding them difficult, I’ve been thinking about movement/physical transition scenes – showing characters going somewhere, whether from one room to another, or on a journey further afield. This isn’t something I see mentioned a lot. There’s a great deal of discussion about pacing, worldbuilding, planning, all the large-scale stuff. But actually, this smaller issue presents real headaches.
I can definitely look over my writing, especially first drafts, and see points where the characters are going from room to room and it feels like a succession of ‘they went to the kitchen, passed through to the living room, sallied forth into the spare bedroom…’ Wooden, switching up the verbs to try to hide how mechanical it is. Meh.
I have a few ideas for trying to make physical transitions work better, but if anyone has more insight, do chip in.
Skip to the arrival
A chapter ends with a character realising they need to go somewhere distant. Do we need to see their time on the train, plane, or boat? Unless something interesting happens on the journey, it may be stronger for the next chapter to begin with them arriving. You could show the change in climate as they shiver in a thick coat, or the duration through the bushy beard they grew on the ship.
This can work for smaller, room-to-room transitions too. Two characters can meet at the front door, then be talking at the kitchen table. It’s pretty obvious that they walked there, you don’t always have to say it.
Something interesting happens on the journey
Instead of ‘they <verb> to <place>’, make the journey a worthwhile scene in its own right. Long journeys have a lot of potential for important conversations and dramatic events. They can be a moment of calm where something more about the character is revealed, or throw up unexpected obstacles and conflicts.
On a shorter trip, such as between buildings, focus less on describing the route – second left, straight past the dentist’s, blah blah blah – and more on any conversation, thoughts, and observations on the way.
For room-to-room transitions, there can still be a great bit of detail in the description. A nugget of worldbuilding, a small note steeped in subtext. On the way between rooms, a character might overhear half a line of dialogue that ends up overturning the whole story later on.
Tell, don’t show
‘She rummaged through all the wardrobes, then went to the kitchen and tried all the drawers…’
Why not just: ‘She searched the bedroom, kitchen, and the back of the sofa. The locket was gone.’
Instead of showing the character moving about, tell us in a brisk swoop that they either achieved or did not achieve The Thing. Sometimes a quick bit of telling can pack more of a punch than showing every step along the way.
Switch perspective or subplot
While one character is going somewhere, this might be a good time to see what someone else is up to. What is the person they’re going to visit doing to prepare for the arrival? Is there a subplot you haven’t gone back to for a while?
A character travelling can be a natural point to leave them and address something else, coming back to them as their side of the story kicks back into gear.
Is it actually bad?
Maybe there isn’t really a problem. It just seems like there’s one to us, because we’ve read our little transition scenelet a whole bunch of times, actively looking for flaws, doubting ourselves. A normal reader might take it as given and breeze on through without a second thought. Take a break, try to be more objective, perhaps consult other people.