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What is a transitional scene?

A transitional scene is one that helps the reader with the process of suspension of disbelief. By that I mean it is a scene (or scenes) that moves the focus from the familiar to the fantastic.

It is easy for an author to believe that his audience will accept his words at face value, especially if he writes for an audience accustomed to dragons,spaceships and vampires. But that does not mean that the readers will accept anything that is thrown at them. The key is to earn their trust by easing them into the more implausible aspects of your work.

Therefore a transitional scene must have the following characteristics:

  1. The scene must be grounded in the familiar.
  2. It must offer a logical transition from the familiar to the absurd.
  3. Must show a principal character (although not the main character).
  4. It must occur early on, although it does not have to be the opening scene (I prefer to open with them, btw).

Lets look at a two examples, both taken from the Harry Potter series. All of the books in the series share two scenes (with some variations), one in the Dursley’s home and the other at King Cross station. Each one shows exactly what a transitional scene is all about.

Each story starts inside the Dursley’s suburban home in Little Wiggin, Surrey (UK). While you may never have seen a British suburban home (they look more like long apartment tracks than their more widely spaced North American counterparts) you will recognize the exterior of carefully manicured lawns (or gardens as they like to call it), an interior full of modern apliances, etc.

It is mundane, every day stuff. It is the realm of the familiar. Of course things don’t stay that way for long. Somebody (or something) sets things in motion that reveal that there is more to this little average home. A house elf might pop up, or owls carriying strange missive might fly through the window, even the fake electric fireplace might exploded all of the sudden.

The second scene starts off at King Crossing in London. Every year Harry takes the train from London to Hogwarts. Along the way chocolate frogs come alive, wizards walk out of their picture’s and spells are cast. By the time the scarlet train reaches the Hogsmeade station, the reader knows that they are not longer in Kansas (yep, that is another great transitional scene).

Both of these scenes place the reader in familiar territory, a place that does not require any effort by him (or her) to accept as it is. But as the scene develops the reader receives an introduction to more fantastical elements of the story.  The character or characters observe these changes along side the reader.

There are two ways of doing this. The first one may have the character(s) static while the scenery changes around them, as it often happens in the Dursley home or they can travel from Point A (the mundane location) to Point B (the fantastic location). Either way, once the reader accepts the premise of the mundane it is easy to then introduce the more fantastic elements. This can be done all at once, but a more careful aproach is prefered, as it allows the the reader to digest the changes and extend their supension of disbelief without snapping it.

The introduction of these fantastical elements must follow a sense of internal logic. In fact, one of the things that transitional scenes do is set up the rules for the narrative. Done well and the reader will have no problem accepting them.

The transitional should be centered around a principal character, if not the main character, for no other reason that readers care about people (or their equivalents) not things. It also creates a connection in the readers mind with the character. If the character reacts in a way that the readers expects to the situation, then it makes it easier to create that bond.

Finally the transitional scene has to happen in the first act (if you follow the three act structure that is). It doesn’t have to be the FIRST scene, although I try to start off with it, but it must come early enough that allows the reader to create the bridge between the world they know and the world the writer has created for them. At some point the writer must “ground” his story in the familiar before sailing off to lands unknown.

Here is an example of a great transitional scene, this time from The Matrix:

Dwarfs, Elves,  Vampires, oh my! On a recent post (and many more after that) on the NaNo forums the subject of “cuddly” vampires (a la Twilight) came up. The poster said that he didn’t like the recent fad of turning vampires from monstrous blood suckers to tortured goth heroes. I responded that the vampires in my NaNo project were anything but “cuddly”.  If anything they are conniving, manipulative, psychopaths driven by a demonic urge to rape, murder and destroy.  As far from the romantic (in the modern sense of the word,  one which would cause the likes of  Lord Byron, Tennyson or Blake to spit if they heard what passes for romantic these days) vision of the tortured yet irresistibly attractive vampire heroically fighting the urge to drink virgin blood while dating the only virgin left in town as you can get.

This got me thinking about the endless parade of writers that from the beginning of time felt compelled to take familiar character types (the stoic Dwarf, the ethereal Elf or the Vampiric blood sucking terrors of the night) and change them in some way. Of course these archetypes are variations on earlier forms defined by modern writers such as Stoker and Tolkien. The idea behind the manipulation is to take the familiar and turn into something new (if not unique). Problem is that you can only make so many changes before you end up with something unrecognizable and lose whatever advantage the use of the original gave you in the first place.

I don’t frown on the practice as I have done a bit of archetype twisting in my day (about a month or so back). Yet it pains me when I see author after author fail so miserably at it. While the author might think that his improvements are “cool” the end results are trite, cosmetic and downright disappointing. The reader is left wondering why the author engaged in the exercise in the first place. So I came up with a few tips that will (hopefully) help my fellow nascent writers to avoid the obstacles on the road from the familiar to the memorable.

First a few questions. Honest answers to these questions will yield the best results:

  1. Why did you choose a particular archetype?
  2. Do you know/understand the history behind the archetype?
  3. Are you changing the archetype for purely arbitrary reasons,  that is, you think it would be cool to have rhinos on submarines?
  4. Or have you always hated the archetype in question and think you can do better?
  5. Is there more to the these changes than simply creating a anti-archetype? Are you doing this because you’re in a contrarian  mood?
  6. What is the role of the archetype in the story; accidental, background, or central to the narrative?
  7. Would your narrative goals be better served by abandoning the archetype all together?

Like I said before, familiarity is what drives many an author to choose a given archetype. This is especially true of modern fantasy and science fiction books, in all their variations. Both the author and the reader know the archetype and feel comfortable with it.  No need to create an entire elven language (unless you’re Tolkien) or describe how a vampire’s gaze overwhelms it’s victims senses. Just drop the dwarfs down the nearest mine shaft and concentrate on writing that exciting battle scene where the stalwart defenders of the underground realm battle the incoming goblinoid hordes. But we already read Lord of the Rings (OK, I saw the movies, tried reading the Hobbit and fell asleep on the their page)  so we want something more than the fall of  Moria. So the author introduces a few changes into the dwarf archetype. His dwarfs are not the dour hammer swingers of Tolkien’s lore but singing sensations to rival he likes of Elvis (Costello or Crespo). The attacking goblins go from an unorganized rabble to a disciplined army that fights for duty and honor.

But in order for these changes to stick an understanding of the archetypes in question is a must. You don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of western European mythology, but understanding the history behind the myth will help you preserve enough of the archetype so that it remains recognizable to the reader.

Questions 3-5 deal with the particular reasons for the changes in a given archetype. Many a writer makes cosmetic changes based on what their DMs allowed on the gaming table while playing D&D. They go for what they think would be “cool”.  But just reversing the archetype role or characteristics is not good enough. Doing things just to be contrarian or different is  a waste of time. Might as well slap a goatee on the character’s chin and call it a day.

Which brings us to question #6, the role of the archetype in your story. Cosmetic changes are great, if you are coding a video game. A player will notice something out of the ordinary, gawk at it for a second or two and be on his way to kill the boss monster. Same thing in your book if its something that lies at the bottom of page 267 where a secondary character explains why the main character should never go to beyond the Impassable Peaks of Doom (which we know that the MC will, in fact pass with some difficulty). Things change as the archetype(s) inch their way to center stage. Without a solid explanation the reader is apt to question why is the handsome yet ravenous vampire zipping from frozen packets of goat’s blood instead of dinning on warm blood of his seventeen year old date with the body of a SI swimsuit edition cover girl. Solid answers to questions 1-5 will (hopefully) prevent the local bookstore from shipping back boxes of your latest offering to the publisher.  You need reasons why the character does not fit the mold, answers that go beyond “Well I think vampires are seriously misunderstood creatures”. These reasons should have a direct connection to the story so that it lends depth to the character and through him to the narrative.

Last but not least, could you do better without relying on the archetype? Creating a new alien race that does not read like a Vulcan on steroids is hard, yet if the changes are drastic enough as to erase the fundamentals of an archetype, I suggest you abandon it all together. Go with something else. Something that fits your vision and the needs of the story. A knight that uses a gun is not really a knight, he is a gunfighter. Go with that instead.

I hope that the above helps you in some way. I can’t wait to read how the goblins barely won the battle against the singing dwarfs yet earned their respect by their honorable behavior in battle.

Until then….