writing scenes that are roughly but not completely contemporaneous
October 16, 2013 6:03 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand how, in suspense fiction, to transition between scenes that are happening at roughly the same time, but extending for different timespans.

I may be overthinking this, but I keep stumbling over it. How do you transition between scenes when one scene ends after the next one begins?

Here's what I mean. I have scene A taking place in the afternoon. Bob finds himself in trouble, and the scene ends with him in even bigger trouble. In story-time, the scene takes maybe half an hour. Then, before that can be resolved, I move to scene B, an entirely different location, with Sally, which also takes place in the afternoon. However, for that scene to work, we have to follow her into the night. And here's my problem. We've moved from afternoon to night in story-time, but in the next scene, I want to go back to the afternoon to see what happened to Bob.

I know the simplest thing to do is to just pick back up from where I left off in scene A, but it seems like that would be confusing to the reader; one page, it's night, the next page, we're right back at the afternoon.

Does a reader expect some kind of transition language, a "meanwhile, back at the ranch"? That feels like cheating. Or am I wrong, and it's not actually jarring to jump a few hours back like that? Is the reader keeping two timelines going on in her head anyway?

What's frustrating is that every book I've picked up this morning to try to answer my own question does one of two things: Either it does quick cuts to keep things relatively simultaneous, which would ruin the emotional flow of Sally's scene moving into the night, or it picks up after the second scene, so that, in this case, it would be nightfall next time we see Bob, and his crisis would already have played out offstage, which seems like a cop-out, but if that's the more acceptable technique, I could hack away at it a while to see if it works.

I can't believe I'm asking such a basic question, so as an answer I will totally accept "Quit overthinking it." This is how I end up talking myself out of finishing drafts, so hopefully getting good advice will keep me moving through this one.
posted by mittens to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Quit overthinking it.

Flipping back and forth between storylines brings with it an implicit "These things are not necessarily happening at exactly the same time" break for the reader, unless the writer has already claimed that they are, for whatever reason. If something onstage in Sally's storyline makes something happen offstage in Bob's, the reader should be able to piece it together.
posted by Etrigan at 6:07 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is your narrator limited or omniscient? If it's limited, then you shouldn't use any phrases like "meanwhile, back at the ranch" because A would presumably not know what happened in the future, and that would place A in the position of a conscious narrator who knows they are telling you, the reader, a story.

Have you written them both out entirely? I would do that, take a day off, then read through scene A then scene B consecutively to see how it flows. You should be able to sense if it's working or not. If it's not, I would reconsider the "emotional flow" for B's scene - the reader has a pretty high capacity for sustaining emotional engagement, even when the scene is broken up into multiple pieces. You may need to jiggle the prose a bit to bring out some of the emotional themes a bit more to jog their memory, but it should still work.
posted by Think_Long at 6:13 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stephen King does this a lot and well in his novels. IT specifically comes to mind for me. I think you could look to his writing for inspiration.
posted by Night_owl at 7:48 AM on October 16, 2013

Best answer: every book I've picked up this morning to try to answer my own question does one of two things: Either it does quick cuts to keep things relatively simultaneous ... or it picks up after the second scene

There's a reason for that.

If you don't have some sort of connective tissue between where you leave off at night and where you return to in the afternoon, it will be weirdly jarring. In other words, you can't easily advance the time of the plot by several hours and then return to a different character and have it be earlier all of a sudden and continue like nothing happened.

So here are some questions I have which would make this easier for me to answer:

What connections exist between Bob's story and Sally's? What are the common elements between what he's doing that day and what she's doing that day?

Do the two of them end up in the same place, that night? Or are they in contact in any way?

What is the reason that you can't just portray these two scenes separately, without intertwining them - in other words, depicting Bob's day and then Sally's day, or whatever order you prefer?

But based on what you've offered here, I guess what I would do, given your constraints, is:

1. Start with Bob. Have him get into deep shit. Cliffhanger.
2. Cut to Sally. Have her do her thing.
3. At the end of her thing, have her wonder where Bob is or just generally have her considering Bob in some way. There's your connective tissue.
4. Back to Bob, this time using the pluperfect ("Bob had said," instead of, "Bob said."), and catching us up to where Sally is now, and they meet or interact or whatever.

Consider the afternoon, where they both start, to be A, and the night to be B. Bob and Sally might start in different places at A, but if they don't meet at B somehow (in person, communicating, looking for each other but just missing each other, whatever), then I wouldn't try to get fancy with cross-cutting. Just do one scene, then the other.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:11 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Depends on the way Bob and Sally are linked.

Here's one version. The omniscient narrator can shift the POV and timeline around without going into any details...the reader doesn't care. The trick is to keep the narrator out of the narrative. You can keep the POV tight, and use the action in the story to make it clear who knows what and how that comes about.

Bob and Sally had lunch at Booger King. They tried to resolve the issue of her poodle, Fifi's, haircut, but Bob was a perfect asshole, and left in a huff.

When he got to his apartment, Bob discovered that his cat had shredded his newspapers, and had spit up hairballs into the terrarium, and the mucus had dried all over the little turtle. Things got worse when he was washing the turtle in the kitchen sink, and accidentally dropped him down the drain. It didn't go well, on account of how the garbage disposal was running at the time. The disposal jammed with a hearty clunk. The sink began to fill with water.

Sally left Booger King in a red fury. Bob had been such a child about the poodle. She pulled out of the parking lot and headed up Sepulveda Boulevard, stopping at the light. Her attention was diverted from the crosswalk by the young man in cargo shorts and a mesh T-shirt hustling spare change at the bus stop, and she didn't see the homeless beggar approaching her car with a spray bottle and dirty wash rag.

"Clean your windshield, miss?" the beggar wheezed.

Sally was so startled that she hit the accelerator, knocking the poor man ass-over teakettle. When the ambulance finally arrived, Sally convinced the police to undo her handcuffs and let her accompany him to the hospital.

Sally loved ambulances. At the hospital, she....

Bob had to get the gold-plated roach clip, given to him by his sainted mother, to remove shredded turtle from the bowels of the garbage disposal. It was a long, tedious process, but he finally was able to bag up the remains of the unfortunate amphibian and put him to rest in the flower bed on his windowsill. He was washing his hands in the sink when the phone rang. It was Wendy. Oh hell, he'd forgotten about their appointment. She would ask about Herkimer. She loved that little turtle, and constantly brought little turtle gifts for him when she came over to visit. He meets her downtown, at the Roxy Theater, where he hopes that seeing that new blockbuster movie, Gravity, will divert her attention from Herkimer.

Bob continues to while away the rest of the afternoon with Wendy. It hasn't gone well. After the movie, he's forced to tell her about Herkimer. It was in the malt shop, over a mud-pie, when Bob got the call from Sally, who's in tears. She wants him to meet her at the hospital, and informs him that Fifi somehow jumped of her car when she ran over the homeless man, and some buff kid in a mesh T-shirt was holding him for ransom.

"We have to get to the hospital," Bod tells Wendy. "Sally needs us both."

"The hospital?" says Wendy. "But Fifi's a goddam dog!"

Wendy had never liked that mutt. It was just the day before, when Wendy and that airhead, Sally, was at the regular meeting of Quilters Are Us, and Sally insisted on holding the whining little fur ball on her lap...."I bet you even let him eat of your dish," Wendy told her. "Well, sure," replied Sally. "Wouldn't you?"

Now, here in the hospital, Wendy couldn't care less about the little fur ball. She knew that Lenny was keeping the mutt safe enough, at least until Sally forked over the dough.
posted by mule98J at 9:59 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As a reader, "Meanwhile, ..." tells me what I need to know to understand what's going on.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:34 AM on October 16, 2013

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