Monday, October 8, 2012

Narrative Transitions

 by Sabra Wineteer

I can’t stand novels that jump forward or back time without a few markers or anchoring descriptions. Perhaps it’s a literary pet peeve or something I find aesthetically annoying, or it could be I lack mental acuity or am too muddled in my daily life to suss out broad leaps in narrative time. But I read a lot and when authors do this it never fails to irk me.

When I’m reading a novel and this happens, I muddle through a couple three sentences thinking, “What?” As Margaret Atwood proclaimed, “Don’t give readers a what moment.” These transitions (or really the lack of them) pull me out of the narrative and, thus, the enjoyment of the book. “Where am I?” I wonder. “When am I?” “Which character am I with?” I don’t find it clever, or twee, or avant-garde to jack a reader around this way. This is either subterfuge on the part of an evil dictator author or laziness. And whatever the reason, I have to reread these sentences until I get the author’s gist- yes, we’ve moved a decade forward in time and now Joe is the point-of-view character.

Films don’t make jarring jumps in time, at least the well made ones don’t. I think of the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle). Because the narrative of the story takes place over many months and sometimes there’s not much going on between say summer and the following spring, the film shows us the passage of a great deal of time very quickly. For instance, we see Elizabeth on one of her walks, her bonnet is tight, she wears a long sleeved jacket with gloves. As she walks, we see that the leaves on the trees are different colors- red, orange, yellow. And if we, as viewers, are in any doubt about this big shift forward in time, the film bangs it home. We hear squawking, as does Elizabeth, and we see her look up as the camera angles to the sky. There are geese, V-flying south. Autumn. And that's all we get in scene for the whole season. Then the film moves onto winter, the Bennet's holed up in their house, frost on the windows, Mr. Bingley likely gone from Netherfield forever.

In her last novel, "The Years", Virginia Woolf employs these transitions. She’s quite fond of them and spends several paragraphs of each chapter making such openings. For instance, these are the hallmarks she gives at the very beginning of the novel.


It was an uncertain spring. The weather, perpetually changing, sent clouds of blue and of purple flying over the land. In the country farmers, looking at the fields, were apprehensive; in London umbrellas were opened and then shut by people looking up at the sky. But in April such weather was to be expected.

This is just a little taste of her opening setting-the-scene paragraph; it goes on for 445 words.

Seventy-five years after "The Years" was published, we don’t have much tolerance (or attention span) for such lengthy expositions, but that doesn’t mean authors shouldn’t employ them. I keep a calendar for my characters- Thursday, December 23, 1999- trip to the OVR- so that I know at any given point, in any given scene, I know exactly what day my character occupies. I like using this site to give me the days of the week and the dates.  It might not seem vital, but in the case of the above example, I wanted a day close to Christmas, but not when this particular office, the OVR, would be closed. (I even called the office itself and learned that they are never open on Christmas Eve, even if it falls on a weekday. Thus, it had to be December 23rd or earlier.) Though I don't give the date of this scene, I do mention that "Christmas is the day after tomorrow." I hope in doing so that my readers are anchored in time and the many transitions I have during the part of the novel don't give anyone any what moments.

Authors can also show years pass in mere sentences. As a personal preference, I LOVE this. The most elegant way I’ve ever seen this done was with Gloria Naylor’s "The Women of Brewster Place." In one particular scene she is showing not only many years passing, but a character growing up. She narrates this scene cinematically. We have an unchangeable anchor, a chair, and we have the passage of time shown by the son’s legs lengthening (growing, he's aging) in comparison to this inanimate object.

Another reason I prefer these transitions is that I’m fond of cliff-hangerish chapter endings. Like a roller coaster, we can’t always be rising to the top of the structure. And we can’t be forever cresting over the edge. And no matter how hard gravity pulls us back down, there’s a bottom somewhere. There’s got to be some level bits in there, even if there are curves. So, for those suspenseful chapter endings, or even when there’s an emotional blow, revelation, or narrative bang, I like a little smoothness to even me back out before the tension builds again.

So more transitions, please. Anchor me and other readers in the who, when, and where before moving into the what and how. I know I'd be grateful.

Photo by Curt Richter
Sabra Wineteer grew up in Moss Bluff, Louisiana. She has since lived in England, New Zealand, Germany, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and currently lives in rural Pennsylvania with her husband and their three tweens. Her work has appeared in TWINS Magazine, storySouth, The Rumpus, 7X20, and the anthology 140 And Counting. She has workshopped her fiction with Antonya Nelson, Charles D'Ambrosio, and Margaret Atwood. She is the 2012 Joyce Horton Johnson Fiction Award recipient and founder of Talking Shop, an upcoming online literary community. Her current work-in-progress novel is complete and almost finished.

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