Your Character’s Journey – Home from the Dentist

Earlier this year, I had a moment of writing illumination as I read a science fiction novel. A character in this novel had taken a trip and was about to return by hovercar to the human settlement on his planet. As a reader, I was subconsciously prepared for a description of the journey back.

I was also subconsciously dreading it. Perhaps “dreading” is too strong a word, but at any rate, I was not excited to slog through paragraphs of empty words when I had already read a description of the journey there and just wanted to get on with the plot.

These thoughts broke consciousness when, to my delight, the author deftly swept away part of the journey with a few summary sentences.

I paused to think about what I’d just seen. “Huh. I didn’t particularly want to read that part of the story. And I bet the author didn’t particularly want to write it, either.”

Now to be honest with you, when I rechecked the novel, I discovered that the author actually included a description of the journey after using those sentences to set up the scene. But even so, the lesson I took away from the experience remains the same: you don’t always have to include the boring, practical transition scenes. And upon further reflection, this thought leads to a couple of questions. Should you always skip past transition scenes? Is there any value at all in writing them?

Before I explore those questions, let me clarify that by “transition scenes,” I don’t mean all types of travel scenes—scenes where your character gallops into the forest to deliver a vital message or boards a starship that will take her to the reaches of the known galaxy. By all means, include those. I’m pretty confident that those are moments your reader wants to see. What I’m talking about is the more dubious moments like driving home from the dentist, scenes that might leave a gap in the story if they were left out, but don’t seem particularly compelling.

Here are two reasons why you might want to write those scenes anyway.

First of all, if you’re not satisfied with those scenes, you can always edit them out. Sometimes you may feel like you just need to put words down on paper to keep the story going. Maybe you don’t feel like skipping ahead because you’re plowing through a first draft and want to have a rudimentary version of every scene. Go ahead and write those transition scenes—you don’t have to keep them. In the editing process, you’ll be able to evaluate whether your story works better with or without them, and the decision will be easier once you have material written out.

The second reason to write transition scenes is a little more whimsical: you never know what’s going to happen. Especially if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, transition scenes can help your mind drift away from the plotline and into the creative process of world-building. In the story I’m currently working on, I introduced a strange type of berry bush while writing about two characters walking through the woods of a forest planet. Will this bush play any sort of role, symbolic or otherwise, in the story? I don’t know; I’m only on the first draft. But if I had skipped writing that scene, the idea would never have existed. Why not use transition scenes as an opportunity to brainstorm? Challenge yourself to see how non-boring you can make them.

In the end, though, transition scenes could go either way. Your reader might thank you for taking them out. Or he might thank you for leaving them in. For what it’s worth, I was on a train when I read that science fiction passage and had my mini-epiphany. It just goes to show that even in real life, transition scenes don’t have to be a waste.

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Amy majored in writing and is currently working in market research. Though she is unsure what role writing will play in her career, she trusts that it is a gift to be cultivated, not wasted.

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