At some point in almost every story, characters will move from one place to another. This change in scene ought to be simple, but it can be one of the most aggravating problems writers face. Too often, we try to mimic the actual experience of driving or walking, the way our minds wander across subject and time. Not infrequently, we use a car ride as an opportunity to insert backstory. Maybe this works—and if it does, that’s great. But if it doesn’t—if the reader begins to skim—then perhaps a more succinct strategy is required.
Sarah Bird’s new novel Above the East China Sea demonstrates perfectly how to quickly and effectively move a character through space. You can read an excerpt (and an interview with another great writer, Mary Helen Specht) at Necessary Fiction. You can also find a free sample at iBooks and Amazon.
How the Story Works
Moving from one place to another in fiction is an opportunity for something to happen, for something to change. If a character drives or walks somewhere, and the place she ends up is identical to the place she left and if the things that happen there are the same as the things that happened in the last place, then the move was not important. Unimportant moves should probably be cut from the story. Or, they should be made more impactful.
In this scene from Bird’s novel, notice how much changes along over the course of the drive. You don’t even need to know the plot to understand that something is about to happen:
He flips the photo back onto my lap and pulls into traffic. “I know exactly where and what that is.”
The rain has stopped by the time we leave the broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise and turn onto narrower and narrower streets until we’re creeping along a nearly deserted back street. On either side are abandoned businesses with boarded-up windows and weeds growing through the concrete steps sporting signs so faded by the sun that I can barely make out the names: Club Kentucky. High Time Bar. The Manhattan. Girls Girls Girls. GI Welcome.
Suddenly, amidst all the gray buildings, we encounter one painted a vivid crimson. The shocking color frames a painting two stories high that depicts a beautiful woman in a red-and-lilac kimono sniffing a flower. A few blocks later there is another painted a shocking pink. A two-story poster depicts a pair of animé girls in French maid costumes, breasts overflowing laced bodices. An invisible fishing line hoists up the backs of ruffled skirts to reveal the clefts of their butts. With a weirdly sarcastic tone, Jake translates the caption beneath the girls: “‘Welcome home, Mr. Married Man. Your wife is out shopping for the day. Is there anything we can do for you before she gets back?’”
Two important things happen in this passage:
- The change in place corresponds to a change in something else. Obviously, the characters have driven to a different part of town. The streets look different, and this difference is an indicator that the people who live and work on those streets are different as well. They have less money and less opportunity. In short, this is the economic hinterland of the city. The things that happen here are not the same things that happen on the “broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise.”
- The characters discover something unexpected. Yes, one of them is driving and knows what they’re going to find, but, for the narrator, the brightly painted buildings are new. At a very basic level, this discovery sets up suspense: What are these buildings? What happens inside them? Why has this person brought me here? This suspense is important because it forces the readers to recalibrate their expectations. We were led methodically down gradually narrowing streets, to a poorer, forgotten part of town, and then suddenly things have changed. The expectations we had for “abandoned businesses with boarded-up windows” are no longer useful.
In almost every kind of fiction, a trip usually indicates that something is about to happen. If you find yourself writing scenes that change locations aimlessly, it can be a sign that something deeper is wrong with the story. Those kind of “smart bombs” as one of my former teachers once called them can be immensely helpful; recognizing them helps you begin revising sooner.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s change locations in a story, using the passage from Sarah Bird’s novel Above the East China Sea as a model:
- Choose the point of origin. What kind of place is it? Is it a neighborhood, a business, a park? Is it private or public? What kind of area is it? Rural, urban, or suburban? Wealthy, poor, working class, or white collar? Are its fortunes rising or falling? Once you’ve got the place set in your mind, write a few descriptions of it that convey this information to the reader. Keep in mind Bird’s description of her point of origin: “broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise.”
- Choose the new location. The same questions as before still apply. What kind of place is it? Once you’ve got it set in your mind, pick some descriptors that tell the readers what they need to know.
- Transition between locations. The easiest way to do this is to find a description from the point of origin that can be continued into the new location. Bird uses streets: their width and appearance and the buildings along them. This trailing description allows the reader to do what we all do in real life. As we drive somewhere, we mentally chart what is happening around us and make educated guesses about what those changes mean. So, look back at the descriptions you’ve written so far. Are any of them parallels? Can you easily connect a description from the point of origin to a description of the new location?
- Introduce something unexpected. The discovery can be totally unexpected (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”), or it can fit within the world you’ve brought your character into. Bird introduces brothels after taking us to an economically disadvantaged side of town. It’s not shocking that they’re there. Instead, the surprise is that any number of things are likely on that side of town, and this is the thing we’ve found. In other words, treat your new location like the backdrop on a stage. The scenery gives the audience a clue about what will come, but the actual scene must still surprise us. You’re creating expectations with the transition, and now you must both fulfill and scramble those expectations. One way to do this is with an abrupt shift in landscape. Interrupt the smooth transition with a quick change. Regardless of what you introduce with the change, the fact that things have shifted so quickly gets the reader’s attention.
You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about plot or story at all. Of course, you’ll need a story to go along with your change of location. But sometimes a change in location can inspire or prompt a story. Play around with different locations and see what happens.