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December 14, 2017

Transition Techniques: Meanwhile, in Our Subplot…

View of city half in day and half in night with text: Don't Lose Readers with Bad Transitions

Last time, I shared my guest post for Writing Helping Writers. In that post, we discussed how to identify and fix episodic writing to make our stories stronger.

One tip I shared in that post we’ve also talked about here before: the “But” and “Therefore” rule. When we’re describing our story…:

  • Can we use “therefore/so” or “but” to link scenes and plot events?
  • Or would we need to use an “and then” transition to explain the jump from one plot event to the next?

The answer to those questions determines whether our story will have an episodic feel or a strong narrative drive. However, there’s another option for transitioning from scene to scene or event to event: the “meanwhile.”

Recap: “Good” and “Bad” Transitions

Before we dig into “meanwhile” transitions, let’s first recap the other types…

Bad: “And Then” Transitions

When we’re describing our story, we might use the phrase “And Then.” A happened and then B happened.

However, “And Then” feels episodic because it doesn’t tie A and B together:

  • She fell asleep, and then the blimp blew up.

Wait… What does A have to do with B?

Good: “Therefore” or “But” Transitions

With a stronger story, we can link our plot events with the phrase “Therefore/So” or “But”:

  • If one plot event causes another (or causes a decision or response), they’re connected with “Therefore” or a “So.”
  • If one plot event causes a setback (impeding goals or actions and causing conflict), they’re connected with “But.”

For example, instead of our clunky sentence above, we could say:

  • She fell asleep, therefore she wasn’t manning the controls and the blimp blew up.
  • She fell asleep, but the blimp blew up over her house and woke her.

Either of those transitions reveals how A and B are connected. We see the cause-and-effect chain. If our events and scenes are connected by a “therefore” or “but,” we’ve probably avoided most weaknesses of episodic writing.

Are Those the Only Transition Options?

In that guest post, I mentioned:

A rare “and then” (or a jump to another plotline with a “meanwhile”) transition isn’t “bad,” but each one risks breaking our readers’ immersion in our story, leading them to put down the book, so we want to be careful.

In response, commenter JC Martell asked:

“I have several subplots. Could you write an article on the “meanwhile”…?”

It’s going to be a few months before my turn rolls around again at Writers Helping Writers, so I promised JC to cover this topic today over here. *smile*

Introducing the “Meanwhile” Transition

“Meanwhile” transitions purposefully jump from one narrative path to another:

  • She fell asleep. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, he fought to get the last bull into the holding pen.

However, each of those plot lines would need to follow its own internal cause-and-effect, “But” or “Therefore/So,” chain:

  • But an explosion in the sky above startled him, so he lost his grip on the bull.

Unlike “and then” transitions, “meanwhile” transitions are meant to be a jump. We’re not trying to make it look like A leads to B. They’re supposed to be independent from each other.

Comparison of Transitions:

  • And Then: A happens (random attempt to connect to) B happens
  • Therefore/So or But: A leads to B
  • Meanwhile: A1 happens; A2 happens (later scenes would usually have A1 lead to B1 and A2 lead to B2, etc.)

Are “Meanwhile” Transitions Good or Bad?

Unlike the other transition options we mentioned, “meanwhile” transitions are neither “good” nor “bad.” Meanwhile transitions are simply a function of how some stories are narratively structured.

(Note that the “Straightforward” vs. “Complex” labels below say nothing about a story’s quality, literariness, depth, etc. The labels are simply a description of a story’s narrative path.)

Straightforward Narrative Structure:

In the most straightforward type of story, we’d have only one point-of-view (POV) character. Because we’re with that character throughout the whole book, there are never any scenes of events happening adjacent or simultaneous to the scenes of our main character’s POV.

In other words, every scene should follow a single cause-and-effect path because, as readers, we’re following only one set of footprints through the story events—those of our POV character. So the strongest story would use “therefore” or “but” transitions between most events or scenes, and it wouldn’t use “meanwhile” transitions at all.

Mixed Narrative Structure:

The differences between Straightforward and Complex are a spectrum, so there’s not one easy cutoff point to say when a story crosses over to Complex. Instead, we’re just going to label some as Mixed for now, and we’ll get more into these below.

Complex Narrative Structure:

The label complex simply refers to whether a story contains aspects that naturally make the narrative path a bit more zigzaggy. Zigzagging stories are not “bad”—at least not if there’s a method to the madness.

As I mentioned in my guest post, story events shouldn’t feel random. Random story events frequently indicate lazy writing where the author forces the story to be a puppet rather than allowing for a natural story flow.

Instead, complex stories are complex because of specific traits, such as:

  • multiple POV characters with different narrative paths
  • strong subplots with their own narrative drive

With multiple POV characters, we introduce the possibility of events and scenes happening simultaneously. That’s especially the case if our story tracks several plot threads, through subplots or parallel plot events.

What Does Mixed Narrative Structure Mean?

Now that we have that background, let’s get back to those Mixed narrative structures…

Not every story with multiple POV characters will be complex, and not every story with strong subplots will be complex. The difference has to do with what I’ve been calling the narrative path.

Narrative path is the path of the story from the perspective of readers. How much does the storytelling jump around from plot to subplot or character to character?

Understanding our story's narrative path can help us write scene transitions. Click To TweetFor example, let’s look more closely at the romance genre, which usually follows multiple POVs, such as those of the hero and heroine (or whatever relationship combination). These stories can be complex because of those multiple POVs, but they don’t have to be.

In many romance stories, the characters work together and interact for most of the story. We can think of those stories as having two sets of mostly parallel footsteps for us to follow.

A scene from the hero’s POV often follows the heroine’s POV, and vice versa. Yet if they’re reacting to each other, there’s only one narrative path from the perspective of the reader (or two very close paths).

There’s still only one cause-and-effect chain. The hero does something in his POV scene that the heroine reacts to in her POV scene, and so on.

The same goes for subplots. If a scene about our subplot is followed by a scene about our main plot but is reacting to the subplot, the narrative path is either the same or closely parallel. One still directly drives the other along the storytelling path.

That said, if we do have multiple POV characters and/or strong subplots, we’re likely to have a few “meanwhile” transitions in our story. But if “meanwhile” transitions are the exception, the story can be thought of as Mixed rather than Complex.

What Does Our Narrative Structure Have to Do with “Meanwhile” Transitions?

The more complex our story’s narrative structure is, the more likely we are to use “meanwhile” transitions:

  • If we jump from one character’s POV to another, and they’re not reacting to anything from the previous scene (such as if the characters aren’t together), that’s likely to be a “meanwhile” transition.
  • If we jump from following our main plot to following a subplot, and they’re not connected at all yet (one isn’t driving or reacting to the other), that’s likely to be a “meanwhile” transition.

Often those two aspects will occur together. Think of a story that’s following one character for the main plot and another character for a subplot. Each scene break will be a “meanwhile.”

Large-cast epics with several simultaneous plot threads, such as Game of Thrones, are perfect examples of complex narrative structures. Events in one kingdom, region, or House won’t directly affect another one ever (or maybe not until the next book), so each time the storytelling jumps, that’s a “meanwhile.” However, within each of those story lines, G.R.R. Martin maintains a cause-and-effect chain.

3 Ways to Keep Readers Immersed in Our Story During “Meanwhile” Transitions

3 ways to keep readers engaged through scene transitions... Click To TweetAs I stated above, just like “and then” transitions, “meanwhile” transitions can risk the reader putting down the book. However, because these jumps are purposeful rather than random, we can take certain steps to keep readers invested in the story.

Tip #1: Ensure Each POV or Plot Thread Flows:

As I mentioned above about “meanwhile” transitions, each plot thread should follow its own cause-and-effect chain. Every time a story jumps to character or subplot B, readers should be able to pick up where the story left off.

If our last scene with a character focused on them struggling to open a locked door, when we revisit them, we should either see them still at the door or dealing with the outcome (positive or negative) of that struggle. If the next scene instead jumps to the character having lunch with a friend, the story events might feel random, and readers would be more likely to get frustrated.

Each character POV or plot thread should be internally consistent, with A2 leading to B2 leading to C2, etc.

Tip #2: Check for Rising Stakes in Each Plot Thread

Similarly, if we (hypothetically) moved each scene with a secondary plot thread into a separate document, not only should the plot thread flow, cause to effect, but it should also function like a mini-story. In other words, the stakes should increase as the subplot goes on.

Ever read a book where you got bored each time a subplot scene cropped up? Many times that’s caused by the subplot being too “flat,” without rising stakes. Without the tension of rising stakes, the pacing will feel slow.

A strongly paced story, without low-stake subplots, will keep readers engaged.

Tip #3: Use Hooks before “Meanwhile” Transitions:

Before a “meanwhile” transition, leave off the current POV or plot thread with a strong hook. Hooks can ensure readers desperately want to stick around to see what happens next, even if they have to wait a scene or two to find out. Hooks also make readers excited to see jumps, as they now get to learn what happened from when the next thread was left hanging before.

The stereotype I’ve heard of Dan Brown’s writing (of The Da Vinci Code fame) is that he uses a mini-cliffhanger hook at the end of virtually every scene along the lines of:

A gun blast echoed through the dark alley, and his partner dropped to the pavement.

*****

She sized up the man across the desk. Did his question about her intentions mean he knew her secret?

Like his stories, sometimes we need to use “meanwhile” transitions between almost every scene due to our narrative structure, such as jumping from one group’s POV to another. While his writing is often teased for using the technique so frequently, it has resulted in thousands of readers not being able to put down his books.

Hooks make readers eager to stick around and eager for jumps, as each jump is an opportunity to answer their questions from before.

Unless every story we write is straightforward with only one POV character, chances are that we’ll need to use a “meanwhile” transition at some point in our career. Hopefully this post gives us all ideas for how we can minimize the risks and make “meanwhile” transitions work for our story and our readers. *smile*

Does the straightforward-to-complex spectrum of narrative structures make sense to you? Have you heard of “meanwhile” transitions before? Have you read stories that use them extensively? Did they make you lose interest, or did they help the storytelling? Do you have any other tips to share or do you have any questions?

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What do you think?

11 Comments on "Transition Techniques: Meanwhile, in Our Subplot…"

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JC Martell
JC Martell

Thanks Jami! Just what I needed. Tip # 1 especially good one to remember.

Sieran
Sieran

Love this post! And the previous post too. Thanks for re-explaining what “episodic” means in this context, because I misunderstood it as what happens in the book Little Women.

I find I do a lot of the “echoing” that you mentioned in your Episodic vs. Epic post. This is because many, if not most, of the books I enjoyed had plot events that link to one another even across greater distances (the distant echoes from previous and future plot events). So I guess I subconsciously mimicked this style.

Ha, I do multiple POV, so definitely a lot of “meanwhile”s. But in my current story, I stay with the same plot line for a longer length of time before skipping back to the other plot line, so it doesn’t feel too choppy. I adore A Song of Ice and Fire, but it is a mini torture to have to wait SEVERAL HUNDRED PAGES (or more) before we can get back to Arya Stark. XD She’s one of my favorite characters.

LOL! At the cliched cliffhanger hook. You brought up a great point, though. No matter how many people critique him for using that same old trick every time, it still works, lol. I also like your tip on having higher-stake subplots. Most (or all) of George R.R. Martin’s plot threads have pretty high stakes. He often stops the scene right before a character may or may not die. XD

Glynis Jolly

I like the cliffhanger approach the best, I think, although there are many times when I just jump from scene to scene having the last one pretty much resolved. Heaven only knows if this is a good way to handle it or not.

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

Thanks. Changing to a new chapter can be easiest.

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[…] We first discussed how how to avoid the types of transitions that make our writing feel more episodic. Then we dug into another type of transition found in stories with multiple points of view or subplots. […]

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[…] use transitions to jump over unimportant action, skip boring information, or carry from different POVs or plot threads […]

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