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Editorial
Mar. 12, 2005

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Suddenly!

I don't know if you watch the TV series Lost, but I do.  Not without a little reluctance, however.  Although the critics went positively ga-ga over it when it first premiered, I find it irritatingly silly at times.  Concerning the adventures of some forty survivors of a crashed airliner on an uncharted and very mysterious island, the lead protagonists (of which there are about a dozen) sometimes behave in ways which might most charitably be described as "Huh?"  At any moment, you find yourself expecting "The Skipper" to come trundling onto the beach, making that weird squeezing motion with his hands, and hollering in exasperation: "Gil-li-gan!"

And, yet, all the same, I watch.  Why?  For two reasons mostly.  One -- the series writers seem to be laying the groundwork for a really bizarre and complicated supernatural story arc, hopefully to be resolved before the show gets the inevitable axe.  I don't know how much I trust them to pull this off, and I fear we may be seeing the makings of a really irritating shaggy dog story.  All the same, I have just enough hope left in me (or naiveté), that I keep on watching to see where it all may lead.

The other reason I watch is that, every now and then, the writers manage to pull off something sufficiently well, something sufficiently clever and unexpected, that it almost makes up for all the Gilligan's Island ludicrousness which has preceded it.

Case in point:  This last episode, two of the protagonists, Hurley and Charlie ( Lord of the Rings' Dominic Monaghan), set off through the island jungle to look for a mysterious and possibly dangerous woman ( Babylon 5's Mira Furlan), herself apparently the victim of a plane crash preceding their own.  They stop to argue and while they are arguing, out of the surrounding jungle comes the crash of a rifle.  Simultaneously, some leaves explode with the passage of the bullet.  What do our two protagonists do?  Do they fling themselves to the earth?  Do they dive behind a tree trunk?  Do they yell "Serpentine!  Serpentine!"?  They do NOT.

For a moment, they both just stand there, staring at each other with slightly puzzled frowns.  The silence goes on and on.  Finally, a little hesitantly, Charlie starts to ask:  "Is someone shoot--"

And a second shot, followed by several more, answers his uncompleted question and sends them both scattering frantically into the woods.

To me, that was a really clever moment.  It was a comedic moment, but, like the best comedy, its humour stems from its truthfulness,  Have you ever seen that before?  I know I haven't.  In Hollywood reality, it is simply assumed that everyone instantly recognizes the sound of a rifle shot and that everyone reacts instinctively, diving for cover at the sound of said rifle shot.  But we all know that ain't how the real world works. 

I have said previously in these essays that I believe few factors are more important to human behaviour than the desire to NOT LOOK FOOLISH.  We sometimes give it different names -- "to lose face", for example -- but it all boils down to the same irresistible impulse.  We don't want to look FOOLISH.  I have often wondered how many deaths could have been avoided over the years if the victims had reacted instinctively, the moment they smelled smoke, the moment they noticed the approaching car was weaving dangerously... And how many waited those few crucial seconds, afraid to seem to be panicking unnecessarily -- waited until it was too late?   Because they didn't want to look foolish.

The writers for Lost evidently thought the same thing.  So, instead of having Hurley and Charlie dive for cover in the time-honoured Hollywood manner, they had them stand there stupidly, both suspecting they were being shot at, but neither willing to be the first to say so for fear of being laughed at.  To me, that's clever.

Anyway, I was reminded of that scene in Lost whilst working up a rough idea for this editorial.  What I wanted to write about was a part of fiction writing which I shall call the "explosive transition".  (It probably has a proper name, but I don't know what it is and, frankly, you're not paying me enough to make it worth looking it up.  In fact, you're not paying me at all!)  That TV moment neatly illustrates what I mean by an "explosive transition". 

An "explosive transition" is any moment in a story when there is a sudden, unexpected shift from slow and quiet, to fast and furious.  In this case, Hurley and Charlie are standing chatting.  It is a perfectly placid scene.  Then, a moment later, all is action, as they scatter into the woods.  These are two completely different modes of drama and between them lies an instantaneous moment when the change from one to the other occurs.  The transition.

Ah, but is it an "instantaneous moment"?

At what point does the transition really occur?  When the first bullet is heard?  But no one reacts for fear of appearing foolish.  It isn't until the second shot is heard that the protagonists truly react and we shift to action mode.  Does that mean the transition occurs only with the second bullet?  My point is that there is no answer to this question.  By attempting to portray realistic behaviour, the writers have "smeared" the "explosive transition", which is fine if the effect you are going for is comedy -- but not so fine if the effect you were after was more serious. 

All this is especially relevant to our peculiar area of interest -- Pulp Fiction.  Write a "kitchen sink drama" and you just might get away without any "explosive transitions".  But a Pulp adventure is structured around the buggers.  There's no way to avoid them.  And whether they "work" or not largely determines whether the Pulp story itself works.  Or not.

For that reason, I find it's strange that such transitions are often poorly handled, in a manner surprisingly similar to the "smearing" seen in that scene from Lost.  Yes, I know I said I thought that scene was clever.  It was clever because it was supposed to be funny.  Now I am talking about situations where the effect is supposed to be played straight.  In that case, for the explosive transition to truly "work", it should instantly sweep the reader from one mode of drama to the other, from the calm to the exciting.  It should do so in an almost instantaneous moment.  Yet, frequently I find, when I encounter such explosive transitions, I am halfway into the next paragraph before my brain registers that a shift in mode has occurred.  I have to go back and re-read the transition.

So, I thought I'd take a whack at determining a set of loose techniques for how to write explosive transitions which work instantaneously, which don't slip by forcing you to go back and re-read them. 

Ushers, lock the doors.

First, let's start with an example.  Something simple.  How about this?

Moonlight filtered through the bedroom window.  Thunderaxe lay in bed counting the cracks in the ceiling.  Five murderous thugs broke down the door, and poured into the room.  Thunderaxe leapt out of bed to meet them.

We can see where the moment of explosive transition lies in this scene -- with the five murderous thugs breaking down the door.  Before that, the scene is quiet, contemplative.  After that is all action.  But we have to look closely to find the transition.  There is no real sense of excitement, or changing mode of drama.  It reads more like the outline for a story, rather than the story itself.  We are not immersed in the events.

So, first off, we might make the simplest change imaginable -- break this paragraph up into two separate paragraphs.  Like so:

Moonlight filtered through the bedroom window.  Thunderaxe lay in bed counting the cracks in the ceiling.

Five murderous thugs broke down the door, and poured into the room.  Thunderaxe leapt out of bed to meet them.

That helps a little, but not much.  The transition is slightly more obvious, but it still slips by, too easily missed.  We shall have to start rewriting a little.  First off, we might add a modifier to the start of the second paragraph, an adverb that implies a sudden transition.  The word "suddenly" itself, for example.

Moonlight filtered through the bedroom window.  Thunderaxe lay in bed counting the cracks in the ceiling.

Suddenly, five murderous thugs broke down the door, and poured into the room.  Thunderaxe leapt out of bed to meet them.

That's a lot better and, if necessary, we could probably leave it like that.  It ain't gonna win you a Pulitzer, but it might just pass muster, if the editor isn't too picky.  But I think we can do a lot better.  Imagine for a moment if this wasn't a story but was a scene in a motion picture.  Filmmakers recognize that the best way to make the audience "feel" that moment of explosive transition is by preparing them before hand.  They have various tricks, but likely the most effective is the use of "incidental music".

Often the music is so subtle you aren't even aware it is there.  But frequently the composer arranges the score so that the music leading up to the transition builds to a climax.  If only subconsciously, the audience hears that music, senses that a transition is about to occur.  Then, when the transition does occur, the audience can't miss it.  The music acts like an arrow on a street sign, indicating that the road ahead is slippery when wet. 

Obviously, you can't use music in a Pulp story.  But you can make use of the same principles.  By foreshadowing a coming transition, you prepare the reader.  There are many ways you might do this, but I'll use something quick and dirty.  It is quite common for modern authors -- even in books which are not otherwise supernatural -- to suggest the existence of foresight.  Why that should be, I don't know.  It just is.  So, we prepare the audience for the coming transition thus:

Moonlight filtered through the bedroom window.  Thunderaxe lay in bed counting the cracks in the ceiling.  He frowned, struck by an odd sense of foreboding.  Something was about to happen.

Suddenly, five murderous thugs broke down the door, and poured into the room.   Thunderaxe leapt out of bed to meet then.

For good measure, you'll notice I even wrote the word "something" in italics.  Obviously, this means the reader is to read this word with special emphasis.  But it serves a more important function, as well.  When a story is being told by a "voice-of-God" narrator, as this one is, italics also serve to indicate the internal thoughts of the hero.  But here, the use of italics is ambiguous.  It is still the "voice-of-God" narrating, but by putting the one word in italics, but not the entire sentence, we understand that we are nudging closer to Thunderaxe's personal thoughts, even as we are not quite there yet.  This doesn't have too much to do with explosive transitions, but it helps draw the reader into the story, making the reader more closely identify with Thunderaxe -- and that can only be a good thing.

Anyway, there is one final trick I think might help with this particular transition.   To truly draw attention to this transition, why not create a true break in the narrative, one that can't be missed because it doesn't make sense.  We shall interrupt a sentence in the middle.  That sentence could be just part of the regular narrative, but I think it might be a little more effective if we finally went all the way and allowed ourselves into our hero's thoughts.  Thusly:

Moonlight filtered through the bedroom window.  Thunderaxe lay in bed counting the cracks in the ceiling.  He frowned, struck by an odd sense of foreboding.  Something was about to happen.  Something coming? he pondered, his thoughts woolly with the vestiges of sleep.  Something coming in the ni--

Suddenly, five murderous thugs broke down the door, and poured into the room.  In a flash, Thunderaxe leapt out of bed to meet them.

You'll notice I have made one further change.  We could certainly have gotten by without that extra "In a flash", but, without it, there is a danger we have shifted the reader's focus to the five murderous thugs.  After all the trouble we went to getting inside our hero's head, it would be a shame to lose that focus now.  Thunderaxe is there, he leaps out of bed, he meets the thugs... but his actions are all one with the attacking thugs.  By beginning that final sentence with "In a flash", we emphasize his leaping out of bed, just as the "suddenly" emphasized the main transition when the thugs broke down the door. 

I'm sure there are lots of other techniques for improving explosive transitions.  I'm sure if I were a better person, I 'd be willing to explore those other techniques.  Thankfully, I'm not and so I shan't.  Just bear in mind there is more to writing such transitions than just throwing in the occasional "suddenly": and expecting the reader to do the rest.  The reader will get it, oh yeah.  But not FEEL it.

Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!



Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

Got a response?  Email us at lattabros@yahoo.com


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