How to Get Your Character Out of the Room

At the moment, I’m working on some new presentations for my spring events. It’s exciting to work with young writers and a good opportunity to touch base with my target audience. One of the things I tell them is that “writers need to write before they write.” In other words, practice is just as crucial in writing as it is in athletics.  Just as you don’t show up at a game without having practiced any of the skills, you can’t expect to sit down and write a novel without first doing a lot of writing (and reading!) That’s what we’ve been doing. Writing exercises, writing scenes, making observations, developing characters, not to mention research.  But here’s the thing, if you’re going to write a novel, eventually you have to actually begin to write whole chapters, transitions and all.

 How do I get my character out of the room?” This is the question that caught me completely off-guard and threw me into a bout of writer’s block when I first began to write my novel. The situation is not nearly as scary if you have a few scenes already crafted, but still, transitions can be complicated.

Transitions have many uses: break tension, slow the pace, skip to new events, switch to a different mood, change location. But today, I just want to focus o how to get the character out of one situation and into a new one effectively. If you find your character getting bogged down in the mundane, you know it’s time for a change.

Here’s how some writer’s handle the situation:

  • Introduce a new character to change the dynamics and allow for a change. For example, in Hemingway’s Girl, by Erika Robuck, Mariella, the maid, and Hemingway are sitting at the café, a spark of energy between them, when his wife walks in. This creates tension and allows for a change in scene.
  • End the chapter. Okay so this is perhaps an obvious one, but sometimes a chapter can be shorter than you think if a change is necessary.
  • Find a job for the character to do. A request is made which interrupts the  conversation or the scene, just when it’s about to get boring. In The Lost Letter by Julian Cantor, the mother asks her daughter, Elena, to chop wood, which gets them away from the dinner table. The other benefit of this transition is that it allows for an exchange between the two main characters, setting up conflict, and developing what will become an important relationship.

Time-Travel transitions. 

  • In The Journal, I have the time travel scene take place in a bedroom. Kami is reading the journal she finds in her grandparents historic home and is transported through time to 1929. She hears voices outside the door, then creeps down the stairs to find a New Year’s Eve party in full swing. Although the bedroom also looks different in 1929, having Kami wander through the dim hallway, smelling the cigarette smoke and hearing laughter, gives the reader a chance to adjust to the change and to suspend their disbelief in the time travel. Another trick I used to make the transition work effectively, was to create physical drama. Kami’s eyes blur. She feels dizzy. The room begins to spin. Is it a migraine? The reader knows it is something bigger.
  • The Mi’kmaq quill box opens the portal to the past in Winds of L’Acadie. This time, the character, Sarah, is on a dyke built by the Acadians in the 1700. Opening the quill box unleashes a strong wind that whips around Sarah and when it dies down she notices a drastic difference in her environment but her realization of what has happened comes gradually. The time travel device sets the transition in motion, but you still have to figure out how to get the reader to move with your character to the new, dramatically different setting.  The time slip is very dramatic so I used foreshadowing to prepare the reader for the big shift in time.

Whichever way you decide to get the character out of the room, always keep in mind what you want the reader to know. What do you want your reader to see, hear, feel in the scene? Most importantly, what experience do you want to give your reader?

TO DO:

Write a scene about a family situation that goes sideways. A birthday party or anniversary celebration. A homecoming. A Christmas dinner. Perhaps everyone is tiptoeing around the elephant in the room. The hostess (is she the main character?) is beaming at everyone, trying to keep the peace. Doing her best to ignore the elephant. Something interrupts the peace and triggers a heated discussion. Some kind of sound. An alarm, a siren, a shattering glass, a baby crying. Maybe it is even a whispered conversation that suddenly explodes in anger. What can you show your reader through this transition from the mockery of peace to the aftermath of the explosion? Perhaps this is the inciting incident that sets your story in motion.

Don’t forget to have fun!

Published by Lois Donovan

Author of historical time travels, THE JOURNAL and WINDS OF L'ACADIE, Lois is in demand as a speaker/presenter at literary conferences and young writers' conferences and teachers conventions. Lois grew up primarily in Riverview, New Brunswick, but has called Calgary home for many years. Currently, Lois enjoys life in Calgary with her husband, daughter, son and daughter-in-law.

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