I’ve been thinking about how many scenes in The Hummingbird Familiar begin with Maya waking or end with her sleeping/passing out. I know that’s an amateurish way to handle scene transitions, but I had been given the advice that it’s important to use straightforward transitions in children’s stories. But why do I feel an impulse to write transitions like these in the first place? Surely there are more exciting ways to begin or end a scene.
I try to avoid showing habitual behaviour in stories. I would never begin a first chapter with a character waking up and going through the motions of a morning routine. That said, I do think it can be useful to show a character waking up if you’re trying to establish a new routine. If a character has left home behind and is adapting to new surroundings, I think it can be worthwhile to show how she copes. After all, nothing disrupts our habitual autopilot like big life changes.
I’ve also noticed that fantasy writers commonly have protagonists pass out at the end of fight scenes. I’ve read rants against these inevitable blackout scenes. Their criticisms centre on their repetitive nature and on their unrealistic portrayal of concussions and injury. Even recognizing these weaknesses, I have sometimes ended scenes that way. But what does it accomplish? What do I avoid by having a character pass out?
The ‘blackout’ allows a writer to end on a moment of heightened drama without showing how the incident winds down to its conclusion. If the point of view character passes out during a battle, we don’t see its aftermath. Presumably the dead are buried and the wounded transported to safety, but I can’t recall ever reading about those sorts of moments in a fantasy story. The blackout also functions as a cliffhanger. In works with multiple points of view, it might be a few chapters before the reader returns to the fainted character’s perspective. During that time, the reader might not know the fate of the character. But is that kind of tension satisfying or well-earned? I’m not sure, but I suspect it’s common because it’s convenient. But there’s another reason: they set up for a wake-up scene.
Wake-up scenes after these ‘blackouts’ are typically moments of vulnerability, albeit short-term ones. A disoriented character drifts into consciousness and must figure out what has happened. It’s a slow-paced moment that focuses on receding pain and explores physical surroundings with all five senses. Briefly, the character will be the centre of attention, as supporting characters and caregivers show their concern. Or, if none are present, the point of view character must be self-reliant, perhaps using earlier skills to survive without allies.
I used a ‘waking scene’ in The Hummingbird Familiar. The protagonist, Maya, has a fever and her mentor cares for her. For him, caring for his student is a matter of duty, but Maya feels grateful. It’s a moment when their relationship changes, as Maya stops thinking of him as a scary shaman.
I suspect scenes like these often spark relationship changes, especially in cases where a caregiver is a love-interest. Perhaps they’re common because the vulnerability of the protagonist allows characters to break outside their usual roles?
I’m left wondering about alternatives. What other moments of vulnerability can be substituted for a character’s short-term injury? More generally, how else can I end a fight scene in which a character is injured? Can I create a sense of routine or passing time without showing a character waking up? I think I’m going to try writing without these kinds of transitions for a while.
What do you think about sleep/blackouts in scene transitions?