Waking Up and Passing Out

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?

This entry was posted in Thoughts on Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Waking Up and Passing Out

  1. P K Rivulet says:

    Great post! I never stopped to think about this much, but I do seem to avoid routine scenes intuitively, unless there is a key point to them. With a limited word count, any “writing clutter” (like routine) would get deleted at some point in the draft, anyway. I would like to use these precious words for something more important!
    As for blackouts, I think there are not too many characters who can believably pass out at a convenient time point. I think if they do, the blackout should have a reason in itself – like making the point that a weakling character thinking he can take on a seasoned warrior really overdid it, so he gets knocked out – or to conclude a 74-hour day of waking.

    • Thanks for the comment. I’ve noticed that some fantasy writers like to spend the first few chapters of a book on their character’s ordinary life. I can understand why they’d want to do that. It shows the ordinary life that was disrupted by the events of the story. Personally, I tend to like beginning at the moment of change itself.

      I think you make a good point about blackouts. Perhaps they’ve been so overused at this point that they’re better saved for funny scenes?

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s