23

This question is about hiding from the reader the fact that I am skipping some steps. Worse, perhaps, I don't want to show them, and I may have no clue or intention of figuring out how these steps should go: I simply want to go from scene A to scene B, jumping over how that could possibly happen.

Some examples, to give a reference:

  1. Scene A: Bob meets Charlie on a chatroom. They are both using some random usernames.

    Scene B: Despite not having given him any personal information, Bob surprises Charlie by knocking at his door.

    How did Bob figure out it was Charlie? And how did he find the address?

  2. Scene A: Mary is tied up by the robbers who invaded her home.

    Scene B: Mary is running outside while calling the police from her mobile phone.

    How did she free herself without the robbers noticing? And where did she get the phone from?

  3. Scene A: Axel and Susan are stuck in the cabin under a snowfall so heavy that the door is blocked under the snow.

    Scene B: Susan is crossing the frozen lake by foot.

    How did she get out of the chalet, across a wall of snow?

These are scene jumps that serve the plot, but they may not reflect anything reasonable in terms of physics or logic. The obvious solution would be to edit the text to give the reader a hint of how the feat was achieved, or how it could be possible. This is not what I am looking for.

I am instead interested in pushing the suspension of disbelief, and would like to find a writing device such that the reader will not notice the jump while reading.

At first I thought that if the stakes are high enough one may just read through to see how it is going to end. However, at my first attempt the high stakes resulted in a higher bar for consequentiality and my two beta readers spotted that it was not clear how Bob managed to get to Charlie's hideout.

I wonder if it is an issue of POV. Perhaps focusing on one character during one scene, and on the other in the other scene can ease the transition. Or should I simply foreshadow it, e.g. " 'On the internet no one knows where you truly are.' thought Charlie. ". I may be wrong, but this sounds like an unrealistic gimmick to me: who is taking their time to think that while chatting online?

The question thus remains: how to smoothly fool a wide audience to such an extent that they would not notice an unexplainable step occurring between scenes?

  • 10
    I agree with the answers that these imply too much of a logical leap to be dismissed by the reader, and that that can be fixed with even a bare-bones hint at the path connecting A and B. Show the reader at least one stepping stone and they can make the leap for themselves. On a side note, scene 3 is especially hard to connect because of an environmental problem: if there is that much snow on the ground, the image of walking across the frozen lake doesn't quite compute-- is it also covered in several feet of snow? How is she managing to walk through that? – wordsworth Aug 29 at 5:03
  • "With one bound, our hero was free" - Holy unsatisfying storytelling, Batman! – Chronocidal Aug 29 at 8:45
  • you could probably get some really good answers asking how to get the end result for each of these situations from the worldbuilding SE community – BKlassen Aug 29 at 15:38
  • 9
    Most of the current answers are just suggesting different ways to hint at how these particular conundrums might have been resolved, something you've explicitly said you don't want to do. The problem is that your remaining question is, in effect, "how do I convince my audience to ignore an obvious plot hole", to which the only good answer is "you can't, some readers will always notice it". I think you need to provide some more explanation for why you want to leave those questions unanswered. – BradC Aug 29 at 19:42
  • 3
    Apart from the first example, you seem to be cutting out the meat of a novel. Bad situations and how characters get out of them is usually the stuff you want to skip TO, not away from. – Weckar E. Aug 30 at 14:12

11 Answers 11

14

Hang a lantern on it.

If you're truly interested in not answering these questions, then I think your only remaining choice is to hang a lantern on it:

To hang a lantern (or “hang a lamp”) is to call attention to an inconsistency in the story by having a character notice the inconsistency. It’s the writer’s way of telling the reader “I did this on purpose; it’s not a mistake.”

In your case, that might look something like:

Charlie couldn't believe that Bob was standing at his front door. "How did you find me?"

"I have my ways", Bob replied mysteriously.

or perhaps:

Susan squinted into the sun as it reflected off the frozen lake, the wind stinging her cheeks as she trudged forward. She wasn't entirely sure how she made it this far; the last thing she remembered was Axel promising he would get her out of the snow-engulfed cabin.

I guess he did.

  • 8
    Careful, because some readers may expect Bob's way to be revealed, or at least hinted, later on in the book. With this technique, there's a fine line between "you're not supposed to know" and "you're not supposed to know yet". – Phlarx Aug 29 at 20:14
  • 1
    @Phlarx I agree, it is a fine line. Added another example, not sure if its any better than the first. Still leaves the gap unexplained, but at least the reader knows that the author didn't just forget about it. – BradC Aug 30 at 13:48
  • In the final example, did we switch to first-person present tense, or is the narrator making an aside? The latter can work in some genres, but would be jarring if the audience has not been adequately prepared for it. – Kevin Aug 30 at 17:04
  • 1
    Neat! I did not know about hanging lanterns! That was the device I was looking for (with the difference that I am never going to explain it). – NofP Sep 2 at 10:22
  • The only drawback of hanging a lantern is that the reader will notice. The good thing about it is that they will not stop reading and say 'wait... what did you do there exactly?' – NofP Sep 2 at 10:33
44

Skipping scenes is usually quite welcome in a novel. Sometimes you don't want to see every step. But the amount of skipping you propose is pretty jarring. You will break your readers out of their immersion in your world if you do something like that. Especially if you do it over and over.

The way to make it work is just as you say, to fool the reader into thinking the transition occurred. Do this by starting the transition then allow the reader's brain to fill in the gaps.

Bob meets Charlie. They chat online but we see Bob has another window open where he's discovered Charlie's IP address. Yadda yadda yadda, he shows up at Charlie's door.

Mary is tied up by the robbers who invaded her home. As the one watching her turns away, she slips one finger out. Then another. He gets called to help move something heavy. Yadda yadda yadda, she's off running.

Axel and Susan can't open the cabin door because of the snow blocking it. Wait? What's this cord hanging from the ceiling? Why it's a pull down ladder. Yadda yadda yadda, Susan's crossing the lake.

Just that little extra bit will start a reader's gears churning. Every one of us can imagine what happens next. In many cases, the reader may not remember you didn't fill in the gap.

The only way to trick the reader into missing the fact that you've left so much out is to get her/his brain to do the work for you. It might be right or it might be wrong, but it will be there. Start the process and then make your transition.

  • 12
    +1 As a fast reader who sometimes skips a line (without intention) I do go back if I see something I did not expect, to find out which line I skipped. In OP's samples I would be dissatisfied, in Cyn's samples I would (likely) not need to come back and if I do would be satisfied. – Willeke Aug 29 at 17:54
  • 1
    Didn't the asker say that they don't want to do this? They wrote: "The obvious solution would be to edit the text to give the reader a hint of how the feat was achieved, or how it could be possible. This is not what I am looking for." – Tanner Swett Aug 30 at 12:22
  • @TannerSwett My intent in my examples was to hint at a transition. Each of them doesn't give the solution to the character's problem and, in fact, might be a red herring. It only allows the reader's mind to imagine (a small piece of) a solution. I am hoping the OP will weigh in. If my suggestions don't work for her/him, I'd like to know. – Cyn Aug 30 at 13:53
28

How did Jack Sparrow escape that island he got stranded on? "Sea turtles". He escaped somehow, and he isn't going to tell us how. In fact, not telling us adds to his mystique. And he knows it, which is why he isn't telling us.

Of course, there's an issue of POV here. Jack Sparrow isn't the POV character, so he can keep secrets. A POV character doesn't have that luxury.

If it's a question of pacing, you can do the skip, and then the character would recount later how he did it. But ultimately, I would say, you can't have your POV character perform a seemingly impossible act, and get away without explaining how. It will look like a plot hole.

And indeed, the higher the stakes and the more impossible the feat is, the larger and more visible the plot hole. If it's something minor, it doesn't really matter how it was achieved. If it has significance, I don't think you can magic the problem away.

That said, telling us "how" doesn't have to be in detail. For example, in your first scene, if we know (or learn later) that Charlie is a hacker, that's enough of an explanation regarding how he did it - we can believe he had the professional knowledge to perform the feat, so how exactly he performed it becomes unimportant. We can believe that for him the feat is not impossible, that's all we need.

  • 3
    Definitively true that movies do that nearly all the time. I think you also make a good argument about the POV character. – NofP Aug 28 at 23:17
  • 1
    You can absolutely pull that trick in a POV character. Skip the scene, tell it in a flashback (to himself, even), and fuzz over the fuzzy part stating things like "oh, that is a secret I'll keep to myself" – Tom Aug 29 at 9:13
  • 5
    @NofP: Of course, if you've already established (in some scenes with little if any obvious plot significance) that the POV character can pull off seemingly impossible acts without explanation, the reader may be more likely to suspend disbelief. They may or may not feel disappointed if you don't eventually offer some explanation, though — the likelihood of that will depend on the genre as well as on the specific story and reader. – Ilmari Karonen Aug 29 at 11:20
  • 3
    @NofP, Pirates of the Caribbean doesn't do what you're asking about. Why have you heard the "sea turtles" explanation? Because people asked the question. Gibbs relays the tale when asked, and he knows because, in his turn, he asked. No-one's satisfied with just "He was marooned and then he turned up again". (And, of course, that's leaving aside that Jack does tell Elizabeth, and so the audience, the true story). – Peter Taylor Aug 30 at 11:41
  • I think i missunderstood the questions, because in this example the audience does notice the skip. They may not care (which is easy to achieve) but they notice. – Lichtbringer Aug 30 at 16:02
15

As long as you don't keep people hanging too long and you do the skip at an appropriate time, it can work.

Bob meets Charlie on a chatroom. They talk for a while, then Charlie has to go to bed so he can get to work in the morning. Just as he is leaving, for work, he hears a knock at the door. It's Bob.
"Hey Charlie. Sorry for just stopping by, but I wanted to continue our conversation from last night. Also, I'm actually an international agent and have been tasked by {3 letter agency} to keep you safe. You can't go to work today."

Charlie went to bed, so an appropriate time for Bob to show up and announce himself with his locating abilities is when Charlie is about to leave for work. The time and circumstances can change, but it needs to be a logical break. Bob showing up in the middle of their text conversation can work, but it has to show that Charlie is really quirky and not quite right in the head, to make it seem appropriate. This could even include a text Bob sends to Charlie after the door is opened.

Mary is tied up by the robbers who invaded her home. Eventually, the robber start to get hungry and want supper. Knowing she's a famous chef, they untie her from the chair, but leave her foot tied to the stove so she can make them supper. As she's moving around the kitchen, she manages to hide a paring knife in the small of her back in the waistband of her skirt. When the robber tie her back up, they forget to check her for weapons, and they fall asleep thinking she's secure.
Ch. 4
Mary is running outside while calling the police from her mobile phone.

Here, there's fewer steps to jump, which makes it a little easier for the reader to assume she dug out the knife, cut her bonds, and snuck out of the house without anyone hearing.

{Long explanation of how Axel and Susan came to be in the cabin in the middle of a blizzard.} When Axel and Susan wake up in the morning, they find they are stuck in the cabin under a snowfall so heavy that the door is blocked under the snow.
Ch.34
Susan is crossing the frozen lake by foot. She just happens to wave down a sheriff that's going by on a snowmobile and explains the situation. How they managed to slide a window open, dig out some snow and she got out, just before the snow on the roof collapsed behind her. When the sheriff asks where her boot are, she explains that she got caught in the mini-avalanche and just barely pulled herself free, losing her boots. Since she knew she couldn't dig out Axel, she took off running to get help.

Again, the chapter change is a good place to make the cut, but the real difference is explaining it to a 3rd party, which lets the reader know the chain of events without repeating it for the sake of the sheriff. In this case, you have a 2nd jump that you can avoid. That jump is from when Susan meets the sheriff to going back to the cabin. If you tell Susan's escape story as it happens, you don't want to repeat it, so a jump is going to happen regardless if you hadn't jumped her escape to begin with. This can actually make things flow a little better.

Switching things up by using the different tactics can be ok, but don't overuse them. It can easily become an artificial tension making plot device the reader will catch onto, leaving them concentrating more on "how blatantly obvious it was and how lame will the next one be?"

I'm not a writer, so my examples aren't that great. I've read enough books, though, to realize how transparent something like this can be. It can make for a great twist, or it can be a crutch. If it doesn't flow like a real dialog or how someone would actually explain it, then it's unnecessary. If it repeats a description, like the 3rd example, it can be useful, since it's moving a jump to a more logical position. It also breaks up the action a little, and prevents a "never ending chapter" while neatly ending the previous chapter.

  • That would be the traditional way to fix these holes. I was looking for a writing device not to do that. My goal was to keep the story short, very fast paced, and with deliberate cuts. – NofP Sep 2 at 10:30
  • @NofP, I have a feeling you'd be confusing your audience, leaving them wondering "what's going on", and trying to fill massive gaps that you, as the story tell, should be filling in. This is your story, not theirs, to tell. When someone rushes through telling you a story, do you feel satisfied you know what happened or do you have a long list of questions afterwards? Do you remember those "choose your own adventure" stories? I hated them. I always wondered what parts of the story I was missing by choosing 1 path instead of another. I also hated trying to find the next jumped to page. – computercarguy Sep 3 at 16:11
8

As I understand, you decisively want to refuse giving an explanation, right?

You could add "unnecessary" details to imply a story that has the readers imagination going wild for you.

Axel and Susan may have managed to escape the avalanche, but now the only thing they could do was wait for their slow decay in the premature coffin that was this cabin. There was no way out and they would never walk freely again.


Susan hobbled towards the bar across the frozen lake. Her jacket was ripped, she was missing a shoe and Axel was nowhere in sight. As she entered the barman asked her: "What happened to you?" She grumbled: "Don't ask."

And then you drop the subject and move on with the plot.

You're not supposed to understand what happened, just that something happened. You could even amp up the ridiculousness of the details to make sure no one can possibly puzzle together what happened. Maybe she's holding a rubber ducky or something.

  • 2
    +1 for amping the details. – NofP Sep 2 at 10:27
3

These are scene jumps that serve the plot

It's unclear what you mean by this; you can make a scene jump without leaving obvious questions unresolved. If you never resolve them, readers are going to see them as flaws.

As you say, hiding things based on POV can absolutely work:

  • Charlie has no idea how Bob found his home. From his perspective, shock and confusion are the appropriate response.

  • Mary's captor's don't notice that she has somehow escaped her bonds, until she is long gone. Or perhaps Mary's partner, Sally gets an abbreviated story (or just a casual joke) from Mary about how she got away.

If Mary is your POV, though, it is going to seem really strange not to at least hint at something (that Mary was once a magician's assistant, that she wore a metal bracelet with an edge sharp enough to cut through rope, that she was able to befriend the sharp-toothed guard dog, etc.).

You can also leave the reader satisfied by resolving these later, like in a mystery. Maybe we discover Bob's background as a hacker, or his friendship with the chatboard owner, or his association with law enforcement.

  • I meant that these scenes have to occur for the sake of the plot. How they are connected was not important plot-wise. – NofP Sep 2 at 10:28
1

Another option would be to let your characters talk about the actions in the missing time without letting the reader know.

You will never believe how I got out of there!

and then end of story or chapter. No explanation for the reader.

I like that this is quite immersive. If you see Mary running out of a building and sceaming for help you don't think "Hmh, how did she get out of that building?", you think "Holy shit, what's happening?", "I have to help her!" or "Are there evil men following her? Am I in danger now as well?"

I have to admit you can only do this in a peaceful environment after the action and the climax is over. It really depends on the story.

1

In 1, maybe Charlie says: "How did you find me!" I didn't give you any clues!"

And Bob says: "You thought you didn't. With enough internet skill, you can track any post to it's sender."

In 2, maybe Mary could be described with wild hair, torn clothing, and bleeding from her ankles and wrists, indicating she had to struggle really hard to get out of the ropes around her ankles and wrists, and probably succeeded a long time after the robbers left her house with their loot.

As for the phone, what is the problem? The robbers pointed heir guns or knives at her and made her submitted to being tied up and then stole the stuff that they came for without bothering with her phone or noticing it was in her pocket, and then left. Or maybe the robbers stole her expensive main phone but didn't see or bother to take her cheap back up phone.

So maybe Mary will babble about how they took her main phone with all of her vacation photos in it or something else she really wants. Or maybe absent minded John could leave his phone at her place and the robbers arrive just as she notices it and thinks she should return it to John.

In 3, maybe when Axel and Susan arrive at the cabin, Susan thinks that the fireplace looks like Santa Claus could come down it. Later she may consider making a fire and looks up the chimney and sees a square of blue sky above her (thus showing there is no grate in the chimney to keep out animals) and thinks that Axel or Santa would be too fat to come down the chimney but she could.

Or maybe the driveway curves around the cabin, so when Axel and Susan arrive, a chimney at one gable end of the cabin is described, and the other gable end of the cabin is described as having ground floor windows and an upper window. Inside the cabin, there are no stairs, but there is a trapdoor in the ceiling with a rope to pull it down to get to the attic.

Or maybe the cabin door opens outwards (bad design) and is six feet and a few inches tall, and the snow and wind pile five feet of snow against that side of the cabin, being too heavy to push the door open again. But some of the windows extend a foot or so above the top of the snow drift against the cabin. So if someone opened a window and some of the snow fell in the cabin, someone could probably climb out of the window between the snow and the top of the window.

Or possibly the initial description of the cabin could include both the possibly climbable chimney and the trap door to the attic with the window. And the description of the snowfall should make it clear to observant readers that someone could crawl out the top of a window. And maybe an axe in the cabin could be mentioned, suggesting that possibly someone could chop a hole in a wall or the roof to get out.

So after the descriptions indicate a few possible escape methods, Axel could be shown content to stay in the cabin until the snow melts, but Mary already has cabin fever and is desperate to get out. And in the next scene Mary is crossing the frozen lake.

  • 1
    I agree that would be the traditional way of fixing these holes, but I was looking for a device not to do it. – NofP Sep 2 at 10:25
1

If you do this, lean into it

Skipping a scene in an otherwise continuous story will always be jarring. The last thing readers want to feel is "this doesn't make any sense". You want your story to be believable and for readers to follow the action.

If you want to use this device only occasional within your work, Bradc's advice to "hang a lantern on it" is excellent. Show that is isn't a mistake or an oversight but instead a deliberate decision. If you like this style of writing you can take it even further though.

"Things we didn't see coming" is a brilliant thought-provoking novel by Steven Amsterdam1. It follows the narrator through a world where the Y2K bug was real and the fallout every bit as bad as people imagined it. But instead of directly following the characters life, each chapter is a separate vignette extracted from their life. Some chapters are years apart and other only days.

The connections between each chapter are never described, much like your examples. The narrator is in situation A, next chapter they are in B. The how doesn't matter because that isn't the story being told. The story is about the narrator and how they grow and change rather than telling their life style. It is an analysis of the human psyche not a fictional biography.

If the how of your story isn't important and you want to put the emphasis on your character instead you can lean into this technique. Use it to highlight want really matters in the story you are trying to tell.


1 I will admit that many people I know who have read this book did struggle to connect with it due to its disjointed narrative. I however loved it and thoroughly enjoyed the innovative approach to story-telling.

0

Many stories have characters who performs offscreen heroics or have their own adventures (as TVTropes calls it, The Greatest Story Never Told). Example off the top of my head is Glynn Stewart's ONSET series: one of the good guys is a demon named Ix. At some point between books he went off and did something that allowed him to overcome the instinctual need to obey a higher-level demon, so he no longer fears going up against one. At no point is it explained what he did or how he did it. In the final book, when the main character, David, is facing down the entity that's the major threat to the world during a demon invasion, Ix is off on his own. He only shows up at the end to reveal that he confronted and defeated the main demon general and "ate" him (somehow, it's never stated if that's literal or metaphysical), making him the highest-ranking demon around so he was able to command the demon army to stand down.

In both cases it works because it's not a main viewpoint character. Ix is an ally, not the center of the story, so it's accepted by the reader that he can be off and doing his own thing while the story is focused on David, the central and main character.

Another, more well known example where it is a main character. In the original release of The Return of the King, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are last shown on the Path of the Dead, confronting the Army of the Dead. The next time they show up is when the Corsair ships arrive at Osgiliath, supposedly bringing reinforcements for Sauron's army, and the three come charging off the ships leading the Army of the Dead to victory over Sauron's forces in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and relieving Gondor. In that original release, they never show Aragorn intercepting the Corsairs and seizing their ships. He just shows up. The audience simply nods. "He's freaking Aragorn. Of course he pulls something like that off."

I can cite numerous examples where a character does something like that, but the successful ones are those where it's a secondary character and what they do is in support of the main character's plot, or it's a character who is established to be one where pulling off something like that is pretty much par for the course. "Well of course she did that. She's [name]. That's what she does."

0

You could deliberately jump two page numbers in the numberings of the book. You noticed yourself smart readers are going to know. So embrace it. Maybe print a little gliph or 242… then next page is …245. And then literally start and stop mid-sentence. It's going to be jarring but make it obvious that as a plot device, the reader has to mentally assume what might have happened on the "missing pages". Then they will think it is possibly a novel and interesting twist. This may help you write it as well because you can make sure the "what happened" part fits well on the missing section and then keep them for your reference and pull them out for beta-readers.

Maybe later those characters have a flash back to or remind someone of part of the story to make the reader have to structurally realign their assumptions to new information.

EDIT: I just remembered what made me think of this. Chuck Palahniuk numbered the pages and chapters backward in the book Survivor. It's not as jarring as what I described but still interesting.

  • 2
    I don't know. I'd first assume that to be a printing error. (Then I'd check reviews on the internet and learn it's a deliberate device.) – Llewellyn Aug 30 at 19:44
  • This is way too subtle for most readers, and it wouldn't translate well to a digital media. For digital media, it would look like a corrupt download to have missing pages or just a big ellipsis between chapters or paragraphs. – computercarguy Aug 30 at 20:17
  • Another issue is that every edition paginates differently. – Cyn Aug 30 at 22:52
  • 1
    Welcome to Writing.SE gooddadmike, glad you found us. Please check out our tour and help center. – Cyn Aug 30 at 22:53
  • 1
    it is interesting in theory, But I am afraid it looks a bit gimmicky in practice. – NofP Sep 2 at 10:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.