Monday, January 16, 2012

Writing 101: Transitions

As promised, here is the first installation of my new Writing 101 Series.


Remember that movie “Dude, Where's My Car?” (stick with me on this). In one scene the MCs are in a drive-thru and after every item they order the clown face box responds, “And then?”. “I'd like a diet coke”, “And then?”, “I'll take a medium fry.”, “And then?”...You get the idea.

All good stories are like this scene. First something happens, and then something else, and then something else, until we come to the end.

Good stories with smooth transitions get us from that first point to the end in a way that never makes the reader stop to ask “And then?”.

You'll never see a review that raves about the amazing transitions of someone's novel, but if they aren't there you're going to hear about it. Words like clunky and dragging describe books that probably have major transition issues (among other things).

According to Wikipedia, “Transitions provide for a seamless narrative flow as a story shifts in time, location, or POV. They aid the internal logic of a story by moving readers from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, idea to idea, scene to scene, and chapter to chapter with grace and ease.. “

Don't we all wish we could write with grace and ease?

So how do we create seamless transitions without making our readers bleed from their eyes? Here are the best tips I could find from the folks who know, along with some of my own less genius insight.

    Get to it.
    According to Gail Gaymer Martin , the easiest way to start a transition is to use your POV characters name as soon as possible. John stared out the window of his condo. Behind him the room boasted an austere decor, void of personal effects. A woman's touch would make all the difference. Immediately we know who and where. John has gone from the diner (for example) and is now in his condo. 
    Imagine if the same author took the time to describe the inside of the condo first. The room boasted an austere decor, void of personal effects. A woman's touch would make all the difference. John stared out the window of his condo. Same sentences, different order, big difference!
    What time is it?
    From the all-knowing site eHow, I gleaned another golden nugget. It is OK to occasionally tell your reader how much time has passed. For example: Twenty minutes later, Katie finally relaxed into her lonely bed. This can also be used before the transition. Jason knew ten minutes was plenty of time to get to the post office. End scene, open scene at post office. Passage of time: no more than 10 minutes.
    I like this option for it's simplicity, but overuse can give the reader a headache. Unless you're watching an episode of 24 there is no reason every minute needs to be accounted for. 
     
    Tag, you're it.
    According to Jessica Page Morrell “...readers do not need to follow characters through every doorway.” And she's right. But if your character leaps through a worm-hole, best to let the reader know. If your character moves around a lot (think Clive Cussler) an easy way to keep the reader up to speed is a chapter tag. 
    Chapter 10
    June 10th, Birmingham
    No Namby Pamby transition
    My favorite tip comes from author and writing expert Mike Klaassen. He suggests that we let our transitions pull double-duty. In other words, don't just get the reader from A to B, give them a reward for following you there.
    It had been weeks since Karen had seen Mark.
    OK, it works. We know what's going on and that fine. But what if...
    The leaves of the wide oak tree transformed from vibrant green to a gorgeous shade of sunset before falling to the lawn below, but still no sign of Mark.
    Hmmmm...tingly.
    Um...what?
    Sometimes it is effective to transition without a transition. After all, only highly intelligent individuals will be reading the masterpiece each one of us is creating. Riiiight. There's a lot to be said for trusting the reader to make a jump with you, but please be careful. If not done right, your reader is going to feel like their book has a missing page.
    Here's my rule of thumb on this. If, as the writer, you don't know how your character got to where they are, then neither will your reader. If you know, and it makes complete sense, then go for it.
So there you have it, five easy ways to transition your reader. Here is my final thought on the subject. A transition is not an opportunity to info dump on your reader. Just like any other part of a story, character traits, setting and back story need to be woven in small doses. Four paragraphs detailing the landscape of your characters newest location does not a transition make. OK, it does, but don't expect the reader to still be there when you get done.

If you do this right, the first time your reader asks the question “And then?” they'll have reached the end and be begging for more.

I hope you found this useful or entertaining (preferably both). Feel free to share your thoughts on these transition techniques and any others in your toolbox.  Also, please let me know of other topics you'd like to see covered!


Here are some sites I found helpful in writing this week's blog. Enjoy!

8 comments:

  1. Great post. There are so many ways to transition between thoughts or scenes. These are great examples.

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    1. Thanks, Kelly. It's easy to get stuck using our favorites. Sometimes we need to be reminded that there's more than one way to skin a cat.

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  2. Nice post! I'll ditto Kelly. Good luck with you blogging!!

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  3. Great post. And it's funny you're a yankee in Texas. I'm a Texan in Wisconsin. yuck.

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    1. Yeah, I think I got the better end of that trade. :)

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  4. This is kind of random, but I'd like to follow you except you don't have a follower button.

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    1. Beth, on the right side bar you should see a subscribe option and an option to follow by email. Also, there is a follow button on the very top left hand side of the main page.

      Let me know if these options don't work. I'm still fiddling to make this user friendly so I appreciate the feedback.

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