Monday, August 15, 2011

Transitions In A Story

I’m terrible at transitions. They don’t come naturally to me, and are never in my first drafts. As a result, the story kind of clunks and skips along until the end. It’s very annoying.

Once I get that first draft down, I can apply myself and highlight the areas that need smoothing out. Then I can usually figure out how to get rid of those seams.

There are two types of transitions that I can see: between scenes (aka getting your character from one place to the next, either physically or mentally), and chapter endings.

Chapter Endings
Many people have trouble with chapter endings. A lot of writers like to end a chapter on a cliffhanger so as to entice the reader to keep going. That usually works, but most often it’s only effective in the second half of the story. The tension has ratcheted up by then, and there are usually several irons in the fire that have hooked the reader.

But what about the first half of the book? There isn’t as much tension and the reader isn’t as invested in the story, so there isn’t as much incentive to keep reading. So how do we keep the reader interested?

The most common mistake I see writers make is wrapping up a chapter so well that it kills the forward momentum of the story. If there is no hint as to what might happen next, then the book is too easy to set down. When you don’t have a suitable cliffhanger, you can still introduce elements that keep the reader questioning. Or, at the very least, end the chapter with a direction that the main character might take. If the reader has an inkling of what could happen next, then it’ll be harder to put the book down.

Between Scenes
For me, this is harder because there is no rule of thumb. No solid rule of thumb, anyway, since there are so many different kinds of scenes to transition between. I’ll cover the two most common ones here: getting from place to place, and the passage of time.

It’s a bit easier to transition from place to place because you can include the traveling in the story. Especially if the main character needs to mentally sort some things out on the way. If there isn’t a clean way to include the traveling, though, then the simplest way is to describe the new setting. To keep it from sounding like a laundry list, focus on how the new setting affects the character. This does two things: it gives the reader a good visual so he knows where we are, and it also sets the tone for the upcoming scene. Both get the reader prepared in good ways.

The passage of time is a bit trickier. Most often, I see writers continue on with the story as if it’s only the next day, but really an entire week has gone by. Or, the writer throws in a quick sentence telling us how much time has gone by, but it’s not in the most effective place.

Here’s how I see this kind of transition. Before you get into the scene, mention how much time has gone by. If the reader gets several paragraphs into the scene and then you spring on him that a week or a month has gone by, he has to stop the story in his head, mentally adjust, and then try to get back into it. He may even need to reread everything, depending on what kind of reader he is. If he knows from the start how much time has passed, then all of this can be avoided.

I think the easiest way to write the passage of time is at the beginning of a new chapter. At that point, the reader is already expecting some kind of change, so he’ll be open and ready to adjust to whatever you lay out for him. If you slap a few extra weeks into the middle of a chapter, he may or may not be able to roll with it. It depends on the story and scene, of course, since there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing. :)

Anyway, these are, for the most part, what I focus on when I’m smoothing out my transitions. It’s not always this clear cut, but that’s a common circumstance in writing. :) How do you write your transitions?


khashway said...

Chapter endings are my favorite! I love cliffhangers, but I also really like hiking up the tension without the big cliff. You can lead into your MC's worry or imply that things are about the change. That can be just as effective as a cliffhanger.

Danyelle L. said...

Nice layout of transitions. :) I look at writing a chapter ending not so much as leaving it on a cliffhanger, but leaving it with a hook--just like I try to make sure that every chapter beginning has a hook as well. For me, hooks work better than cliffhangers for the reason you stated--the first half of the book doesn't have quite as much tension as the second half.

Laila Knight said...

It's funny you should post this. I was just thinking about this in the shower. When I'm writing there is so much going on in my head that I just want to jot it down as fast as I can. I find that transitioning from scene to scene isn't as easy as it should be. I have to slow myself down and take pity on the reader. It takes a lot of edits. I'm glad I'm not the only one. :)

inluvwithwords said...

As a study one time, I kept a notebook and jotted down transitions from the books I read. It was helpful because when I'm reading, if the transitions are seamless, then you don't really think about them. But looking for them, and writing them down made me notice them, which in turn helped me when writing my own.

Dawn Brazil said...

I love writing my chapter endings and reading others. I love James Patterson and Suzanne Collins use of chapter endings - brilliant. Transitions like moving characters from one place to another is not difficult for me either. Or at least my CP hasn't pointed out anything. :)

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Great suggestions. I like cliffhangers at the end of chapters. They don't have to be huge, just enough to make the reaer want to read one more chapter.

Diane Carlisle said...

Great post! Sometimes when I'm editing, I'll find a sentence or two at the end of a scene, that when I remove them...suddenly, I have a hook! :)

I like the idea of studying transitions in books that I read. I have to try that with the next book I pick up. Never thought about it before.


Krispy said...

Transitions are tricky for me too. So this was a very helpful post! It's usually the passage of time thing that I have trouble with and transitions from scene to scene.