Secrets of Writing – Transitions

I don’t often write about the craft of writing – there are a lot of people out there a lot better at it than I am, and they can teach it a lot better than I can, too.  But transitions are an aspect of writing I don’t hear discussed a lot, and I think they’re extremely important.

What is a transition?  Simply, transitions are what get the reader from one scene to the next.  You can write books without them, especially if the narrative is heavy on action, or if you’re Kurt Vonnegut.  But even Vonnegut’s best work can be disorienting (even when that’s his intent), with the story jumping back and forth in time, space, and POV.  Good transitions eliminate that disorientation.

Transitions are also how a writer gets characters and readers through narrative sequences where nothing happens, either long periods of time or dull journeys.  You can do this simply, “Seventy-two days later our heroes reached the Castle of Cthulu,” or you can do it with a paragraph or two that sums up the time that has passed.  It all depends on what kind of book you’re writing.  But if you’re writing longer transitions, it’s important to make them as interesting as the rest of the book.  You can do this in many ways – transitions can be descriptive, humorous, insightful, wistful, foreboding, reflective, whatever, just like any other part of the story.  But they have to be there, otherwise the narrative will read like a stack of postcards without any explanation of what’s going on between them.

It took me a while to get the knack of writing a good transition, but, once I did, I found it made the rest of the writing even easier, especially the pacing.

Which is another post entirely.

 

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  1. 1. Mindy Klasky

    Ha! Great post!

    My first (very unpublished – and for good reason!) novel had no transitions – I walked my characters and my poor readers everywhere, from A to B to C, when any sane writer would have jumped straight to D.

    Hard to believe it never sold, huh?

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Butler, if you’re just gonna tease me with those last four lines, I don’t know if this whole published-writer-fan-boy relationship’s gonna make it. Ironically one of the myriad things I learned from (reading) Mr. Vonnegut is importance of not getting too cute with transitions. He said the three *s (spelling?) look like three features of anatomy, (I haven’t the heart to type here).

    Which leads me to Ms. Klasky. You mean I’m not supposed to take you through every moment of the character’s day in a book spanning three months?!

    Kidding.

    Though at first, I was a little too influenced by guys like Robert B. Parker who could write eating cereal into an interesting read. But even his work suffers in pacing and plot.

  3. 3. S.C Butler

    Mindy – I still write A and B and C (it’s a way to get to know the characters). But now I know enough to take them all out!

    Elias – Teasing the reader’s what it’s all about. And I’m not sure what you mean by Vonnegut’s three *s. Care to explain?

  4. 4. Mindy Klasky

    Elias – I once read a book about a society that was literal – their maps were on a 1 to 1 scale, etc… Our stories, with all the details included, would be like that!

  5. 5. Elias McClellan

    @Mr. Butler, okay fine, I went to Google to get the spelling for asterisk. Mr. Vonnegut said that the use of three asterisks to note the passage of time looks like three, um, sphincters, on the page. While I realize that’s a matter of personal preference, I can’t get that image out of my head and I’ve never used that device to note the passage of time.

  6. 6. S.C Butler

    Elias – I wonder when Vonnegut said that. He got weird about some things in his old age. He also stopped writing as well, which is as good a reason to get weird as any.

  7. 7. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Butler, and here I thought writing was the cover for general weirdness. Guess I gotta come up with another cover story. ~Sigh~ Thank you so much for lighting up my day.

  8. 8. Jeff Stover

    To All,

    I’ve found that ignoring Vonnegut’s comments about all things punctuation is healthy; it helps me to write the way I’d like to write. Every time I find his famous “semi-colons are silly” comment somewhere on a quotes page, I wonder if people are merely responding to his quirkiness or actually accepting his bad advice; I say, as do all style-guides in existence, that semi-colons are a viable part of writing the English language. Vonnegut is a great writer, for sure; his influence on me is immeasurable. I like semi-colons, however; I wonder if Kurt rolls in his grave every time I use one.

    Oh, and thanks for the shout-out to transitions, Mr. Butler; we writers can use all the help we can get.

  9. 9. S.C Butler

    Jeff – Semi-colons are a wonderful tool. As are adverbs, which are frequently touted as the soul of bad writing. I’ve always thought that no rule can ever be all-encompassing, and that any rule that claims such is probably wrong.

    That said, I don’t think you can use semi-colons in dialog. Ever. Does anyone speak with semi-colons?

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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