The Art of Transitions

In working with both fiction and non-fiction writers in long form projects (novels, memoirs, non-fiction books), a common theme arises that people don’t give enough thought to, transitions.

By transitions I am generally speaking about the transition from one chapter to the next, one section to the next or one scene to the next. Transitions should be magical connections that give your book the precious commodity known as flow. They are the short paragraphs that can retain the engagement of the reader, prime them for what’s next, or remind them of what we just heard and how it is going to relate going forward. They are invaluable and can make the difference between a good book and a great book.

The problem for writers, especially non-fiction writers who are not following one narrative (although I have seen it in novelists too),  is that sometimes you truly are introducing something very different from your past passage and you can easily lose the reader and sound “all over the place.”  The reader needs to be primed and this can happen in your introductory paragraph on the new subject,  or your preceding concluding paragraph on the last subject, or in both places, but one thing they must not be is clunky or contrived.

The art of great transitions is your use of the English language in an artful way or other fiction techniques to make those necessary and beautiful bridges. You need to pique the interest for the reader so they are ready, willing and able to make a shift with you.

In example, I recently switched some chapters around in my chick-lit styled memoir The Happy Hammock on buying a home in Mexico. I did this for better storytelling effect but had to rewrite the transitions. In this example the book is now leaving a humourous and light section on iguanas, crocodiles and geckos and going into an entirely new scene which is a fight with my husband in the backyard, the underlying cause of which is a powerful emotion.

This is a draft for a new transition to pique the reader’s interest for the next chapter:

“While all the reptilian distraction from our home-buying wait was fun and different, in the evolutionary depths of my own reptilian brain I was registering a deep emotion that was about to surface, fear.”

My tease uses the fun word reptilian to transition a light scene into a heavier one and remind them about the main storyline (home-buying).  This truly primes the reader and makes them say, ohh, I have to know what that’s about.  Such is the art of transitions.  If you go into any well written book you will find them.

And don’t think that it has to be as blunt or humorous as my transition/tease.  You can use other fiction techniques, even if it is non-fiction. In Laura Hillenbrand’s best selling book Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Hillenbrand ends a chapter in which Seabiscuit loses a race in this way:

“It was the first time in his ten-year career that he had been beaten in a photo finish of a stakes race. Howard looked at Seabiscuit. The horse’s head high, and light played in his eyes. He didn’t know he had lost. Howard felt confidence swell in himself once more, ‘We’ll try again,’ he said. ‘Next time we’ll win it.'”

The readers have been reminded that losing has not happened in a long time for team Seabiscuit, but in this slightly fictionalized scene with Howard, Seabiscuit’s owner, Hillenbrand gives the hint that a comeback may be imminent. We want to keep reading to find out what happens next, even if we know the storyline of this famous racehorse of history.  And that’s a great transition.

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