Saturday, January 29, 2011

How to Work with the Four Levels of Transition in a Book: Smoothing the Reader's Ride

Successful transitions allow a reader to move through your book, from beginning to end, without getting frustrated or bored.  Or taking two steps back to reread something that wasn't clear.  But transitions are the last thing we think about when we're creating our books.  It's only when we read the manuscript at draft that we discover awkwardness, sections that jump around, or are too fast or slow.

How does a writer craft good transitions?
How do we bridge  from then and elsewhere, to here and now, manipulating the move from past to present?

Because these little bridges connect one idea and the next in a way that a reader can follow without any stumbles, I wanted to spend this week's discussion on the four levels of transitions.  The goal is to make it easy on the reader, always.  It's a horrible thought that a reader would grow bored and frustrated with your writing, enough to put it down.

Carefully considered transitions avoid any confusion.

The Four Levels of Transitions
In most books, transitions exist on four levels.  We need to honor the sequence of how we approach them, as we're planning, writing, and developing our books.

The first and most important level of transitions is addressed during the planning stage of a book--when you are writing the "islands" or scenes, then storyboarding them into a logical sequence for a reader.  If you don't create strong transitions between the large elements in your story, such as how someone gets from here to there, the reader will probably put down the book.  People like being intrigued.  But they hate being confused.

So how are you structuring your overall movement of your book's plot/theory/idea/journey?  How will your journey move from the opening chapter's quest or question to the ending chapter's resolution or next step?

If you're at this stage, pre-first draft, and you'd like more information on how to manage it, go to the Search box at the top right corner of this page and type in "storyboard."  You'll get a lot of past posts where I discuss the structuring process, the big picture, and its necessary transitions. 

Level Two:  Chapters
The second level of transitions in a book is the smaller movement that takes place between one chapter's ending and the next chapter's beginning.  I loved the insights I gained on this during my M.F.A. program.  One of my advisers asked me if I wanted to finish each chapter with a sense of closure or did I want the reader to keep reading into the next chapter, unable to put my book down.  Well, that was a no brainer.  Of course I wanted a page turner.  She suggested, then, that I break my habit of closure.  Don't wind up everything at the end of a chapter.  Leave a hook, an unfinished situation, a new dilemma.

Being a 12-year veteran of writing weekly newspaper columns, this was kinda hard for me.  So I did it very slowly, like untangling a skein of yarn.  I worked through my manuscript and untied the beautiful knots I'd created.  And, lo and behold, it made a huge difference.

I still have the emails and letters from readers:  "I stayed up all night reading your book."   

Level Three:  Paragraphs
So you've got your chapters flowing pretty nicely.  The overall book is working.  Then comes the moment when you get a nudge to look at the smaller parts within each chapter.  Are they even connected?  As one reader from Minnesota wrote me recently:  "I have been making a steady progress with my memoir, and realizing now that I am in desperate need of good paragraph transitions."

Well-crafted paragraph transitions create a seamless ride.  Simply, you look at the last sentence of the paragraph and the first sentence of the following one and ask yourself, What image carries?  If there is no strong transition, create a carrying-through of image.  As easy as inserting one or two words to make it smooth, as in the example below ("But summer passed" and "still" make the transition):

End of paragraph 1:  "John knew he'd have to make some changes by the end of the summer."
Beginning of paragraph 2:  "But summer passed, and he was still standing behind the cash register at the hardware store."

This transition works on a fairly obvious, outer level--marking time passing.  Not only that but this transition repeats the word summer.  So it creates a bridge for the reader on two levels, both very accessible.  I like making these kinds of edits in my writing when I am first working on the paragraph transitions.  I look at each paragraph in a chapter, especially one where a lot happens or we move around in time and space, and I insert this kind of obvious transition.  Then, after I feel the movement is quite easy to follow, I'll go back and remove some.  Make things more subtext, less obvious.

Level Four:  Language
The final arena of transitions in a book relies on image, or language.  This is the most subtle work a writer does, but often the most fun too.

Your images create a immense undercurrent in your book.  They aren't something to play with too much early on, but later, at revision, you can develop them to weave more closely with your book's "inner story," or meaning.  They are subtext, the undercurrent that we sense rather than the outer river we see.

I revel in these when I read literature where the writer has paid close attention to language transitions.  Recently I finished Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, and the image of the tightrope-walker threads through all the lives of the characters, but not just outwardly as they marvel at his feat.  Also, inwardly, because each of these people is walking an intense tightrope in their own lives.

Study this in your favorite books.  Note how the writer weaves a recurring image, or how the language feels like a unified painting no matter where we are in the story.  Because this level of transition work only happens when there is coherence in the type of language, or voice, or style of writing chosen for the book as a whole.  You must be using a similar voice (type of words--academic, playful, lyrical?) throughout to be able to use this subtler level of transitions and be successful.  The reader can follow you if the language carries it.

How does a writer work with this in her own book?  First, locate one strong image that could recur in many forms.  A bowl of oranges in the center of a kitchen table on the day of a funeral, for instance.  Maybe time passes, and the image repeats as the orange of a sari at a secret meeting.  What images repeat in your writing, that you could play with?   

This Week's Writing Exercise1.  Print out a chapter or a section and read it out loud, loud enough to be able to hear your own voice reading the words.  This is key; it brings a level of detachment that moves you from the writer's to the reader's viewpoint.

2.  With a yellow highlighter, mark any place where the transitions feel awkward.

3.  Ask yourself at what level the transition needs work:  on the larger structuring level?  on the chapter to chapter transition?  on the paragraph or word level?

4.  See what you can do to smooth out the bumpy ride.