"Closure is the last thing you want in the middle of a book," my adviser said. "You want to keep your readers turning the page."
Transitions of Chronology
These are the simplest and easiest to write--but not always useful unless you stay in strict time sequence in your scenes. Chronological transitions are phrases like these, placed in the next scene or chapter to indicate the passage of time, change of location, or change of point of view: "By the next morning, he . . ." or "Two days later . . . " or "It had only been three weeks since she'd last . . . "
Chronological transitions can feel clunky to the reader after a while. They are like reading a chart of time passing, unless done well. I use these, but sparingly. More often, I play with word and image transitions.
Word and Image Transitions
A simple way to transition is to repeat an image or word. In The Hours, Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel that tracks the lives of three separate women, he uses the image of yellow roses. In one scene, yellow roses are being arranged in a vase for a party; in another, they are being piped on the top of a birthday cake. The reader doesn't consciously go, "Oh, yeah, yellow roses again," but the image is registered and a sense of smoothness results. We note it subconsciously and read on because the tiny bridge is there, making our transition easier.
Whenever I move within a chapter to backstory, or a memory, I will craft a transition. Possibly I'll repeat an image, like the yellow roses. One scene might have oranges on the table in a bowl, and the character or narrator as a child is staring at the strange light playing across them. The next scene might have someone juicing those oranges the next morning.
Senses are another excellent way to transition. Say you are writing a book set in a doctors' offices. What is common to these? The paper on the exam table (repeat the feel of it under the skin, the crackle as you slide). The antiseptic smell. The well-used copies of Outside or People magazine that feel so worn as you turn the pages. The cold air.
You would choose one of these and see if you can repeat it. Use it in one scene, then again in a slightly different way in the next, to create the transition. Smells and sounds are particularly strong transitions in a reader's subconscious.
Dialogue or Gesture Transitions
You can also use repeated dialogue or gestures. Lighting a cigarette, coughing, picking at a torn cuticle, or a certain phrase repeated--these are embedded as transition in so many books! We readers, again, don't necessarily notice them, but don't think they are placed by accident. Skilled writers work hard at this.
Object of Obsession Transitions
If a certain object--in my last novel, Qualities of Light, a stolen jackknife--becomes the object of obsession in your book, carry it through as a transition tool. Repeat mention of, or a sensory note about, this object as you move between chapters and from present time to backstory. The reader will feel the smoothness of this repetition back and forth through time.
Beware of using the same language each time, though. Brainstorm ten ways to describe aspects of this object, for instance. Jackknife had "sharpness," "cutting edge," "shiny steel," and other descriptors. I didn't always say the word jackknife, but when I used these knife-like images, it created the transition.
Transitions, when first created, may have a mechanical feel. As if you are manipulating the language and it will be obvious to readers. This is where feedback comes in handy. I felt my transitions were awkward and obvious when I first wrote them in, but my editors loved them.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1. Make a list: read the current ending of each chapter and the beginning of the next, and note key images, words, objects, gestures, or dialogue you have in place that could serve as a transition.
2. Do any transitions already exist--aside from time chronology? How can you strengthen them?
3. Where are transitions completely missing between your chapters? How can you add them in?
Once you have crafted strong transitions for the chapters, begin work within the chapters. Each scene within a chapter ("islands" of writing) requires a good transition to keep your reader engaged.