Friday, April 23, 2021

Crafting Stronger Mechanical and Emotional Transitions to Keep Your Reader Turning The Page

I learned about the importance of transitions during my MFA study. One of my thesis advisers, a talented novelist, read my novel-in-progress and liked it but felt my background as a newspaper writer hampered my transitions. "You end each chapter like you would a journalistic piece," she told me. "It's complete, nothing left to push the reader forward into the next chapter."

She was right. As a syndicated newspaper columnist for twelve years, I had been trained to keep my thoughts short and wrap them up with a flourish.

The goal was reader satisfaction, a sense of completion. Closure.

"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."

Duh, I thought. But I had no idea how to accomplish that "no closure" state. I'd been too well trained on the other. So I had to learn.

Maybe you are learning too. One of my students is writing historical fiction. This week he emailed me about transitions. he wants to break his historical chronology by inserting flash forwards from later in the story. It breaks the true timeline of events as they actually happened, but it would create a good transition, he says, setting up the despair that builds at that point in the storyboard.

Another writer had a different "transition" question this week. "Mechanically manipulating the end of my chapters to create stronger transitions feels awkward to me," she said. "Won't the reader see behind this device? How do I make it natural to the story?"

These two questions span the range of types of transitions, as well as the purpose of good transitions. The first writer is asking about the inner transitions--how to set up an emotional outcome by manipulating placement of events, and if that's OK. The second writer is asking about the sheer mechanics of transitions. Both are important questions.

Most writers in revision--and some in early-draft stage--come to a point where they begin to look at all kinds of transitions. Both the small but essential bridges that lead your reader from the end of one scene, one thought, one idea to the next, as well as the larger transitions that provide the emotional or "meaning" outcome you're aiming for.

I'm very respectful of skillfully wrought transitions. Whether within a chapter or between chapters, unless transitions are solid, the reader will choose that moment to set down your book. And maybe never pick it up again.

Not something any writer wants.

Transitions of Chronology
Let's look first at how transitions work in chronology. If you're not deviating from the timeline, if you're not moving into backstory or flashing forward in time, these are the simplest and easiest to write. Chronological transitions are also called time marker: phrases placed at the start of the next scene or chapter to indicate the passage of time, change of location, or change of point of view. In my view, they are also the most obvious (as my student above called "mechanical") and if overused they can be noticed by the reader as a device. They include phrases like: "By Tuesday morning, he . . ." or "Two days later . . . " or "It had only been three weeks since she'd last . . . "

I use these in early drafts as basic orientation. Some writers include epigraphs (notes or quotes or dates at the top of each chapter) to orient: "1989" or "April" or "Monday."

But just remember: 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, as I said, but as I get deeper into revision, I'll try something more sophisticated, less device-obvious. Those are word and image transitions.

Word and Image Transitions
A more natural way to craft a transition is by echoing an image or word used earlier. In The Hours, Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel that tracks the lives of three separate women, he uses the image of yellow roses to transition between their stories and times. 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. Two different time periods, two different narrators. The reader doesn't consciously go, "Oh, yeah, yellow roses again," but the image is registered in the subconscious and a sense of smoothness results. We read on because the tiny bridge is there, making our transition easier.

I love to watch movies to study image transitions. Because the director is playing with setting and movement onstage, there can easily be screenshots that echo images. I remember watching the British romantic comedy, Sliding Doors, with Gwenyth Paltrow, a dozen times to study transitions. The film runs two parallel time tracks and the director skillfully uses certain images whenever we switch. Fascinating to notice and translate to my own writing.

Moving Out of Time via Transitions
If you decide, as my student did, to play with movement out of time, transitions are essential. Epigraphs (dates at the top of the chapter) are very common here. They create the basic time orientation for the reader. But to really cement the emotional purpose of the time backstory or flash forward, a subtler transition is required.

I don't use flash forwards that much myself but I do use flashbacks. Whenever I move within a chapter to backstory, or a memory, I will craft one of the subtler transitions.

Possibly I'll repeat an image, like the yellow roses mentioned above. 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 in her memory. It feels clunky to the writer, but often the reader just has that grounded feeling and moves between the time periods effortlessly.

Is it OK to break your timeline, especially if you're trying to be accurate to real events? Absolutely. As long as you shepherd the reader carefully, using both epigraphs or time markers and the subtler image transition, it won't feel awkward or inaccurate.

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.

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
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. Are you successful with both your time markers and your emotional transitions?

Where are transitions completely missing between your chapters? How can you add them in?

Once you have crafted strong transitions for the chapters, begin working with scenes within the chapters. Each scene within a chapter ("islands" of writing) requires a good transition to keep your reader engaged. Follow the steps above to make sure that happens.

And don't forget to study--watch a favorite movie this week, paying attention to the movement between scenes. How does the director keep you from getting lost?

No comments:

Post a Comment