Friday, April 15, 2011

Making a Transition

Traffic_and_Pedestrians__25_I’m sure that my 14 year old son would like to correct anyone who thinks it’s cool to have a writer for a mom. :)

I was reading through his research paper before he turned it in yesterday. I thought he did an overall great job on it, but there was one thing that grated on me. I tried to mention all the good things first.

“Great job putting the info in your own words!” I said. “You’ve got some really solid paragraphs, too—nice topic sentences and supporting details. And those footnotes! Wow!” I hesitated.

“Okay. So what’s wrong with it?” he asked. He’s a cutting-to the-chase kind of kid.

“It’s choppy. There really aren’t any transitions between your thoughts. You’re presenting the info, but it’s not connected. It’s just sort of jarring.”

Maybe it's not the biggest problem for a research paper, but poor transitioning sure does make for a bumpy read in a novel. It's not fun to be confused or to wonder what's going on when I'm reading a book. Or to be bored by a transition that's too long or not necessary.

Transitions (or lack of them) that pull me out of a story:

Rambling transitions that call attention to themselves (I’ll admit that this is an issue that might be just something that bothers me): The summer’s heat finally gave way to fall’s gentler temperatures. Trees shed their leaves and children packed their bookbags and headed back to class…blah, blah, blahhhhh.

Transitions that are too detailed and follow a character too closely (even when they’re being boring): Clara walked to the door. She opened it and strolled out to her car, thinking about what she’d just heard from her mother. She turned the key in the ignition and slowly backed out of her driveway, checking her mirror. She decided she would go to the grocery store and pick up a gallon of ice cream. At this point I’m really just thinking how boring Clara is and how much I want to escape her company. We could easily have Clara just show up at the store, if that’s where we need to have her: Clara searched the store’s freezer for her favorite flavor of ice cream. “Why haven’t you returned my phone calls, Clara?” asked a grim voice behind her…

Transitions that are too spaced out with no explanation: Two years later, John decided to finally apply for law school. Whaaa? Two years later is fine, but can we get a little hint as to what John was doing? After two years of working construction during the day and delivering pizzas at night, John decided that he’d give law school a try.

No transitions at all…just a jump from one thought to another with total disconnect. And I’m actually having a hard time writing this without transitions because I think it’s pretty difficult to leave them out! John and Clara engaged in desultory conversation at the punch bowl. Clara asked Tina about the Biology homework. Jim asked Clara whether she was going to the soccer game the next day. Bleh. It just feels like these characters are being tossed in there with no set up at all. A simple John and Clara joined Tina and Jim at the punch bowl would have easily set up any future conversation between these people with no choppiness.

Novels need tons of transitions. We need transitions between scenes and between chapters. Even paragraphs need transitions. To me, the more subtle they are, the better. And if we can transport our characters efficiently to their marks onstage, then we’re making our story more exciting in the process.

Interested in more posts on smooth transitions? Here are some of the most popular articles in the Writer’s Knowledge Base on the topic:

Are Your Characters Falling Through Gaps in Your Writing? (Plot to Punctuation)

Transitions: Linking Forward Through the Story (Talk to You Universe)

More on Transitions (Terry’s Place)

How to Work With the 4 Levels of Transition in a Book (How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book)

Transitions (Janice Hardy's blog)

Do transitions trip you up, too? (Yes, my son fixed his…I think he could see how much they were bothering me!)