Philosophy of Writing – 4 – Transitions

Posted on October 10, 2011 by


In Between by Amy Stein

In Between, From the “Domesticated” series

I have a troubling habit.

When I write I’m often consumed by the need to get from one narrative location to the next through recital of banal happenstance. I invent scenes to fill the gap between coordinates on my character’s path. The only reason these passages exist is because I feel like I can’t cheat readers out of a good transition.

Let me enlighten you: my habit is to assume that a transition must necessarily involve a gradual movement from one place to another. I’m frightened that I’ll lapse into summary.

But readers, like infants, are simultaneously robust and delicate. They don’t like being confused, but they’ll accept and memorise entire screeds of made-up rules in the formation of a sci-fi universe. They’ll identify with an entirely unbelievable, unrealistic character, but will get snippy if that character’s psychology is inconsistent.

A good transition is not by necessity a gradual transition: readers will not tolerate tedium, but will happily skip months of time in a single well-written paragraph.

1) provide a red thread — A theme that is present throughout the text provides a bridge between dissimilar passages. Let’s say you’re one of those college visionaries who insists on writing a thinly veiled autobiographic bildungsroman because you just love Bret Easton Ellis without actually understanding his work. The red thread that graces your tedious metafictional manifesto is, more likely than not, your disenfranchisement due to sex and various other brain-affecting substances, the feeling that your vast potential is being wasted by modern society, the resultant hollowness inside you.

2) end the chapter — Each chapter is a short story. Two plot points can’t coexist if they require a lot of pointless dross in between.

3) good stuff chauvenism — Your plot is mostly crap. You write it as fast as possible to get to the good stuff. Your book is now a crap book with a fun ending. Why must you torture yourself? Why must you torture your readers? Distinguish between tedium and laziness. Tedium is death to a book, a writer, readers all; laziness reserves its malice for the writer alone. When you’re a workaholic and still the words stretch endlessly in front of you, consider writing only good stuff.

4) not what you say, how you say it — Put plot point A and plot point B together on a page. Edit the paragraphs on the border such that they resemble each other linguistically: similar allegorical devices, syntax, word choice, tone, cadence.

5) contrast provides interest — My English teacher in secondary school used the word “juxtaposition” so much it became her nickname. You don’t have to tell us how a drunk person got home; just compare the bar to his house.

6) buck up, dear creature — Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible to write a transition without using transitional language. Please think twice before using phrases like, “he thought about how different it was when,” and when you’re done thinking, delete those phrases.

Like everything else in creative writing, the best choice depends on individual circumstances and artistic preferences, and the most important tools at your disposal are practice, reading a lot, and a competent editor.