I have been wanting to post about transitions for ages now, and I haven’t been sure how to approach the subject. Faith has posted about them before — a pair of posts that you can read here and here — and she did a masterful job of talking about using prose to smooth us through those moments mid-chapter when we need to relocate a character or show the passage of time in a way that does not upset the flow of narrative and that does not rely on clunky crutches. What I want to talk about is a little different: Today we’re going to focus on chapter breaks and how to make the most of them.
Let me start with a definition: A transition in a book or story is pretty much any passage or device that bridges moments of discontinuity in our writing. Changes in time, changes in setting, changes in point of view character, even changes in mood. In our own lives, our transitions are gradual and fairly easy to manage. Time is linear; when we change locations we are aware of it; and if we are changing point of view — well, that’s between us and our psychiatrists. But in writing, transitions allow us to skip stuff that might not be interesting to our readers and focus on the scenes that further our narratives. In an age of 100,000 word novels and leaner storylines, our transitions are more important than ever. The problem, of course, is that every book is different, and so the best I can do is tell you how I handle different sorts of transitions in my own work. Your own transitions will be as unique and idiosyncratic as your characters, your plotline, and your settings.
As I say, I’m going to focus on the transitions that coincide with chapter breaks, because to my mind they are more than just shifts in scene; they are actually opportunities to propel your narrative forward. That seems counter-intuitive in a way — how can a break in the narrative propel it forward? But the truth is, handled well, such breaks actually help with pacing and flow. There are of course different kinds of chapter transitions, and I’ll discuss a few of them here using examples from my books.
1) The Cliffhanger: This type of transition works best in books that have multiple point of view characters and, usually, multiple plot threads. One of the challenges of writing such a book is maintaining several storylines at once and keeping them roughly synchronized. Ideally, you want your various story threads to appear to be happening simultaneously, and so you will find yourself leaving off with one set of characters and circumstances to check in with another. But of course you don’t want to leave your characters just anywhere. Rather, you want to leave your readers breathless at the end of each scene desperate to know more. As a reader, when I’m engrossed in a book by an author who handles these sorts of transitions well, I often find myself almost getting angry with the author for cutting away from a certain character. That is, until I realize after about two sentences in this new point of view that I have been really eager to get back to this storyline as well. Here’s an example from Bonds of Vengeance, the third book in my Winds of the Forelands quintet.
He couldn’t see for the fire in his limbs, the pulsing anguish screaming in his mind. Magic could save him; he knew that. He could heal his mangled limbs. He could turn his attacker’s power back on itself. He could shatter bones and burn flesh. He was a Weaver, and all of these magics were his. But pain held him as if iron shackles, denying him his strength and his will.
“I’ve bested a Weaver,” a voice said, seeming to come from a great distance.
And as the words echoed in his head, like the tolling of far off bells, Grinsa sensed the man gathering his power one last time to strike the killing blow.
A voice in his mind — Brienne’s perhaps, or his mother’s — screamed at him that this was folly, that he was racing headlong to his death. But still Tavis ran, his eyes fixed on the assassin. He was vaguely aware that Grinsa was no longer with him and he felt certain that this was important somehow. But he didn’t stop to think it all through. The singer fled, and Tavis pursued.
Notice that there are parallels between the passage in Grinsa’s point of view and the one in Tavis’s. The tolling bells in Grinsa’s mind are echoed, if you will, in the warning voices in Tavis’s, smoothing the transition, tying one storyline to the next. Readers will be (I hope) desperate to know what happens to Grinsa, but it shouldn’t take long for Tavis’s pursuit, his race toward death to draw them in to that thread. As a result, these transitions propel the story forward — every transition is both a plot point that ratchets up the tension of the story AND a temporary deferral of satisfaction that keeps the reader turning the page.
2) The Time Warp: Dealing with gaps in time can be a difficult challenge for any writer. As I mentioned above, in life we deal with the boring moments between dramas and important events because they are simply what comes next. But if we were writing the story of our own lives in novel form we might skip the boring commute home and just transition between the confrontation with our boss at work and the romantic dinner with our spouse at home. Those are the salient events, the plot points, as it were. And in our novels we need to find a way to bridge them that not only maintains narrative tension but actually enhances it. Another example, this one from The Horsemen’s Gambit, the middle volume of my Blood of the Southlands trilogy.
“What if you’re right and we were more united than we’ve been at any time since? What if the Eandi of that time were so united that they were even willing to fight alongside the Mettai?”
He stared at her. “The Mettai,” he said, the word coming out as softly as a breath.
Tirnya nodded. “The Mettai. What if we succeeded in those early days of the wars because like the white-hairs we didn’t only carry weapons into battle, we carried magic as well?”
She didn’t wait for his answer. She stood, drained her cup, and spun away from the table.
“Where are you going?” Enly called after her.
“Home,” she said over her shoulder. “I need to speak with my father.”
Jenoe’s reaction was not quite what Tirnya had expected. The breathless, wide-eyed whisper she had drawn from Enly, the quickened pulse and rush of excitement she had felt herself — these, or some variation, were what she also expected from her father.
Instead, he merely stared back at her, appearing somewhat perplexed, and said, “The Mettai?”
Notice that I don’t bother to say anything about her walk home or even to repeat the progression of the conversation that first leads to Tirnya’s epiphany about the Mettai. By having her father repeat “The Mettai,” I again create parallels that link the previous scene to the new one. But by changing the tone of voice, changing it to a question, I make it clear that the plot has taken a twist, that the logic that seemed so clear to Tirnya and Enly is lost on Tirnya’s father. This is an important point in the book, and using that chapter break, I manage to take a fairly large forward step in the span of less than 200 words.
3) The Beat: In this case “beat” refers not to violence or music, but that moment in a conversation when everything pauses, when the world seems to shift. This is a transition that actually goes nowhere at all, but rather emphasizes a key moment, allowing the reader time to go “Wow! That is so cool!” before reading on. Sometimes, a scene is too long for a single chapter. Knowing where to insert that chapter break can be tricky. The beat gives you that perfect insertion point. You let the reader pause, but you do so at a place that actually raises the bar in terms of excitement and tension, so that in the end the chapter break actually has the effect of making your reader want to read on. Here’s an example from Thieftaker (which, for those who haven’t heard, will be released on July 3rd. That’s right: You can celebrate the July 4th holiday by going back in time to Colonial Boston! But I digress…)
A few men stood at the bar, mugs of ale in their hands. Ethan had heard conversations while coming down to the pub, but all of them ceased when he walked in. The men simply stared at him, their expressions far from welcoming.
Ethan stared back. Up on the street, in the light of day, he had considered this a fine idea. Down here in the inconstant gloom, he was having second thoughts.
“My name is Ethan Kaille,” he finally said. “I want to speak with those who led the demonstrations of three nights past.”
At first, no one answered. But then a single figure stepped away from the bar, a tankard of ale in his hand. He was about Ethan’s height and age, and he stood straight-backed, his pale blue eyes meeting and holding Ethan’s gaze. He wore a simple white shirt and black breeches, a red waistcoat and a powdered tie wig.
“Good day, Mister Kaille,” he said in a ringing voice. “We’ve been expecting you. My name is Samuel Adams.”
Adams walked to where Ethan stood, and proffered a hand, which Ethan gripped.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Mister Kaille,” he said, a disarming smile on his ruddy face. “I’ve heard a good deal about you.”
“And every man in Boston hears a good deal about Samuel Adams.”
This is the first time we meet Adams. And prior to the moment the man speaks, my readers have no idea who it is Ethan has gone to see. It almost doesn’t matter what comes after the chapter break; anyone with any curiosity at all about where the story is headed will eagerly turn the page. And, again, that’s exactly what I want.
This post is already running longer than I would have liked, so I’m going to hold off on offering more examples. There are, of course, other uses of the chapter break transition, other ways to use those breaks in the narrative to up the tension and accelerate the plot. But let’s talk about these for now. What sorts of transitions do you prefer as a reader? What kind give you the most trouble as a writer?David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net