A couple of weeks ago, before I got sidetracked with explaining the small press contract (which I updated. It does cost $35.00 to list a copyright. Oops. But still cheap!), I had a writer friend say to me (paraphrasing here): I have trouble with transitions. Too many? Needs a text break? Chapter break? How do you do them with the proper finesse? How do you avoid the word *then*?
First, a definition:
1. Passage from one form, state, style, or place to another.
2. a. Passage from one subject to another in discourse. b. A word, phrase, sentence, or series of sentences connecting one part of a discourse to another.
3. Music a. A modulation, especially a brief one. b. A passage connecting two themes or sections.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
There is no cut and dried way to do a transition, except for using as few then(s) as possible. (As in, He went to the river and fished. Then he drove home.). I always do a then search and if I have more than ten in a manuscript, I start cutting, but that’s my own personal rule, not something hard and fast. Whatever rules there are, we at MW like to say, if it works, do it. No one way works for every writer, or even for every story. With my own transitions, I follow no hard fast rules. Sometimes I do a chapter break in the middle of an action scene, sometimes at the end. Sometimes I transition with a text break, sometimes I use a phrase to indicate the transitional change.
I am not musically minded, but I like the musical definition as it might be applied to the written word:
I sent my friend a few of my own transitional devices, from my 2010 book BloodCross, with explanations and observations, and thought I’d share them here with you guys.
This scene did not need a text break for transition. I just used the word *downstairs*:
Downstairs, while I sipped hot tea, I put my silvered chain-mail collar on over the gold-nugget and chain necklace I never took off, added a couple more crosses, tied and strapped on my new steel-toed boots, and a thick denim jacket I’d picked up in a shop catering to farmers to replace the leather jacket lost in my last vamp fight. Another was on order, but until it arrived, denim would have to do. I holstered my big-ass shotgun across my back. I tugged on my hair to make sure it was difficult to grab. Long hair made a handy-dandy handle to pull in a fight, and once an opponent had it, the fight was over. Rapists and vamps like victims with long hair. Makes them easy to control. I could cut it, but I’d never shifted with short hair and didn’t know if that would alter the process.
There were actually several transitions in the above segment. The first paragraphs are an emotional transition conveyed in dialogue, internal and external. Then the physical transition. Frankly, if I had to write that passage again, I’d to it differently, especially the part: “And you know we’ve had . . . trouble lately. My kind aren’t exactly popular.” But the book is already in print and hindsight for writers is a cruel master.
Shouting, I called into the darkness, “I’m looking for Derek Lee, ex-marine, if a marine can ever be called ex. Did two tours in Afghanistan, one in Iraq.”
My voice echoed in the night. From a house behind me, I heard the distinctive sh-thunk of a bolt-action rifle being readied for firing.
Have Stakes, Will Travel
In one of Bitsa’s tiny rearview mirrors, I saw a slice of light followed by a pinpoint of red. A laser-targeting sight. Crap. The killing spot between my shoulder blades began to itch. So I got louder, raised my voice as thunderous as I could. “Derek told me he thought he’d be safe when he came home to the United States. Instead, he found his neighborhood was full of blood-sucking vamps. He had to go back to war just to keep his family out of harm’s way. So I’m looking for Derek. He knows me as Injun Princess.” I didn’t necessarily love the nickname, but it seemed to amuse Derek.
[End of segment]
I didn’t have to do the break this way. I could have waited until the next page and a break in the action. There’s no right way. This one just suited me. I liked the intense emotion of having Jane with a laser sight on her back. It was like a slap in the face. It made me want to turn the page and keep reading. There is the additional thought that, since some readers have time limits on their reading and set goals to stop at chapter breaks, well, maybe now they won’t be able to keep that goal and will keep on reading. This is a bit of stylistic pacing that I like, and that a lot of writers use.
Out on the street, the muggy wind in my teeth, I shuddered hard. When I went into vamp headquarters and came out alive, I felt as if I had fought a battle and survived. Not won it. Just survived it. And for some reason that I couldn’t name, this trip had been worse than the last.
Golden Eyes, My Daughter
Back at home, I slipped through the ward, which was keyed to me in some arcane way that Molly had tried to explain one time and which I had totally not understood. After locking away the weapons so the kids couldn’t find them, I stripped, showered, and fell into bed. Beast had wanted me to shift so she could roam until sunrise, but I needed sleep. Once on the mattress, however, I couldn’t relax, seeing again and again the tiny fangs hinge down, like baby teeth in a human. Most of the time it was easy dispatching a rogue, but watching this young rogue rise in her stained party dress, and then seeing her eyes bleeding back to humanity as she died, had left a bad taste in my mouth; I felt shaken by the experiences of the night, dirty almost. I needed . . . cleansing. I rolled over on the mattress, knowing it was time to do something I’d been putting off for a long while.
[End of segment]
There are multiple transitions at the end of chapter 2. The first one is the emotional, locational, and physical action in the next to the last para. 1.) Jane realized and accepted that she had been politely insulted. She was polite about it with her Thank you reply. 2.) At the door, she gave a different kind of send off, based on a different kind of character she was associating with. I ended with the word left.
There is a certain finality in the last para and the last line of chapter 2. 1.) Jane walked away from chapter 2 glad to be alive, which makes us open to new experiences. And sometimes makes us reflect on our own mistakes. 2.) This trip had been worse than the last. Last is the last word. It is an unconscious indication that there will be a major transition, in this case, in location, emotion, and even the tone, with the AmIn-sounding chapter title.
This post was starting to run too long, so I’ll stop here and pick back up next week, Tuesday the 23rd, rather than my regular day. However, that said, I like my original last para so much that I want to use it here, even though I’ll be reusing it next week too. Why? Because the best transitions do more than one thing, which I’ll illustrate next week. For now, you can read back over the previous examples if you want, and see what else the transitions accomplished. Some of them are subtle. Some of them only do singular duty.
Most transitions should be sans then. Transitions that do double duty (triple? more?) are my favorite kind of transitions, but all transitions work like a mountain river as it flows downstream. The goal (if you believe that water is alive and has goals) is to get to the bottom of a mountain, to transition from the top of a range, to a lake, and then to the sea. But it has other goals too. It is a passageway for migrating fish. It carries away animal waste. It allows rain to find an outlet and not sit on top of the ground creating swamps. It (unwittingly) makes transportation up- and downstream for humans and animals. It makes great kayak runs. J It carves the mountain away, exposing and even moving rocks and boulders, undercutting banks and trees as it reshapes the landscape. It feeds and waters the Earth. It changes things. And that is what a good transition does. It changes things.