Are our transition paragraphs really transition paragraphs?

So we think we’re writing a transition paragraph

Mike Klaassen compiled an excellent article on transitions in fiction writing for which he culled the best thoughts from Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines; Gary Provost, Beyond Style; Les Edgerton, Hooked; Evan Marshall, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing; and Jordan E. Rosenfeld, To Make a Scene. It was published May, 25, 2009, and can be found via “Transition Mechanics how to Fiction Writing.” I recommend it and am borrowing from it for this article.

He opened his article with Jessica Page Morrell.

According to Jessica Page Morrell in Between the Lines, transitions are the words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs used to bridge what has been said or has happened with what is going to be said or will happen. “Transitions aid the seamless unfolding of stories,” notes Morrell, “yet it’s downright shocking how often writers neglect to use them.”

Jessica’s last sentence is why I’m writing this today. I’ve realized I not only neglect using transitions, but remain unskilled in creating good transitions. “Downright shocking” is an understatement. For this article I’m referring, specifically, to transition paragraphs.

Should your readers, like mine, fail to catch on to the simplest facts you’ve set before them, then you too may be negligent in writing adequate transition paragraphs.

For instance, my two opening paragraphs to The God Stone, chapter 4, created immense confusion.

After a seven-day march, their route across the sands gauged by the stars, by the gait of a camel, and by the numerous fantasies that come to men on camel rides, Evan, Rif and Adar entered the Taghaz. At Yellow Jar Spring, where the Taghazis wintered their horses, they picked up Zarifa, Evan’s Arabian mare, Rif’s falcon and three racing camels, all female.

Evan rode with Zarifa — who disliked camel smell — on a lead several camel lengths ahead. Deep into his latest fantasy, he was no longer swaying upon his camel’s hump, but bouncing behind the wheel of Trooper Bigg’s jeep, eating the miles in piston-hammering, sand-spewing bursts of speed. A buxom redhead sat beside him, clutching her sunhat, her décolletage freckling attractively. When she expressed motherly concern, he replaced her with a cowgirl with C cups straining the buttons of a white shirt, her waist cinched with a wide leather belt, a six-shooter in her holster. Her hat had blown off. She stood, holding onto the top of the windscreen. Her skirt was tight…

Seven readers who write—and write well—read these two paragraphs and made these comments:

Reader 1. “I can’t place where these 3 characters are in space. E’s in the jeep; A and R are riding alongside on camels, right? or in front of?”

Reader 2. “I’m wondering what happened to the cowgirl with C cups. Did she fall behind, or — and then the other woman??”

Reader 3. “Hard to keep up with this… My caution here is that — especially at beginnings — be careful not to make it hard to read your work.”

Reader 4. “Three racing camels – they must be in a hurry.”

Reader 5. “You have established the fact you switch characters between Julianne and Evan but even though we as readers know this, it might be stretching things a bit (certainly in the mind of the ornery pronoun critter) by beginning the chapter with a pronoun without a proper noun in front.”

Reader 6. “I actually went back to the second chapter to see where we left Evan The irony was not lost on Evan as he started back for the Taghaz to investigate the imaginings of the British Intelligence Service in Cairo. Seems a big jump to suddenly have the shift to a long march in the desert and with different characters.”

Reader 7. “’with Zarifa’ should be closer to ‘on a lead’ I think, to avoid confusion that Zarifa is riding with him. Though I’d just read the name in the previous para, I looked back to see if Zarifa was a person.”

All information necessary to understanding these two paragraphs is in these paragraphs, yet each reader—and I must say again, they are sophisticated readers—said things like this: “can’t place,” “I’m wondering,” “hard to keep up with this,” “character confusion,” “seems a big jump to suddenly … shift.”  Some lay the blame on complex sentences, but it belongs more squarely on inadequate transition.

From a Brigham Young University handout:

Transitions enhance clarity and create coherence; they tell a reader how ideas, paragraphs, and sentences relate to each other. Transitions also enhance the continuity of writing, creating a flow of ideas from paragraph to paragraph and from sentence to sentence.”

Transitional clues, according to Morrell, “let the readers know how much time has elapsed since they last spent time with the viewpoint character, where he is presently located, and other vital information needed to resume that part of the story.”

In the following excerpt from his article on transitions, Mike Klaasen refers to what may be Morrell’s most significant statement.

Morrell states that “Crafting transitions might not make you feel like a creative genius, and it doesn’t qualify as one of the captivating parts of storytelling, but it reveals your respect for your reader.” However, she also ads a caution: “Transitions are your way of showing courtesy to reader, but do not imagine your reader is an intellectual invalid.” Effective transitions balance the need to be courteous to the reader, while at the same time trusting the reader to “get it,” to “fill in the blanks” where necessary.

Ah, again the old writer’s rub: judgment. How do we know when we’ve achieved an optimal balance? I figure we’ll have struck it when our reader is neither confused nor bored. We’ll have struck it when we can write transitional paragraphs like the opening paragraph to Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip.

At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Plunging toward the dark Atlantic, Joey was too dumbfounded to panic.

 I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves. 

Within Skinny Dip we also find this second-paragraph chapter opening, another stunning example of transition.

Not even nine in the morning and already Tool was sweating off the fentanyl patches. To cool down, he removed his boots and overalls, then chugged a liter of Mountain Dew that he’d picked up at the Circle K on Powerline. Fiddling with the radio, he miraculously located a decent country station. Shania Twain was singing about how much fun it was to be a woman, though Tool couldn’t see how that could be true. Just about every female he’d ever known, starting with his mother, seemed perpetually pissed off at the human race. Or could be it was just me in particular, Tool thought.

Here’s a classic transition paragraph from Joseph Kanon’s Los Alamos, a chapter opener.

The drought had brought summer early and with it one of the electrical storms that usually waited for July. Outside Weber’s house, Connolly could see the giant dark anvil of a thunderhead rolling toward the mesa, the sky crackling with branches of lightning that shot through the air like X-rays, leaving an inverted image on the eye. Inside an Indian maid was refilling the coffee urn, edging her way through the crowded living room. Despite the absentees down at the test site, the room was full, the low thunder outside barely audible over the noise of the party voices. Nothing seemed to have changed. Kitty Oppenheimer was again curled up in a corner of the sofa, while Johanna Weber scurried about, playing her hostess memory trick. The air was close, warm with bodies, and Connolly, bored and beginning to sweat, had been there only a few minutes before he began planning an escape. Weber came to his rescue, asking him to fetch Eisler from his lab.

Compare again my opening paragraph for The God Stone, chapter 4:

After a seven-day march, their route across the sands gauged by the stars, by the gait of a camel, and by the numerous fantasies that come to men on camel rides, Evan, Rif and Adar entered the Taghaz. At Yellow Jar Spring, where the Taghazis wintered their horses, they picked up Zarifa, Evan’s Arabian mare, Rif’s falcon and three racing camels, all female.

Unlike the Hiaasen and Kanon paragraphs, it is an unabridged exposition paragraph, not a transition paragraph. It plods like the camels and the mare. It contains no memorable or arresting information. Contains nothing closely personal or provocative about Evan, Rif and Adrar. It contains nothing that reminds reader of what these characters were doing in their last chapter. It contains no character information or characteristic that helps identify these characters. It does not set mood. It contains no element of conflict, potential or present. It does not imply a need or an approaching scene goal for the characters. As Sergeant Joe Friday of the old Dragnet radio program might say, “It’s just the facts, mam, just the facts.”

Emotionless, colorless, non-referencing, non-stirring, non-bridging, non-indicative-of-things-past-and things-to-come facts do not make a good transition paragraph.

Next Post: How Professionals Write Good Transition Paragraphs