Transition Paragraphs: What they are and how to write them

Elements and goals of good transition paragraphs.

“Transitions aid the seamless unfolding of stories, yet it’s downright shocking how often writers neglect to use them.” — Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines

Good transition paragraphs are so multifaceted that the novice writer often doesn’t recognize them in terms of function and, not grasping their function or existence as a specific kind of paragraph, cannot write them.

If we don’t understand the purpose and craft of good transition paragraphs, we’ve most likely opened our chapters and sections with hodgepodges of facts, backstory, characters, generalities, description, action, or throat-clearing riffs on topics that are not organic to our story. Or, we’ve taken the minimalist approach and written something like “The men buried Jake and moved on.” Yes, it’s clean and easy to read, but it does not serve the function of re-immersing the reader in the story world and, if second and third paragraphs are as minimalist as the first, the chapter or section opening fails to establish the fundamentals of good scene: character, place, mood, motivation, conflict, goal.

A good transition paragraph is like a Hindu deity with multiple arms — it multi-tasks. Its selection of tasks are, however, transition specific.

By definition, a transition paragraph “transits, bridges, links, connects” events of scene or scenes past to the scene about to unfold. A good transition paragraph or paragraphs — for a writer often uses two or three to smoothly open a new chapter — do not leave the reader confused or asking, “Wha? Wha?” Good transition paragraphs do not leave the reader leafing back through a past chapter to figure out what is happening. Good transition paragraphs keep the reader “in the know” and fully involved in the story.

Like every good paragraph, transition paragraphs are focused and develop or expand one topic.

Although the basic elements of good transition paragraphs are Who, When, Where, What and sometimes Why, the five W’s in practice are overly simplistic. Good transition paragraphs are designed to accomplish most and sometimes all of the following goals:

  1. Expand the story moment so the reader lingers, makes the connection between story past and story about to unfold and becomes fully immersed in the story.
  2. Establish mood.
  3. Establish time of day, season and/or year.
  4. Establish context or scene circumstances.
  5. Allude to element(s) from story past, connect the old to the new.
  6. Allude to the story’s theme or controlling idea.
  7. Establish or imply motivation and goal, what is to follow; i.e., forward the story.
  8. Introduce scene characters.
  9. Re-identify characters for the reader via character-specific clues.
  10. Introduce conflict.
  11. Progress a character(s) through a sequence of time, space, emotion, or motivation.
  12. Bring the reader into the “here and now” of the story.
  13. Employ repetitions that set the author’s desired impression in the reader’s mind.
  14. Employ not generalities, but details.
  15. Employ transitions and transition devices.
  16. Leave the reader with a story question.

Look at how bestselling authors employ them.

Joseph Kanon, 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.

This paragraph focuses on Connolly’s impressions during his first minutes at Weber’s house and contains all 16 elements of a good transition paragraph:

  1. It lingers at the scene outside and inside Weber’s house, allowing the reader time to experience and assimilate these moments in the character’s life.
  2. It establishes mood – threatening — with the electrical storm.
  3. It establishes season: summer.
  4. It establishes context: party at Weber’s house.
  5. It alludes to previous gathering: “Nothing seemed to have changed…”
  6. It alludes to the theme or controlling idea, the Manhattan Project, the creation of the atomic bomb.
  7. It’s light on motivation and goal for Connolly, but does leave him with this goal: “… fetch Eisler from his lab.”
  8. It introduces characters and scene circumstances.
  9. It re-identifies characters: “Kitty Oppenheimer was again curled up…”
  10. It contains conflict: “Connolly, bored and beginning to sweat, … began planning an escape.”
  11. It moves Connolly from outside the house to inside and through the characters to emotion and motivation, “boredom.”
  12. It brings the reader into the here and now of the scene about to unfold. Connolly will or will not find Eisler.
  13. It contains mood/weather repetitions: sentence 1. “… electrical storms … “, sentence 2. … “dark anvil of a thunderhead …” , sentence 3. … “the low thunder outside …”,
  14. It is all detail. No generalities.
  15. Several sentences contain transition devices, especially “alternation as a cohesive device” (Virgina Tufte, Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, page 225). Loosely explained, alternation refers to opening a sentence with a phrase rather than a subject: “Outside Weber’s house,” “Inside …”, “Despite the absentees down at the test site …”
  16. It leaves the reader with a story question. “Will he find Eisler? or “Why is finding Eisler important?”

Although the analysis is tedious as are all these paragraph investigations, the result is seeing how magnificently Kanon constructed this transition paragraph and how easily, clearly and engagingly it flows.

Another, but less complicated, Joseph Kanon transition paragraph from Los Alamos.

At first he didn’t recognize her. She was walking toward him across the plaza, still dressed in the blouse and riding pants of the night before but with her hair down now, swaying lazily behind her, and her face partially hidden by sunglasses. She was carrying a few books under one arm, leaving the other to keep time with her long stride, and stopped short when she saw him on the curb.

This paragraph focuses, like Conally, on “her” and meets 12 of the 16 transition-paragraph goals.

  1. It lingers on the character’s description, giving the reader time to take a good look and remember this character.
  2. It establishes relative time: the day after “the night before.”
  3. Mood established as one of uncertainty: “At first he didn’t recognize her.”
  4. It alludes to previous gathering, “the night before.”
  5. It identifies characters: Connolly and “her.”
  6. It re-identifies “her”: “still dressed in the blouse and riding pants of the night before …”
  7. It’s light on motivation, but obviously a boy-meets-girl.
  8. It moves “her” toward Connolly.
  9. It is all detail.
  10. It contains light conflict or intimates light conflict: “She … stopped short when she saw him …”
  11. Reader is now, when “she” stops short, in the here and now of the scene about to unfold.
  12. Reader wonders what emotion caused her to stop short and how this encounter will turn out.

Compare this paragraph to one a minimalist novice writer might have written: “The next morning, Connally met Sally on the square.”

The minimalist paragraph is superficial. The good transition paragraph sets mood, tone, character description and characterization (shown by what she wears, how she walks, even fact that her hair was down signifies she may be more approachable on this occasion than the last), emotion (even if only a hint) and conflict (even if only a hint). The good transition paragraph re-immerses the reader in the story.

John D. MacDonald, One More Sunday, Chapter 8

Annalee Purves had mail-ordered some bed sheets from Spiegel in Chicago, and so every now and then she would go a front window of the farmhouse and look down the long dusty slope of the narrow driveway and see the red flag still up on the mailbox and wonder how late this Wednesday delivery would be. She was waiting for the confirmation of her order. Maybe they had changed the route again.

Anvil thunderheads were building in the west, sun-white on the tops of them, ominous blue-black underneath. They cut off the late-afternoon sun. The air was close and still, and at times a gust of wind would turn the leaves over and spin up the dust.

These two transition paragraphs expand the moment with details; establish time – “late-afternoon;” the character – Annalee Purves; her mood – anxiety; the context – waiting for a delivery; conflict – sheets had not arrived.

They are also a masterful work in subtext and symbol. Annalee Purves is expecting mail-order sheets. The “red” flag is up on mailbox. Thunderheads are building, “ominous blue-black underneath.” They cut off the sun. A gust of wind turns the leaves over and spins up the dust.

The subtext foreshadows what is to occur next. Through foreshadowing, it bridges the gap, transits the moment in which Annalee is merely anxious about sheets to the moment in which the mailman delivers devastating news.

MacDonald’s paragraphs also establish suspense. The reader knows Annalee is going to receive something she hasn’t asked for, but the reader doesn’t know what it is going to be. Reader is anxious to see what the mailman brings. She’s deeply immersed in this new chapter.

Ernest Hemmingway, The Sun Also Rises, First paragraph, last chapter.

At noon we were all at the café. It was crowded. We were eating shimps and drinking beer. The town was crowded. Every street was full. Big motor-cars from Biarritz ad San Sebastian kept driving up and parking around the square. They brought people for the bull-fight. Sight-seeing cars came up, too. There was one with twenty-five Englishwomen in it. They sat in the big, white car and looked through their glasses at the fiesta. The dancers were all quite drunk. It was the last day of the fiesta.

Hemmingway is Hemmingway.  However, with this paragraph he has lingered, he has immersed the reader in the detail of the activities of the café and the square; he has established time (noon), mood (fiesta and drunkenness), characters, context, and place. He’s repeated crowdedness: “… the café. It was crowded.” “The town was crowded. Every street was full …” He alludes to conflict, the bull-fight and the out-of-place twenty-five English women, so distanced from or threatened by it all that they remained on their bus and “looked through their glasses at the fiesta.”

The paragraph is focused on the activity in the square and, thus, is relatively static. The situation at the end of the paragraph is the same as the situation at the beginning of the paragraph. It does not allude to a change event as did the Kanon and MacDonald paragraphs. However, everyone in the square and café, by association, are there for the fiesta and the bull fight. Their goal is implicit: have a good time and see the bull fight. Reader may be wondering if the drunkenness will create a problem.

This paragraph well served Hemmingway’s style, voice and The Sun Also Rises. It’s the first paragraph of the last chapter and ends with “It was the last day of the fiesta.” Poetic and portent.

James A. Michener, Poland, section opener, p. 41

When Krysztof of Gorka surveyed the pitiful condition of his domain he could have been forgiven had he allowed himself to be submerged in despair, for only his castle remained. His other six villages had been destroyed as completely as Bukowo; his peasants had been slain; the homes of his lesser knights had been devastated and their women killed, and there seemed to be no reasonable strategy by which the terrible scourge of Tatars could be either punished or turned back. Inevitably, Golden Krakow must fall to their torches, but Krzysztof was unwilling to concede this inevitability, and in the perilous days ahead he became the soul and animating spirit of Poland.

This three-sentence paragraph appears almost simplistic, yet achieves all 16 goals of a good transition paragraph. Michener expands or lingers over the period of Krysztof’s survey by detailing the Tartar’s devastation: villages destroyed, peasants slain, homes of knights in ruins, their women killed.  Mood, time (the aftermath of the Tartar destruction), and context (the Tartar invasion of Poland) are established. The Tartar destruction is the event from past story. Kyrsztof’s reaction to it is the opening event for the story present: Rather than despairing, he becomes “the soul and animating spirit of Poland.” This, of course, alludes to the story’s theme or controlling idea: Poland. Goal is established; Krysztof will fight to remove the Tartars from Poland. The paragraph not only contains conflict, it is about conflict. It also contains an interesting repetition: “Inevitably, Golden Krakow must fall to their torches, but Krysztof was unwilling to concede this inevitability ….” The repetition of “inevitable” reinforces for the reader the difficulty and risks of the campaign ahead. Reader will be questioning just how Krysztof will overcome these odds.

A lesser writer might have written, “When Krysztof of Gorka surveyed the ruins of his domain devastated by the Tartars, he vowed revenge.” His reader’s experience would not have been as rich, real and compelling as Michener’s.

Norman Mailer, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Chapter 8

 “Wardley,” I said, “you look a mess.” My voice, however, quivered enough to spoil the suggestion that I was feeling no large respect for his firearm.

“I’ve been,” he said, “on a burial detail.”

Even by the uncertain gleam of the moon taking its wan trip through the scud, I could see that he was covered with wet sand up to his hair and eyeglasses.

“Let’s take a walk along the rocks,” he suggested.

“It’ll be difficult,” I told him. “I hurt my foot kicking Stoodie.”

“Yes,” Wardley answered, “he thought you kicked him. He was angry about that.”

“I expected him to come over today.”

“We won’t see Stoodie anymore,” said Wardley.

He made a delicate move with the muzzle of his gun as if pointing me to the most comfortable chair in the room. I set out a few steps in front of him.

This dialogue opening also contains all the elements of a good transition. It expands the moment by progressing the character through the interaction with Wardley. It contains detail, establishes mood, time of day (the moon taking wan trip through the scud), context, conflict, alludes to past story (the burial detail and wet sand up to his hair and eyeglasses and “We won’t see Stoodie anymore”) and connects it to present story. It re-identifies Stoodie (I hurt my foot kicking Stoodie.”) and identifies Wardley again via his eyeglasses. It reflects the theme of tough guys. Reader is wondering how or if the narrator will get out of being shot by Wardley.

Now that we have the general idea of the elements and goals of good transition paragraphs, here’s a further look at how other bestselling authors have written them.

John Grisham, The Runaway Jury, opening paragraph chapter 5

Fitch himself was sitting in the back of the surveillance van at eight the next morning when Nicholas Easter walked into the sunshine and looked around the parking lot. The van had a plumber’s logo on the door and a fake phone number stenciled in green. “There he is,” Doyle announced and they all jumped. Fitch grabbed the scope, focused it quickly through a blackened porthole, and said, “Damn.”

 

James Jafee, The Voyage of the Franz Joseph, opener chapter 5

Morrie’s conviction that disaster lay ahead began to ease as soon as he saw Al at La Guardia Airport. The radiogram he wrote to Aaron Peyser on the Franz Joseph was a tonic for his spirits. A few hours in the city completed his cure. He looked around at the tall buildings, the yellow cabs, the subway ads in English; he listened to his friends and his family talking about the same things they had been talking about before he left—and he just couldn’t go on thinking of the world as a nightmare place in which everything or everybody was suddenly liable to turn horrible.

 

Larry McMurtry Anything for Billy, chapter opener p. 129

We crowded into the China Pond, where a stormy scene was in progress. Billy had become enraged at Nute Rachal the meekest of the buffalo hunters, and had fired at him twice, but Nute, adopting my own tactics, had dropped to the floor and the bullets had only chipped the wall of the barroom.

 

W. E. B Griffin, Retreat, Hell! chapter opener, page 65

As Major McCoy slipped between the clean white sheets of his bed, Captain Howard C. Dunwood, USMCR—who three months before had been named “Salesman of the Month” at Mike O’ Brian’s DeSoto-Plymouth Agency in East Orange, New Jersey—sat in his underwear on the edge of his cot in a shrapnel-riddled hangar forking cold ham hunks and baked beans from an olive-drab Army ration can by the light of a small candle.

 

Leon Uris, Trinity, section opener, page 219

After “God Save the Queen” and the invocation, Viscount Hubble moved almost timidly from the head table to the rostrum, facing a throng of over six hundred persons. Above them from the open rafters hung a gigantic Union Jack at one end of the hall. This was matched by a gigantic Ulster flag at the other. Behind Roger a gigantic sign spanned the width of the hall, reading: ULSTER WILL FIGHT AND ULSTER WILL BE RIGHT.

We see from these that, while transition paragraphs are crafted to meet a number of transition goals, they are not formulaic, but diverse, imaginative, engaging and created to serve each story’s style and need — and the need of the reader.

Below are five opening paragraphs written by five different amateurs. Except for my own paragraph, I have retained the sentence patterns and logic of the other four, but have changed the words and context. None meet the goals of good transition paragraphs.

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.

This, my paragraph, is a jumble of information. It does not linger. It does not re-identify characters. It does not allude to the event that put them on the march. It does not allude to motivation or a potential goal. It does not contain conflict or even a hint of conflict. It doesn’t reflect story theme or controlling idea. It does not forward the story. The reader does not have a bona fide reader’s question, but a number of “Wha? Wha’s?”

The warble of a robin came through my open kitchen window. During the afternoon, the bird often sat in the apple tree next to my garage, once the carriage house. Many times I’d seen him sitting on a bough, cocking his head to the side to better view the possibility of insects on the lawn.

This is an example of a throat-clearing paragraph. The bird has no organic relation to the story. The bird does not re-appear. It is not thematic. Characters, motivations, goals, mood, story past and story to unfold make no appearance in this paragraph. This paragraph does not connect anything with anything. Outside of “Why am I reading about the bird?” it does not leave the reader with a story question.

Sallyanne Jones had a special talent: profiling contestants. She arrived in Chicago with a plan and her to-do list was diminishing. She observed her subjects well before making her first encounter. Flagrant flattery worked with Paul, Jack and now it would work with Heinz. Sallyanne knew more about her subjects than they knew about baseball.

This paragraph, composed of broad statements, does not linger via details. It fails to establish or allude to motivation. Sallyanne’s goal is vague. Characters are not re-identified. What Sally did to Paul and Jack is not revealed. It does not reflect the story’s controlling idea. It does not forward the story. Its basic flaw is it isn’t well focused. A telling question to ask upon checking a paragraph for focus is “What is this paragraph about?” Is this about Sallyanne? About her work? About her first encounter with her subjects? About her mission in Chicago? About what happened to Paul and Jack and is about to happen to Heinz?

The writer knows exactly what she meant by this paragraph, but the reader is left scratching his head. This paragraph does not transition from story past to story about to unfold.

Arguing loudly, they put hands on her shoulders and neck, forcing her head over the bucket. They took her left arm and hooked it behind her back. Jacqueline writhed, but her arm could not be worked from their grip as they pushed her face closer to the slop in the bucket. Its contents were indistinguishable, except for the severed head in the middle, which glared wickedly.

Here we have conflict. We don’t have time or motivation; there’s no allusion to story past, and one might wonder about mood—deadly or good ole boys having fun? Jacqueline is the only character identified; the others are “they.” Motivation is missing as well as goal. Do they want to drown her or just terrorize her … or? The details are commonplace like the details of walking to the door, opening it, closing it behind and then locking it with the key. Okay, they are about to dunk her face in a bucket containing a severed head, but the various grips on her arms aren’t the kind of details that make the scene memorable. This doesn’t transit from story past to story unfolding; it is a simple action paragraph.

Marita fingered the clothes on the bed: flimsy, thin pants, a flowered muslin vest, a full-sleeved blouse, a pair of hose, a pair of Turkish slippers, a cigarette holder and a French beret. Most interesting, they all seemed to have the same red thread sewn into their labels. The cigarette holder was ivory. Marita was once again smoking filter tips.

If this writer were to delete the off-topic “Marita was once again smoking filter tips,” he would have a nice within-scene paragraph, but, as it is, it does not establish time, place, the character to whom the clothing belongs, motivation, goal. Rather than asking a story question, the reader is asking “Whose clothing? Why is Marita fingering it? What’s the context?” The fact that the answers to all these “Wha? Wha’s” are in the chapter or chapters past does not excuse us from neglecting to re-tie the past to the present and establish scene goals for the reader. Jessica Page Morrell said it well: Transitions are a courtesy to the reader.

The above amateur paragraphs support this article’s premise: Good transition paragraphs are so multifaceted that the novice writer often doesn’t recognize them in terms of function and, not grasping their function or existence as a specific kind of paragraph, cannot write them.

Pick up any good novel, open to a new chapter and read its first paragraphs. They will not all be alike. They will not all contain every element and goal of transition paragraphs, but they all will contain sufficient transition features that they smoothly connect and move the story from past story into the present unfolding. They will be transition paragraphs.

Good transition paragraphs, since all professional writers are proficient in writing them and diligent in employing them, are not only vital to one’s story but vital to one’s own transition — from amateur writer to published writer.

 

 

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