When we’re waiting and it seems like time will never pass (say, sitting in the car slowly moving around McDonald’s to get to the speakers), or back home when we have to get our subsequent fat asses off the couch and walk into another room for a beer, we might appreciate one of the more difficult aspects of writing—moving through time and space.
Actually, there are easy ways for a writer to do this. If you want to move a character to another town or room, you can just say “He drove to the next town” or “She walked into the bedroom”. And writers do this, sometimes because it’s just good enough, sometimes because the writer is lazy, and sometimes because that’s all the writer knows how to do. Similarly with time, sometimes we just write “the next day” or “later that evening”. The problem with these easy ways, however, is that they’re boring and don’t show much skill.
In well-crafted writing, the best transitions are brilliant, a bridge from one set of ideas (or paragraph) to another set of ideas (a second paragraph). When a transition is at its best, the reader hardly notices that they’re being led from one thing to another, because it seems so smooth and logical, as if it had to be that way. And when it seems that way, the writer probably spent an hour doing it.
Here’s a nice example from a book I mentioned last week, Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. In the first paragraph, a woman walks up to a church to get out of the rain, and at the church, we read that she “tied the dogs up on the porch”. The paragraph then goes on with some discussion of people’s names.
To move the woman into the church, Atkinson might have written “She pulled open the door and went in.” Instead the following paragraph begins “She suspected there might be a special ecclesiastical word for ‘porch,’ but if there was she didn’t know it, although she knew there were all kinds of particular terms for the bones of the church…” This sentence leads on to words naming parts of the church, and in the process the woman is now inside looking at the things being named. We have moved from considering names outside on the porch to thinking about names inside.
As I was pondering the topic of transitions, I was in the middle of revising a chapter of the current novel. I came to a spot where I wanted to make the transition to a second paragraph less abrupt and jerky, so I saved several versions, to show them here.
Here’s the original, with the part I wanted to change in the second paragraph in italics:
“No,” he said. “My grandfather was a gambler.” He turned to her with a rueful smile and shook his head slightly. “So he gambled all the money away, and now it’s someone else’s house. But my mother has pictures of when she was a little girl living there.”
They rode another couple of kilometers, until Remigio turned them onto a dirt path where grasses brushed at their legs as they rode across a field.
Variation 1. I picked up the house reference from the previous paragraph, and this is the new beginning of the second paragraph:
From the pink house where a little girl once took an old wooden plank as a table to lay out a meal for birds… [I stopped this, because it seemed clumsy.]
Variation 2. I kept the house, but tried a different idea:
From the pink house where a little girl once held a funeral for a dead butterfly, holding a service making nonsense noises, which sounded the same to her as the Latin in church, Remigio and Carmen wheeled away… [Also clumsy, and it went on too long with the idea of the funeral.]
Variation 3. I still liked using the house, but I added a second topic from the previous paragraph, picking up the gambling. I also made a second reference to the butterfly farther on:
From the pink house where a little girl once held a funeral for a dead butterfly, where a broken man had come slowly down the road to that house, where his unsuspecting family now lived in someone else’s house, Remigio and Carmen wheeled away down that same road, under a sky as blue as glory. Remigio turned them onto a dirt path where grasses brushed at their legs and butterflies rose as they crossed a field.
I may very well end up changing it, but maybe you see the process I’m trying to illustrate. And now I need a transition out of this to…let’s see: He looked up from the computer and saw the glass of red wine sitting on the desk. Hitting the Send button he turned to reach for the glass.