Guide Your Reader with Smooth, Clear Transitions by Brad Windhauser
When I received notes on my first novel, Regret, one of the first things mentioned related to a character moving from outside to inside. In one paragraph he’s interacting with a person by his car on the street. A few sentences later, he’s inside the guy’s apartment. “How did he get inside? Magic?” my editor asked. This blunt feedback underscores an important issue in writing—how do we move our characters through the world we create for them? This is important from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and chapter to chapter.
Basically, how do you create smooth, clear transitions in order to guide your reader (and your characters) through the story?
Moving through the physical space
Unless you are telling a story where a characters or characters are inert, they are going to move, and when they do the setting changes, whether it’s to a different room in a house or from inside to the back yard, or from… you get the idea. At some point, we need to know where your characters are. This should be established early (if not first) in any scene, whether in the beginning or throughout the story. The significance of the setting will dictate the timing of this information. However, once people move, you should announce the change immediately. An introductory clause can deliver the necessary clarity. Something like: “He then walked into the living room….” Or “Once upstairs, she found….”
Moving between summary and scene
These two components, as Janet Burroway discusses so well in Writing Fiction, are the building blocks of any story. In order to master your use of them, you should think of scene as the bricks and summary as the mortar that holds everything together. How you move between the two is crucial. Once you’re done providing the useful background in summary, move the reader close to the actual scene by crafting a specific first sentence that establishes where we are in a particular moment.
So, for example, if your character has a thing for cars, discuss where this comes from in a paragraph: Jill was obsessed with cars and used to goad her father in to taking her to a junkyard and quiz her on various parts and what function they performed.
This background info establishes the infatuation with cars and also establishes a specific relationship with her father. This info is needed to then understand the significance of her finally able to fix a particular car part. That scene would begin something like this:
In the shop’s garage, the wrench digging her greasy hands, she was finally able to turn the stubborn thing loose. As she held the slightly corroded part [research would allow me to pick something appropriate here], she couldn’t help hearing her father’s encouraging advice about how to…. [again, research needed].
The introductory clause ‘In the shop’s garage’ establishes that we are now moving into a specific scene, one with a specific location.
Moving in and out of flashbacks
Flashbacks can allow the author to dip into the past in order to provide useful information that either develops a character’s motivation or provide useful context for a particular moment (often both, if picked well). However, jumping back and forth can confuse the reader. The trick here is to take into account the tense you’re using. Shifting the tense alerts the reader to a change in the narration. If the main story uses past tense, use past perfect the first three or four time to establish the flashback, then rely on past. Readers pick up on this easily. If writing in present, you should use past tense for the flashback. When returning to the narrative present (main storyline), ensure that you are clear about the return. Repeating an action or image before the flashback helps. Beginning that returning paragraph with “Now…” also helps.
I often hear that students feel that using some of these necessary tools is too easy or too jarring, as if a smart reader should be able to figure out what is happening. In some cases, sure, some readers will get it. But not all readers want to exert their mental faculties trying to grasp what is happening. They’d rather spend their time appreciating what impact your work is having on your characters or how they can learn from what you story offers. Respect these readers by giving them the necessary guidance. If handled well, these sign-posts will not insult them.