Thursday, May 1, 2014

4 From the Archives: Narrative, Transitions & Maintaining Forward Momentum In Your Story

Our job as writers is to keep readers reading. Beyond that, we want to make them forget they are reading so they feel they are in the story and have a stake in the outcome. That's easiest to do in scenes, which consist primarily of action and dialogue with some internalization and description sprinkled in. But narrative, much maligned, is often useful or even necessary despite the bad rap it gets from the oh-so-often-repeated "show don't tell" rule we all throw around.

Narrative lets us do some things faster than we can in scene, in ways we can't do in action or dialogue. We can use it to:
  • Create mood and tone
  • Describe characters
  • Build a setting for the story
  • Provide emotional context for the scene or coming scenes
  • Fill in necessary background information
  • Cue the reader to understand character reaction or decisions
  • Foreshadow future events
It's true narrative can add distance between the reader and the story though, so it's critical to get in and get out. Narrative has a different rhythm than action, dialogue, or even introspective. It's a slower rhythm, a more leisurely rhythm closer to a lullaby than to the pounding drum of running feet or tense conversation. And the moment the reader's brain is lulled into a slower rhythm, that's the moment they can start thinking about checking email or deciding what to make for dinner. Making shorter paragraphs can help, but our eyes can skim a paragraph very quickly to see something that ends up looking like blah, blah, blah pretty tree, blah, blah lovely sky, blah blah, went to fifth grade with him, blah, blah most popular boy, blah blah and too blah. Time to close the book.

To keep the reader from getting lulled right out of the story, there's a school of thought that says we should have no more than two paragraphs of narrative before we interrupt it with something more active. But switching from one element of fiction to another is often the most dangerous moment in fiction, the one where we risk jarring the reader out of the story into confusion, or force them to reread something to catch what they missed. The moment they are doing that, they aren't reading forward. We risk losing them to the lure of the refrigerator or the television, or the thousands of other things competing for their time at any given moment. Moving smoothly in and out of the switch requires a good transition.

Transitions are bridges that help keep the reader on the path of the story. They should be short and smooth, and there are many different types that connect different elements of a story:
  • Between times or moments
  • Between locations or settings
  • Between characters (POV shifts)
  • Between stimulus and reaction
  • Between scenes and sequels
  • Between moods, tones, emotional shifts, or significant changes of pace

Transitional words and phrases describe the shift using references to time passing, location shifting, etc. Common transition phrases include:
  • A month later
  • After the confrontation
  • After dinner
  • Afterwards
  • As the moon came out
  • As the rain stopped
  • At the same time
  • At one o'clock
  • At school the next day
  • At the appointment
  • At the same time
  • At the summer solstice
  • By noon
  • By the time that
  • For three days
  • In the morning
  • In the second year
  • It took two weeks to
  • Later that afternoon
  • Meanwhile
  • On the way to
  • On the first day of school
  • That night
  • The next meeting
  • The next morning
  • The next week
  • Two weeks later
  • Weeks passed
  • When dinner was over
  • When it was time for the date
  • When the moon came up
  • When the police arrived
  • When the rain stopped
  • When they got back
  • When they saw the place
  • When we reached the location

We can incorporate these transitions into narrative in different ways, too.
In action: She spent an hour picking out her dress and two hours in front of the mirror, and when it was time for the date, she was ready to make the boy swallow his tongue.
In description: When it was time for the date, she was dressed in black to match her mood. The moon hung low and shrouded in cloud, and the city streets had an eerie sense of waiting. 

In dialogue: "I can't believe it's almost time for the date. How has it been three days already?"

In exposition: When it was time for the date, she had been waiting at the bar so long, she knew the name of the bartender and the lifestory of all his kids.

In introspection: I glanced at my watch and confirmed my suspicion. I'd slept too long and now I was two hours late for my date.
In recollection: Sitting at Rita's later, I swiveled around in my chair and searched through my pockets again for the business card he had given me, the one where I'd scrawled the time for our so-called date on the back. It was still nowhere to be found, but I was sure I had gotten the time right. I remembered exactly how he had sounded, half-way to breathless, when he said, "Seven o'clock at Rita's, sweetcheeks, and don't be late."

In sensory detail: The sun beat down mercilessly for the next four hours, and by the time she should have been getting ready for her date, Jemma's skin stretched too tight over her bones and her lips were cracked.

In summary: Three days of the usual, impossible boredom went by full of school, and studying, and the dramaqueen text messsages full of who was hot for Ally and which cretin on the football team was caught with Paige. When it was time for my date with Alden, I was ready for some drama of my own.

You can also ease in and out by reusing a word, object, or concept that appears in the previous sentence or paragraph in the beginning of the next paragraph.
She raced through the empty street, the slap of her footsteps on the asphalt echoing off the darkened buildings reminding her that she was too alone and vulnerable.

But she was used to being alone. Even in the foster homes surrounded by other unwanted kids, misfits and miscreants most of them, she had been alone, and all too often she had needed to run from someone. It had made her fast.

If all else fails and we are moving from one scene to another, or we deliberately want to increase the pace of the story, we can use four blank lines or centered asterisks to indicate a scene break.

The most critical thing to in any kind of narrative or with a transition between scenes is to remember that every word and revelation has to count. Everything we include needs to be new and critical information for the reader either on an emotional or informational level. Ideally, it should multi-task the same way that great dialogue often reveals emotion, character, and information to propel the story forward. That's hard for us to guage of course, and for me, I know it's one of my hardest tasks as a writer to guage where I've added too much. Narrative can be a writer's quicksand. To avoid lulling the reader out of the story, we need to make sure that our narrative is never plain vanilla. We invoke strong images and precise verbs to make it count and make it compelling, and that leads to the risk of writerly indulgence. Narrative is most often where we fall in love with our words. Hopefully, our transitions are smooth enough that we take the reader along for the ride until we get right back into the next, necessary, scene.

Where's your writing achilles heel? Is it in narrative like mine?

Happy writing and may the transitions always move you forward,



  1. THis is a great post, Martina, and one I don't think we hear enough about. I've been so afraid of "telling" and not "showing" that readers have told me I have too much dialogue and not enough narrative. A time and place for everything, right? You summarized the reasons for narrative very well. Posted it on my class wiki. Thanks.

  2. I really like how this talks about transitions. When I write, I generally need to go back and try to change up my transitions because they're all, "When blah blah blah..." Having a comprehensive list of options available is fantastic. Thanks!

    Lately I've been paying closer attention to transitions in books I love, and asking myself, "How did they get from A to B?"--especially when I don't notice it happening until later. Pretty much every time I read now, I'm super aware of what methods the writer uses to move the story along.

  3. Thanks, Martina, I enjoyed this post!

  4. I'm way behind on your site's posts, but this is a good article! I have to go run my ms through the sieve of this info. Good stuff, Martina!


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