Last week, I watched a TV show about castaways stranded on a time-hopping island, read a book wherein an Irish priest faces off against the gods of Dark Ages-era Norway, and viewed a space epic on the big screen full of doomed battles and desperate stands. They had dramatically different tones and styles, and each excelled at separate parts of the storyteller’s art, one possessing thematic heft, another admirably sharp dialogue and yet another a taut plot. But they all grasped an essential aspect of narrative, one that sets the pros apart from the amateurs: They understood transitions.
When you think about it, transitions are strange things. You usually don’t notice them. But they’re there as you stroll along the road laid out by a particular story, gently bending the path this way and that, grading the way as it climbs up the crags, filling in the boggy bits deep in the valleys. Indeed, when they make themselves known, it’s often by their absence, those times when the trail jogs abruptly or becomes teeth-rattlingly rough or drops off altogether into a yawning chasm.
So how do we avoid sending our readers screaming into the abyss? Ursula K. Le Guin offers wise words in her writing manual Steering the Craft. She notes that narratives are shaped things, curved things, things that glide along a particular course, and that successful ones have "a movement which never ceases, from which no passage departs entirely or for long, and to which all passages contribute in some way." This smoothness, it seems, is a good way to judge your own transitions. You’ve done it right when they carry your readers clear to the end and they've barely felt the journey.
(Picture: CC 2008 by Mr Hamish)