ABC’s of Fiction Writing: J is for Junctions

Posted by on Mar 11, 2015 in Uncategorized | 2 comments

aj.oconnell.photocreditJuncture, or, avoiding a case of the howevers

Oh, the dreaded transition between two sections of writing.

It can be daunting. It can be scary. And sometimes, when we writers are stuck staring down a nasty transition, we can be tempted to solve the problem with one magic bullet of a sentence.   

This sentence usually begins with “However,” “On the other hand,” or “Meanwhile.” That’s because it’s a holdover from high school English class, when the teacher sent back your essay with a B- and a little red note between the first and second paragraphs: “need transition here.”

Don’t do it. Step away from that sentence. Use it and your writing will come down with a horrible case of the howevers. A transition sentence might fill a high school teacher’s barest requirements, but it’s lazy writing and you can do better.

Juncture

The problem with the magic transitional sentence comes from thinking of transitions as the glue that holds a piece together. Glue is an extra element, something you add that makes two pieces into one whole. I submit that you don’t need glue. Think of yourself as a carpenter, joining two pieces of wood. You need to know how to make pieces fit. You need to know how to join them, and you need to know where they will best fit together. If you’re very skilled, you don’t even need a nail. That’s what this essay is about. The point where those pieces join: The juncture.

Blank spaces

For me, transition has always been about the blank spaces. You’ve written a scene, you pause, you move to your next scene. Your transition is a simple break in the writing. Just as white space helps an artist, knowing where to pause helps a writer.

Blank space helps a reader catch her breath, helps you skip the boring bits you don’t want to write and helps provide a buffer between one section and the next. A big part of this is knowing where the natural breaks in the story you’re telling are. The problem here is that what seems like a natural break for you, the writer (“this is where I stopped writing; you can tell because the prose reads differently than the next 500 words”) might not seem like a natural stopping point for the reader (“this group of scenes tell a satisfying part of the story.”) Give yourself time before deciding where each section of your story begins and ends.

Backstory as bridge

So you’ve put together your plot more or less chronologically and you’ve only written the scenes that excite you, but your writing group looks at you sternly anyway. “You need a transition between the dwarf meeting up with his awful dad and his going into battle for the first time,” they say. And it’s true. There does seem to be a disconnect between one section and the next. Perhaps this is a place for some backstory.

I don’t know about you but I love backstory. I write tons of it, but it can be hard to know where to put it. Too early and it distracts from the plot, too late and no one understands your character. Why not slip a little into the spaces between your scenes? It makes time pass in the story, and may shed some light on the two scenes it bridges. (Why does the dwarf hate his father?) Don’t just do this for the hell of it. Only use backstory to illuminate the plot, or characters in the scene.

Texture

What if you’ve got two very different kinds of writing? Flowery prose and stark dialogue, for example?

Used consciously, the contrast between two sections of very different writing can help tell a story by changing the tone of the writing. Done right, this creates texture, and texture is good.

Here’s an example: Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation” jumps back and forth between long, detailed descriptions of a doctor’s waiting room and the folksy and sometimes heavily-accented banter of the people in that waiting room. The tone and language of the narrator is much different than that of the protagonist. This, more than anything else that happens in the story, creates tension. There’s a message there, coded into the texture and tone of the story, thanks to the juxtaposition of description and dialogue.

If you’re going to alternate between two styles of writing, you have to think it out. Does creating texture serve your work? Does something (theme, plot, character) unite the two sections of prose? The tie has got to be strong.

Many plots

This is a suspense trick that’s used in genre fiction a lot. The author is writing two or more sub-plots with characters that you care about. One subplot reaches a crisis (“Oh no, the power has gone out!”) and the author stops there, while you’re super-invested in what’s happening, and switches to another plot thread.

Braided plotlines and points of view can be very effective if done well: you can go from high-intensity moments (“The velociraptors are loose. Hold onto your butts.”) to introspective ones (“A sad CEO eats a vat of ice cream in the dark.”)

Done wrong, braided plotlines can be a tease, a cheap technique to keep readers turning pages while giving them very little. I can think of one very popular YA franchise that abused this device. Its final book was nothing but a string of cliffhangers (“Should we escape into the sewers?” “Are monsters following us?” “Is that a bomb?”), all tension and very little character development or plot.

If you use this device, you’ll need to decide where the line is between using suspense to keep your readers moving through a satisfying story, or giving your readers a cliff-hanger to nowhere.

These are just a few techniques for joining up your writing. How do you handle your transitions?  I’d love to know how you avoid coming down with a case of the howevers.


A.J. O’Connell is the author of two books: Beware the Hawk (2012) and The Eagle & The Arrow (2013), both published by Battered Suitcase Press. Her other creative work has been published in various journals and anthologies. She’s also a journalist, but asks you not to hold that against her. She can be found here.

2 Comments

  1. This is a good read AJ. I enjoy your writing and your humor. Someday I am going to pick up that pen and write again. I have so many stories to tell thanks for the inspiration and the chance to examine where my story begins in this juncture. Hugs to the family and to you.

  2. Thank you, Robin! I’m glad you liked it and that it inspired you to get back to writing. I can’t wait to read what you create.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. On transitions in writing (or, avoiding a case of the “howevers.”) | A.J. O'Connell - […] Check it out. And check out Spry. It is a very cool journal devoted to the short form. (One…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *