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Making the Leap: Busting a Writer’s Worst Stumper

February 2, 2015

CHAW Teaching Artist Hannah Sternberg is back on our blog with her #CHAWsome writing tips for aspiring and experienced creative writers alike.  Hannah is a published novelist whose latest book, Bulfinch, was named a Notable Teen Book of 2014 by “Shelf Unbound.”  Learn more about Hannah and her books at www.HannahSternberg.com, and clickHERE to check out (and register for!) creative writing classes at CHAW.

When people say writing is “hard work,” they’re talking about writing transitions. A transition is any part of the story that takes us from one scene to another, whether it’s a leap in time or a change of place or cast. Transitions aren’t just what you see on the page — they also represent the logic and context that hold a story together.

Everyone who has ever been angry knows how to write a scene — we imagine scenes in which we deliver the perfectly-worded speech, and justice is meted out to our wrongdoers in the most poetic form possible. Moving on from imagining scenes out of anger, to imagining all sorts of different scenes, is simply a product of loosening up and rediscovering our childlike ability to daydream. What slows us down, and convinces too many people that they just can’t finish that novel they’ve always dreamed of, is the hard work of writing transitions. Unlike scene writing, which is often a product of daydreaming, transition writing tends to be a product of analysis, story logic, revision, and problem-solving. In other words, it’s less spontaneous, sexy, and fun.

If individual scenes are pearls, transitions are the string that turns the pearls into a necklace. I’ve heard from a lot of writers who have plenty of pearls, but have misplaced their string. They have a great beginning and ending but don’t know how to get from one to the other, or they have a great collection of scenes — sort of like set pieces in a play — that they want to incorporate into a longer work, but don’t know how.

Transitions really get a bad rep among writers because they are the seemingly most boring, difficult, and least spontaneous parts of a novel-length story. But they’re actually the most important. If you change your attitude toward the transitions that are tripping you up, you’ll discover that they can be sources of transformative creativity.

Take this example: I decide I’m going to write a novel about a Wall Street banker who has a horrible day. Everything that could possibly go wrong, does. His life is falling down around his ears, but at the end of the day, while he’s sitting in a huge and nearly empty church, hanging his head and contemplating the failure of his life, he encounters a small boy and has an earnest conversation with him that changes everything. Maybe I decide to write this story because the first thing I imagined was that conversation, and the rest of the scenes came naturally because daydreaming about the many ways a person’s day could go wrong is something nearly everyone can do with ease — even if they’re not writers.

Then I get to the major sticking point of the story, the one that makes me want to give up, or make up something trite and easy to get it over with: why does the banker walk into the church? I tell myself it’s not an important detail, because the important part, in my mind, is what happens inside. But that transitional moment between fully-formed scenes is actually what has the potential to give my story a level of depth, relatability, and internal consistency that raises it from a daydream to a cohesive narrative.

This question of why he walks into the church can reveal a lot about the character. Did he grow up in a church-going family? Has he been to church recently? Is this on his usual walk home or is he in a different part of town? Has he seen this church before, or did he not know it was there? Did he hear or see something inside that drew him in? Is he in the habit of peering into open doors, or does he normally pay attention to the sounds of the street around him? Did the architecture appeal to him in a special way?

Answering that simple question of why he enters the church has now become a pivotal part of the story. All transitions contain these two questions: why and how did your characters get from one scene to the next? What is driving them?

If a transition to a scene you’ve already imagined is giving you a lot of trouble, the problem might not be the transition — the problem may be your overall story logic. You have to look beyond the one sticking point and ask yourself whether the entire story needs an overhaul to make things work — or whether it’s time to sacrifice one of the scenes you’d imagined earlier on, now that it no longer fits with the direction of the story.

In college, I had a film professor who told us you never get to make the movie you see in your head. You just get closer and closer to it every time you try. Writing is the same — the moment you begin, things start to change. The beautiful pearls that you thought were perfect when you first found them in your mind now have to be sanded and polished to fit the string and make a necklace.

What we often think is a difficulty writing transitions is really a difficulty coming to terms with the idea that the story you are working on is no longer precisely the one you started off thinking you were going to work on.

I’ve published two novels and completed several more. I usually feel ready to begin writing a story idea when I can imagine the ending. (This isn’t a general rule, just a personal practice.) I’ll go ahead and write the ending first, then go back and start from the beginning. However, by the time I make it to the ending, I have to rewrite it. The first few times this happened, I thought the problem was figuring out how to connect the previous scenes with the ending I’d already written. It took me a while to realize that I struggled with the transition because the ending no longer fit where the story had gone. The problem was not the transition, but a gap in story logic. But each time I’ve done this, I’ve also had to rewrite slightly less. Each time I write a book, it gets a little closer to the book in my head. My trouble with transitions was not a problem connecting scenes, but the process of transitioning from idea to reality.

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