Dear Story Nurse,
How do I write transitions? I prefer airy prose and I’m often told my work is floaty. I worry that my transitions change the tone of my work or are jarring, so I was wondering if you had any tips for me.
Thank you, Story Nurse!
This is such an enticing question. Without seeing samples of your work, my guess is that your issue with transitions—from scene to scene, or from space to space within a scene—is that they can be grounding, reminding readers that they’re reading or anchoring a work to a particular physical space. But grounding isn’t contradictory to floaty, airy work; it’s necessary, and satisfying.
I encourage you to think of transitions as punctuation, just as a comma is a transition between phrases or a period is a transition between sentences. A paragraph break or scene break is no more inherently intrusive than a period or comma. Transitions only become jarring when they come too frequently or have to bear the weight of too great a shift, and even that can be used for dramatic effect.
A transition marks an end that makes space for a beginning. Are you finding it challenging to find the endings in elements of your work such as interactions, events, points of focus, or themes? Don’t be afraid of drawing those elements to an end or a pause when you need to. Airy prose isn’t in opposition to thematic certainty, or moral purpose, or to characters taking incontrovertible action. These moments of grounding are necessary to make a work feel meaningful and satisfying. Otherwise it’s just beautiful meandering.
Read the works of other airy prose stylists to see how and when they use transitions, from the comma level all the way to the choice of where the story begins and ends. Think about what makes those works resonate with you, about the hidden or explicit structure of story that the floating prose hangs from like clouds on a stage set. Consider a work like Sofia Samatar’s “Cities of Emerald, Deserts of Gold,” with its frequent, unsoftened transitions between highly personal moments of vignette; it has a rhythm, no more jarring than the pacing of footsteps, and the reader is left curious and just sufficiently disoriented by the thematic leaps that slowly spiral in to resolution. Listen to ethereal music—to airs, even!—and consider the moments of reorientation to the tonic after a bit of glorious noodling about, the shapes of the phrases, the balance of runs and rests.
Your transitions should change the tone of your work; that’s what they’re for. Use them for that purpose. No work can maintain a single tone throughout; just like that airy music, it will be louder and softer, faster and slower. Transitions are part of that. They are tools in your toolbox. Instead of fearing them, see how you can make them work for you, and use them to do some of the heavy lifting that even light, airy stories need.