How To Use Transitions to Trim Word Count

RamonaGravitarWhat is a transition?

According to Merriam Webster Online, a transition is “a: passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another : change.”

In fiction writing, transition words connect and carry different parts of the story. Transition words act as bridges between moments and ideas.

This post will focus on time transitions.

Good plotting hinges on an ever-flowing stream of action. The action may be small and quiet, or big and exciting, but as long as the actions are connected, logical, and move forward, the reader can be pulled along. Transitions help that flow by jumping the character from one act to another.

Transitions can be via a single word: later, meanwhile, finally, next, during, afterward, before

Transitions can be in pairs of words: and then, after that, soon after

Transitions can be more specific phrases: an hour later, the next day, on Saturday, a month went by.

Single and short word transitions like those noted above are used in scenes to bridge movements and short passages of time. A specific phrase like “an hour later” takes a bigger hop in time, and perhaps to a new location.

Transitions can also be shown without using words. A new chapter can denote a transition, but what if the writer wants a significant change in the scene without starting a new chapter? This can be accomplished in two ways: using white space or centered marks such as an asterisk (***) or pound sign (###). The white space or marks are visual signals to the reader that there has been a significant change in time or place.

The above is all basic writing info. What does it have to do with trimming word count?

Transitions can replace details that are unnecessary to the story. As I  have quoted (many times) before, “Everybody sleeps, gets dressed, and goes to the bathroom, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about it.”

This applies to characters and getting someone from one place to another, either physically or in time. A manuscript gets bogged down, and the word count shoots up, when a writer records unnecessary movements.

Let me illustrate, using characters from my pretend novel Bad Sale.

Richard, the farmer, has just returned home from town. He walks into his house and tosses his keys on the kitchen table. His wife Jillian is on the phone. She hangs up and announces his friend Simon called, begging for Richard to meet him at a hunting cabin in the woods.

This is a fairly common development in a mystery. A friend in need calls. The protagonist, because he’s a good guy, answers the call. Trouble ensues.

What Richard would do is…

… run his hand through his hair to show irritation, pick up the keys to his truck, walk out to the truck, open the door, get inside, close the door, insert the keys in the ignition, strap on his seat belt…..stop at the light in town, change the radio station, stop at the next light in town, turn on four lane highway, adjust his hair in the rearview mirror, settle back for the long drive, punch the radio button because he hates this song…..turn into a 7-11, cut the engine, pull out the keys, unlatch his seatbelt,  get out of the truck, go inside, pour coffee into a go-cup, go to the counter, ask for cigarettes….turn down the cabin road, avoid the potholes, pull up to the cabin, turn off the engine, unlatch his seatbelt,  check his hair again, pull the keys from ignition, open the door, toss cigarette on the ground, stamp it out, walk to the cabin.

The ellipses indicate spots where I could have shown even more mundane, unimportant actions. What this paragraph says to the reader is one thing:

Richard drove to the cabin.

Unless something in there is important—such as, if Simon was killed at 7:22 and Richard is a suspect, will the store video showing him there at 7:19 be noteworthy? Of course. But if at 7:22 Simon is sitting safely on the cabin porch drinking a beer, we’re back to one thing:

Richard drove to the cabin.

What’s wrong with just writing Richard drove to the cabin? It’s abrupt. It needs a transition.

Here are examples, using transition words, specific phrases, and no words.

Richard walked into the kitchen and tossed his keys on the table. Jillian was on the phone. She looked irritated, or maybe worried. She hung up and said, ”That was Simon. He wants to meet you at the cabin. Now.”

Richard said, “Now? I’m bushed. Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”

“I don’t think so,” Jillian said. “He sounded desperate. I think you should go.”

Richard ran a hand through his hair, and then he picked up his keys from the table.

An hour later, he pulled up to the cabin.

OR:

Richard walked into the kitchen and tossed his keys on the table. Jillian was on the phone. She looked irritated, or maybe worried. She hung up and said, ”That was Simon. He wants to meet you at the cabin. Now?”

Richard said, “Now? I’m bushed. Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”

“I don’t think so,” Jillian said. “He sounds desperate. I think you should go.”

#

Richard pulled up to the cabin. It had been in his family for three generations, and his worry over Simon was forgotten for a moment as Richard walked toward the porch. It drooped on the right side. When had that happened? One of the window shutters sagged off its top hinge. He felt a punch of guilt. This cabin had been his grandfather’s pride and joy, and  now it looked ramshackle. Family treasures should be treated with care and respect.

Simon stepped out onto the porch. Richard stumbled in shock.

The break skips the boring and unimportant drive and puts us at the cabin fast. A single transition or two–and then, an hour later, white space–cut out oodles of extra words.

As a writer, if you need to write how Richard got to the cabin because walking the characters step by step through the action is your process, fine! Use your process. But in the revision phase, go back through the draft and ask if the READER needs to be walked through step by step.

If you are sending your reader on long boring drives with a guy who checks his hair and buys cigarettes for excitement, use a transition to get to the cabin fast. That’s where the real action is, right?

Ramona

4 thoughts on “How To Use Transitions to Trim Word Count

  1. A really good point here. So many new writers think they have to drag the reader through every movement, like those old indie directors who showed us every move as the protagonist moved around his boring apartment, getting ready to go to his boring job. Okay, his life’s boring. We got it already. And we’re bored. On the other hand, I find I have a fixation with “when”. “When they got back to the ranch”, “when she had finished the dishes”, “when she got up in the morning”. I’m constantly trying to find more inventive ways of transitioning.

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  2. I remember so well having difficulty with transitions when I first started writing. I knew I had written it all wrong, but then I also was afraid of writing the magic carpet ride–as if authenticity would disappear without the fine details, which weren’t necessary. I laugh now but transitions were hard. A case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Guilty, but I’m not anymore. Your post will help many writers. Thanks.

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