External transitions move readers from section to section
Talk about a transition. Here’s how author Erik Larson ends one chapter of Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America:
“‘Would the thin rods (of the first Ferris wheel) be sufficient to sustain not only the enormous weight of the structure and that of the 2,000 passengers who might chance to be in the cars, but the pressure of the wind as well?’ a reporter asked. … In three weeks, that question would find an answer.”
Transitions like Larson’s thrust the reader forward — from the end of one section to the beginning of the next. And that’s the job of external transitions: keeping the reader’s attention beyond a natural stopping point.
That means external transitions need to work harder than internal transitions, which just move the reader from sentence to sentence or paragraph to paragraph.
To write great external transitions:
1. Create cliff-hangers.
The best external transitions hint at what is to come. They keep the reader moving along by promising that something fascinating is just around the corner.
Larson is a master of the external transition. Here are two more chapter enders from Devil in the White City:
“Much was made, in retrospect, of the fact that [architect John] Root, in evening dress, charged into the rock-cold night without first putting on a coat.”
“Only later did the furnace man recognize that the kiln’s peculiar shape made it ideal for another, very different application. ‘In fact,’ he said, ‘the general plan of the furnace was not unlike that of a crematory for dead bodies, and with the provision already described, there would be absolutely no odor from the furnace.’ … But again, that was later.”
Ira Glass uses the same approach for “This American Life” station breaks. Here’s how he propelled listeners forward in the radio program’s legendary piece about the housing crisis, “The Giant Pool of Money”:
Let’s pause and ponder that for a minute too.
“Coming up, how $5 million can get you into $100 million of trouble. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.”
Of course, you have to make good on the promise of these external transitions. Cliffhangers followed by nonevents lose reader interest — and respect — in a hurry.
2. Model the mystery writers.
One way to polish external transitions is to study the last sentences in chapters of mysteries. “The Writer’s Guide to Hardy Boys Rack Books,” for instance, includes this excellent advice:
“Every chapter must end with a cliffhanger. On the spectrum of cliffhangers, the best are those involving physical danger. Next best are perceived threats — a mysterious shadow, a scream, the sight of a gun, the earth rumbling. Last on the list is the moderately acceptable dramatic realization, such as ‘he’s been lying to us all along’ or ‘she’s the real spy.’”
I think of section enders like these as “But that was before we found the body in the bathtub” transitions.
The idea is to write something that’s so provocative that the reader can’t stop reading. You want readers to think, “I’ll just read until they find that body in the bathtub.”
A series of small promises from you (“A body in the bathtub is just around the corner”) and small commitments from your reader (“I’ll just read until they find it”) might just get your tired, busy, distracted reader to read to the end.