One Easy Writing Trick to Keep Your Readers Engaged
Implement better transitions to keep people moving forward
Great writing is a magic trick.
One minute you crack the spine on a book you’ve never seen before, and the next minute the sun has vanished. It’s 2 a.m. Your chamomile tea is stone cold. The cat is sniffing your fingers to see if you died. What happened?
What happened is that the author hijacked your mind, seamlessly moving you from word to word, sentence to sentence, and page to page using a series of marvelous transitions.
Transitions, simply, are how you get readers from one idea to the next. However, great writers aren’t using the forced transitional words you probably remember from the dreaded list you had to memorize in English class. Try not to flinch when you see this:
One teacher of mine marked off points if you didn’t start each paragraph with one of these words. I can only get a little mad at her because when you have little to no writing skills, these words are excellent go-to choices. But true masters of writing don’t stay with the simple toolbox they learned in school. Instead, they learn how to transition a reader without a single transitional word.
Terry Pratchett is an expert at this. Pratchett authored 41 fantasy satire books in a series called Discworld. What’s unique about these books is not the elves, dwarves, or goblins. It’s the fact that they don’t have chapters. Each book is a 400-page journey with no significant stops.
You certainly can’t pull off such a literary feat by using words and phrases like next, subsequently, and in the meantime over and over again. Pratchett is much more inventive than that. Read this passage from one of his books, “Dodger”:
“Clothes spun past, never to reappear, but never mind because here came some more! It was: “Try these — oh dear no”; or, “How about this? Certain to fit — oh no, never mind, plenty more for a hero!”
But he hadn’t been a hero, not really. Dodger remembered that day three years ago when he had been having a really bad afternoon on the tosh, and it had started to rain…”
Pratchett then spins away on a three-page flashback. By the time you as a reader land back in the clothes shop, you’ve almost forgotten you were there in the first place.
Just like a magic trick, the best transitions are almost invisible. In the flow of reading, you’d be hard-pressed to find where the actual transition takes place here. In fact, the first time I read this passage, it took me nearly ten pages to think, “Wait… how did we get here?”
I flipped back several pages to figure out what happened. In this case, at least, I think I finally figured out Pratchett’s hidden trap door:
It’s the repetition of a single word: hero.
“Certain to fit — oh no, never mind, plenty more for a hero!”
But he hadn’t been a hero, not really.”
By having a character in the present mentioning a word that ties to another character’s past, Pratchett opens himself up to slip into that very event without breaking our flow.
Even though I write non-fiction, I wondered if this simple act of repeating a word could help me out. In a recent post, I started out with a very specific moment in a music video I loved. I used that moment to illustrate a point but wanted to show the reader some more supporting evidence. In the first draft, I wrote the transition like this:
There’s technically nothing wrong with that transition. It’s just… less than perfect. After the second draft, when I decided the story would indeed support my point, I moved into the third draft and thought, “How can I tweak this transition?”
I tried Terry’s trick.
To me, this flows much more seamlessly. The reader doesn’t have a hard stop where they might decide to do something else. Instead, they follow the trail of words to another piece of evidence and, eventually, my conclusion.
Getting your reader from the beginning of a post to the end can be one of the more difficult things to do. With the trick of using a single word as a reference point to a transition, you can flawlessly pull a metaphorical rabbit out of a hat and leave your readers thinking, “How did that happen?”