From Here to There: Transitional Devices

Because I’ve been doing a lot of teaching lately, I’ve come to notice that most beginning writers have great difficulty with transitional words and phrases. That is, they don’t use transitional words and phrases. 

I suspect that one of the reasons so many beginning writers fail to think of and use transitional devices between sentences and paragraphs is that they are wrapped up in the story they’re writing, and the story is very clear to them. They fail to take the reader’s needs into consideration — not because they’re inconsiderate people, but because they haven’t yet internalized the need to build bridges that will help the reader follow  the story.

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A primary need of readers is to know where the characters are within the story and when the events are taking place. When asked to read somebody else’s writing and comment on it (critique it), perhaps the most common question readers ask of the writer is, Where are we in this scene? Are we still in the same location as in the previous paragraph? Or have we moved to another location? Because, Writer, this suddenly isn’t making sense. I don’t know where the characters are. 

The other very common question readers ask is: When? When is this action happening? The same time as the previous paragraph? Years earlier? In the future? Readers can become quickly disoriented and not know where they are in time. The writer knows: but she hasn’t clued the reader in on when the action is taking place. Or took place. Or might take place in the future.

Readers stumble when the written words don’t make it clear that a time shift or location shift occurred between the previous paragraph and the current one. This is why transitional words are critical: they help readers move through the story, just as a bridge helps people get from one side of a river to the other.

Transitional words aren’t limited to showing where or when. They can show contradiction, agreement, cause, conclusion, sequence, and many other relationships. Nor are such words limited to transitions within and between sentences: they are also needed in transitions between paragraphs. (Larger transitions, such as those between scenes or chapters, can be indicated by use of white space or a new chapter number.) Each transition serves as a bridge that carries the reader directly and safely from one thought to another . . . as opposed to sentences that contain no transitions, which require the reader to use slippery stepping-stones to reach the other side. 

imagesSome common transitional words are as follows: again, like, unlike and, but, also, then, besides, while, if, consequently, after, later, before, next, now.

Some common transitional phrases are these: in addition, in spite of, in contrast, different from, in order to, so long as, due to, for this reason, for instance, to repeat, as a result, as soon as, as long as.

Although transitional words and phrases aren’t the only way to move between sentences and paragraphs, they are a good way to do so. Using too many transitional words is a more easily corrected writing problem than is using too few transitional words.  

In addition to using transitional words such as then, after, and while, a writer can build bridges of comprehension between sentences or paragraphs by repeating a word or phrase from the first sentence in the second one. Or from the first paragraph in the second one. Unlike transitional words or phrases, these bridges built through small repetition are practically invisible to the reader. 

When they’re working well, transitional words and phrases are barely visible to the reader. That is, the reader has only a subliminal awareness of them, not an up-front, in-your-face awareness. That’s how transitional words and phrases should work: in the background, as aids, not in the foreground as attention getters.

Here’s a paragraph from my most recent book, Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers. 

His next stop was Indianapolis, where he worked as a manuscript reader for Bobbs-Merrill and also wrote for Reader Magazine. At Bobbs-Merrill he met David Laurance Chambers, who would go on to direct the pubishing house through its most important years. Though it would provide him with a life-long connection to Bobbs-Merrill, Biggers’ stay in Indianapolis was short-lived, much as his Cleveland employment had been. In February of 1908 he moved to Boston, where he went to work for The Boston Traveller.

EarlDerrBiggersCover_GregorichI hope you found that paragraph smooth reading: that is, you were able to follow what I was saying without difficulty. If you were aware of any transitional words or devices, it was probably a subliminal awareness: not an up-front, in-your-face awareness. That’s how transitional words and phrases should work: in the background, as an aid, not in the foreground commanding your attention.

Below is the same paragraph, this time with the small transitional words as well as the repeated words or phrases boldfaced, so you can see how they help lead a reader from the information in one sentence to the information in the next.

His next stop was Indianapolis, where he worked as a manuscript reader for Bobbs-Merrill and also wrote for Reader Magazine. At Bobbs-Merrill he met David Laurance Chambers, who would go on to direct the pubishing house through its most important years. Though it would provide him with a life-long connection to Bobbs-Merrill, Biggers’ stay in Indianapolis was short-lived, much as his Cleveland employment had been. In February of 1908 he moved to Boston, where he went to work for The Boston Traveller.

When you look at the big picture of what transitional words, phrases, and devices do, you see that, ultimately, they give a piece of writing a logical organization and a direction. And this is true whether the writing is fiction or nonfiction or poetry. Transitional words, phrases, and devices are bridges that help carry the reader from one idea or action to the next.

________________

Earl Derr Biggers wrote many a wonderful aphorism for Charlie Chan. Unfortunately, none of these adages dealt with transitional devices. However, don’t let that stop you from reading Barbara Gregorich’s biography of Earl Derr Biggers, which is full of transitional words and phrases in the right places.

Bobblehead

One day, extremely annoyed by sycophants and imitators, I penned this poem.

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Fitting In

I long to be
a bobblehead,

my head so huge
it blows my mind,

springing me from
sense and steadiness.

I want to bounce around
in every breeze,

cool as a quarterback
evading a sack,

my connections to a corpus
tenuous or less . . . or less than that.

I fancy bobbing with the boffos,
traveling with the triflers.

I long to be
a bobblehead.

 

_________________
Barbara Gregorich tackles other annoyances in Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Four More Figures of Speech

Expressive language brings literature (and story) to life, no matter what age level it’s written for. Eve Heidi Bine-Stock shows the truth of this in Volume 3 of her three-volume set on writing books for children. Specifically, she examines different figures of speech and gives examples of them from children’s literature.

Zeugma (ZOOG ma) might sound like something you don’t want to encounter in the dark, let alone in a children’s book. But you have encountered it: you just didn’t know its name. Zeugma is a figure of speech in which one word (usually a verb) is coupled to two different nouns in an intentionally humorous way. The example Bine-Stock gives is: “But, luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon,” from Harold and the Purple Crayon.

And for adults, Charles Dickens was using zeugma when he wrote: “She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass.”

Pleonasm (PLEE o nasm) is a figure of speech that, used consciously and with control, can result in intensified language. Used unconsciously and in an uncontrolled manner, it usually results in bad writing.

UnknownWherever you encounter the use of superfluous words, you are encountering pleonasms, which abound in English (and probably in other languages as well). “Tuna fish” and “puppy dog” are examples, as is “see with my own eyes.” In the first, “fish” is superflous; in the second, “dog” is superflous; and in the third “with my own eyes” is superflous, since you can’t see with anybody’s eyes but your own. Yet such pleonasms make those who speak them and even those who read them feel comfortable — something is, for some reason, being emphasized, and that feels good.

But then there’s unintentional use of pleonasm, as in government-speak and bureaucratic documents, which say the same thing in so many ways that one loses a sense of meaning. Even short two-word expressions of pleonasm can be irritating, as in “free gift” and “true fact.”

In an earlier blog on figures of speech, I said that a writer, or even somebody who doesn’t write, can easily use figures of speech without knowing what they are. But a writer, to paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge, chooses the best words in the best order, and so, at one time or another, a writer is bound to use one of the figures I’ve talked about. Perhaps accidentally.

This happened to me once when I submitted a poem, “Ridge and Furrow,” for a critique. Toward the end of the first stanza I wrote: “Ridge and furrow, / furrow and ridge roll across the land.” The editor critiquing the poem pointed these lines out, calling them an example of chiasmus (ky AZ mus), which is the repetition of words in first one order, then their opposite order, as in “ridge and furrow, furrow and ridge.”

I have to say that what stayed with me from this critique was not the name of the figure of speech. When I want to know the name of this figure of speech, I have to look it up. What stayed with me was that it can be effective to repeat words in their opposite order now and then.

IMG_2246Just about everybody in the English-speaking world uses litotes (LIE toe teez), and just about nobody is aware of it. Litotes is a form of understatement in which meaning is conveyed by negating a positive, as in:

The ice cream was not bad.

Zack was not sorry the pub was closed.

It’s not rocket science.

Figures of speech are literary devices that intensify language and make it richer. When I rewrite a piece, I rephrase select sentences so that they contain figures of speech — even though I seldom remember the name of the figures of speech I employ.

 

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Barbara Gregorich employed figures of speech in Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

 

Not One Woman

Many and many a blog ago, in Woman Yes, Girl No, I wrote about some people’s inability to use the word woman. Recently I was reminded of this by a book I read. In it, the author either refused to or could not get himself to use the word woman.

My response was to write a “skinny” poem, also called a “short lines” poem.

WLM-picture-of-logo

Let There Be Light

The man
writes
a book
peopled
by men,
boys,
ladies,
and girls,
but not one
woman.

In four
hundred
pages,
not one
woman.

I want
to rate
this book
one star
but can’t:
even one
star
belies
the dark.

 

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Barbara Gregorich has published one book of poetry: Crossing the Skyway.

Five Figures of Speech

Rhetoric is effective and/or persuasive writing or speaking, and figures of speech are one of the components of rhetoric. Both readers of and speakers of the English language enjoy encountering figures of speech, which can be clever, humorous, biting, visual — intriguing or memorable in some way. Thus writers who can employ figures of speech are more likely to win over their audience.

Because the ancient Greeks valued and taught rhetoric, most figures of speech have names that come from the Greek. I have to confess that I can use a figure of speech, knowing I have used it, without being able to remember its name.

alexander_aristotle

Some sources state that anaphora [a NAPH o ra] is probably the oldest literary device of all. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, and it has been used extensively by writers and speakers of all kinds. Walt Whitman used anaphora, as did Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here’s a well-known example, from Winston Churchill’s most famous World War II speech: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

Then there’s antanaclasis [ANT an a CLASS is], in which a word is repeated in the same grammatical form (verb, for example, or adjective), but with two different meanings or senses. An example is the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” In both cases hang is a verb, but in its first use it means to consort with, and in its second use it means to be suspended by the neck until dead.

UnknownYou can infer the importance of repetiton, both to the Greeks and to ourselves, when you consider how often repetition is part of a literary device. There’s anaphora, there’s antanaclasis, and there’s ploce [PLO see], which is the repetition of a word, often with intervening words between, and usually the second use of the word has a different meaning than does the first use of the word. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

game-of-thrones-longclaw-sword-of-jon-snow_1000Metonymy [meh TON eh me] replaces the name of something with a word that is closely associated with the first thing. For example, when Christina Rossetti wrote “Never on this side of the grave again,” she was replacing the word death with something associated with death: the grave. In “The pen is mightier than the sword,” pen is being used instead of written words, and sword is being used instead of military force.

Metonymy is so much a part of our spoken and written language that we’re often unaware that we’re using a figure of speech.

Synecdoche [sin EK do kee] is a special form of metonymy in which a part is used to represent the whole. An example of synecdoche from everyday usage is calling workers hands — the hand is just part of a human being, but it is used to stand for the whole person. Likewise, calling a very intelligent person a brain is an example of synecdoche.

And now, by your leave, I’ll leave you alone.

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Barbara Gregorich employs figures of speech in her poems, published in Crossing the Skyway.

Goodbye Hyphen, Hello Confusion

I love punctuation marks. Not just the inventiveness behind them (squiggles, slants, dashes, dots), but the way they work. Punctuation marks help the reader know what the writer of a sentence is trying to say.

So I’m very sad to see the fading-away of the hyphen as a mark that helps the reader understand the writer’s intent. Ad writers are particularly guilty of ignoring this punctuation mark: perhaps they think the hyphen is too tiny to convey anything of importance. They are oh so wrong.

One day several years ago I was hit by two unrelated ads (the “sex party” was in a newsletter, the “never” was on a shopping bag) which I read the wrong way.

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     The Tie That Binds

     The hyphen once connected
     what hadn’t yet coalesced,

     protected words from prematurely
     bumping or stubbornly jumping back

     to apartness. Base ball bounced
     into base-ball before it reached home;

     to day grooved into to-day before becoming
     current. But few seek connections these days,

     except for the kind that rack up
     unearned favors or lead to higher-

     paying jobs — not the kind that help patch
     cracks in thinking. Sex party for twenty

     three year olds. She holds you
     in her arms and you feel never

     before love. Tidal waves
     of separation

     drown ember glows
     of punctuation.

____________________

This poem appears in Barbara Gregorich’s Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Finding a Found Poem

Many months ago I explored both web sites and books in order to learn more about different types of poems. I’ve already posted about the fib. The day I learned about the fib I must have been in the F section of information sites, because I also learned about the found poem.

Found poem? I muttered to myself. Is that the opposite of a lost poem?

No. It isn’t.

According to Wikipedia, which in this case provides a good definition, found poetry is “a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry (a literary equivalent of a collage) by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning.” (Emphasis in original.)

Okay, I thought. That’s great. I now know what a found poem is. On to another subject.

Because, you see, I never thought I’d write a found poem. Nothing about found poetry really “called” to me, you know. Perhaps the found poems were out of hearing range.

But life loves to watch us strolling happily along, thinking we’re in charge of our own decisions — and then throw something in our path that makes us do the opposite of what we said we would do.

So it was with me and the found poem.

My husband, Phil Passen, is a musician, and I am his roadie. One day Phil had a three-hour gig at O’Hare Airport, somewhere in the United terminal. I brought along a novel I had almost finished reading.

Sixty minutes later, I did finish.

Two more hours to go on this gig. And I had forgotten to bring a second novel. What could I do? Besides listen to the wonderful music, of course.

I sat there, looking all around.

Words.

Words everywhere. On posters, flashing in neon, in windows, on plastic signs, on free-standing sandwich boards, on cardboard boxes, on luggage, on trams creeping by, on suitcases . . everywhere.

So I wrote down maybe half of the words I could see.

Found Poem

And then, even though the Wiki definition does not say that a found poem makes changes in the order of words, my found poem does. I rearranged the words (okay, okay, the spacing and the lines, too, and maybe I even deleted some words) and produced my first (and so far, only) found poem. You could say I found it at O’Hare.

United We Wait

Duty Free Liberty
United Club
Wi-Fi Available
Concourse C Baggage Claim
Currency Exchange
Animal Relief Area
Welcome US Customs Require That
Life-goes-on Insurance
From the International Best-Selling Trilogy
Let Us Serve You
Eli’s Cheesecake Chicago
You’re going to need a bigger map
Please Ask for Assistance
Not just leg-room . . . laptop room
Restrooms
Prudent
Earn Miles and Rewards
Priority Boarding
Trains to City
Ticketing/Check-In
Terminals

___________________

Barbara Gregorich’s not-lost poetry can be found in Crossing the Skyway.