How to bring your reader along: taking a page from comics.
When we write, we send a story on a journey from our mind to the reader’s. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud defines mastery in comics as the percentage of the artist’s original ideas that survive the journey to the reader’s mind. 
Although we write without pictures, novelists are still sending images, via the written word, from one mind to another.
McCloud defines mastery as how much of the original idea survives the journey to the reader. We write a grocery list, we want our shopper to eat Frosted Flakes, they get home and pour a bowl of Grape Nuts. How do our ideas cross the divide?
The Concept of Closure
Most writers, James Joyce aside, don't attempt stream-of-consciousness novels. Instead, we use a shorthand of moments and trust our reader to fill in the gaps. In comics, this trust has a name: closure.
McCloud defines closure as the phenomenon of “observing the parts but perceiving the whole,” which occurs when the reader “mentally completes what is incomplete based on past experience.” (63)
It’s a colon and end-parentheses, but our experience tells us it is a smile. Our mind connects the symbol with past experiences and emotions. We “feel” the smile. That’s closure.
"Closure is what isn't said."
In comics, the space between panels is where this magic happens. “Closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality.” (67)
McCloud continues, “Closure in comics fosters an intimacy surpassed only by the written word, a silent, secret contract between creator and audience.” (69)
Closure is what lets writers choose the right information to share, and then trust that the reader will connect moments and scenes into a meaningful story.
We write moments, scenes, and chapters. The reader experiences our written words like stepping stones. Closure is what isn’t said. Closure lets them see the stream flowing between what we’ve written.
Transitions in novels are the white space between panels in comics. McCloud describes six types of transitions in comics: moment-to-moment, action-to-action, subject-to-subject, scene-to-scene, aspect-to-aspect, and non sequitur.
I've connected a written equivalent for each type of visual transition which gives us, as writers, another way to understand each type of transition.
Using these tools well helps our ideas survive the journey through a novel.
Moment-to-moment transitions are the finest-grained transitions. Detailed and small, they are closely connected in time and space. They require very little closure so the reader can remain immersed in the writing. (McCloud, 71) Richard Peck’s masterful A Day No Pigs Would Die contains lovely moment-to-moment transitions. When Robert (the boy) describes a hawk taking flight in the evening, he says:
“I could see a hawk drawing a circle in the sky. He was low for a hawk, and he must of just left his nest on the ridge and was making his first circle of evening flight. He went higher, with little moving of his wings. As he passed over us, I could see the red of his tail—like a torch against the softer colors of his underbody. […] The clouds above him were orange now. Like when Mama poured peach juice on the large curds of white potcheese. At the western-most turn of his circle, I almost lost him in the sundown.” (62)
As the reader, I feel fully immersed in these moments when the details, the colors, and the truth of the food they eat on the farm, are so beautifully woven together. These kinds of transitions don’t take a lot of work on the reader’s end to provide closure. The details paint a scene in the reader’s mind because most of us have seen a bird, a sunset, and peaches or white food. We can easily see, in our mind’s eye, what the writer describes. When we want to be sure details set a mood or answer important story questions later in the work, we can choose specific moment-to-moment transitions to make the key scenes vivid for the reader.
McCloud’s second type of transition features “a single subject in distinct action-to-action transitions.” (70) In Megan Whalen Turner’s book The Thief,our protagonist Gen, the thief, is in a cave searching for Hamiathes’s Gift. The river, which has been held back temporarily, begins flowing through the cave, threatening to drown him.
“I was standing there before it [the obsidian] when the panic came. The walls pressed in, and the water seeped through them. The flame in my lamp sputtered, and I remembered the passage of time. Pol had said there was six hours of oil…but I had wandered for a long time by matchlight…but some of the oil had spilled from the lamp when I dropped it. How much time did I have? How much oil? I sloshed the lamp from side to side as my feet began moving of their own volition toward the door of the maze.” (166)
We are carried through a series of actions: Gen spills his tools; his hands shake; he steps in a fresh puddle; he pants with haste; the door he propped open has swung shut. “Frantically” he works the lock and the door leaps open. (167) We can imagine the clear steps and motions the writer has laid out because we’ve all run in fear, dropped things, and felt the rush of frantic action.
Action-to-action transitions let the reader build an impression of how characters grow and change through their actions. How they respond to a setting, a challenge, or another character tells us something about the protagonist. The reader has to do some work to imagine how the actions and emotions are connected, drawing on our personal experiences and interactions. But when actions are clear and easy to grasp, the reader follows the writer’s train of thought, often with a high level of interest. We love to ponder the question “what happens next?” and wonder what our hero will do.
Subject-to-subject transitions, according to McCloud, are likely to occur within a scene or dialogue (71) and require more involvement by the reader because there is a bigger gap between the two elements. The subjects, which we could also call topics, change within the scene and the reader has to use their knowledge of the story to make intuitive connections between topics.
In Teri Terry’s novel Slated, the protagonist Kyla’s mind has been wiped. She’s a clean slate, given a second chance in society. We don’t know what her transgression was and we don’t know exactly why she’s having memories she shouldn’t. The book slowly reveals the other characters’ story angles and this dramatic mystery unfolds.
Slated uses a lot of subject-to-subject transitions and this technique enhances the mysteriousness of the drama as the reader tries to piece together the story. Many chapters contain a series of memories and experiences. We can’t yet connect them completely either, but we expect – because we are wired to seek connections – that the writer intends to tell us something about how these are related pieces of information. As we ponder, we turn the story and imagine possible connections from different angles.
A scene-to-scene transition requires a leap in deductive reasoning to cross significant time or space, according to McCloud. (71) These kinds of transitions happen in novels when we need to bring the reader to a new time or place, without losing the narrative thread. If there hasn’t been enough groundwork, the reader will feel like they’ve been dropped into an unrelated moment, and their confusion will pull them out of the story. Done well, the reader is able to jump through time and feel completely connected to the story.
Rita Williams Garcia’s book Jumped is told from the three girls’ points of view: Leticia, who appears to be the main character; artsy Trina; and basketball star Dominique. The first thirty-three chapters are tightly connected, bouncing between characters but all taking place in a single day, and all driving toward the climax scene when Dominique jumps Trina. Ivan, a secondary character in Trina’s art class, tells the next-to-last chapter before we return to Leticia at the end. Ivan’s only direct narration feels like a distant pause, constructed of choppy bits of conversation directed at an unresponsive Trina in her hospital bed. In the scene-to-scene transition between chapters, we have to switch locations from school to hospital, remember who Ivan is, and remember how he’s connected to Trina.
Williams Garcia helps us with clues. Ivan talks about art class and leaves behind a portrait he drew in art class in one of Trina’s early chapters, “Yeah, nurse. I know. I’m going. Oh. Check it out. This is what she really looks like.” (164) Clues help us make the leap in time and location.
As with subject-to-subject transitions, readers need enough information to feel the underlying structure of the novel. Combining scene-to-scene and subject-to-subject transitions lets the reader indulge in the pleasure of connecting the dots and completing their understanding of a story. The ah-ha moments are the rewards for the work the reader does to make these connections.
The fifth type of transition “bypasses time” to provide a “wandering eye” over parts of a scene. It often sets the mood, a place, or an idea, says McCloud. (72) Siobhan Dowd’s novel A Swift Pure Cry is rich with seemingly disparate elements layered into scenes that weave together emotions, sensory information, and setting details.
In this excerpt, as Shell, the teenage protagonist, and Declan make love in a cave by the ocean; Shell hears the church bells in the distance. The bells, her memories, the physicality of the cave, and her mother’s death are all layered in short, bursting sentences in the heart of the book:
“Declan’s curls were pressed in below her shoulder, and beyond were the ridges of the encrusted wall. Mam, why did you have to go and die? Muffled and mysterious, she heard a toll of a far-off bell. The Coolbar church, ringing out the midday Angelus. One, two, three. Pray for us o Holy Mother of God. What would Dad say if he saw her now? The bell sounds rolled away with the wind and drifted back again. Six seven, eight. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. She remembered Mam’s record player, its needle bouncing across the black ridges of the old LPs, […] Eleven twelve. A sudden heart-catching climax, the swift pure cry, her mam singing along, soaring to the high note, peeling the spuds, hand-washing the woolens, turning to smile at Shell as she wiped her hands. Declan’s knuckle dug into her back. The record player and records had all gone. Dad sold them soon after she’d died. ‘Hoo-ha-ha-hoo,’ Declan yelped, as if another sharp wave had slapped up against him.” (135)
The aspects of this scene are connected only through Shell’s memories and her mind. We have come to know her through the story, so we see the connections as she does. Even though we have to work harder here to remember and reflect on Shell’s emotional state, we are deeply absorbed in constructing meaning from this passage and we stay wrapped in the story.
McCloud says the non sequitur “offers no logical relationship between panels whatsoever” (72) although our minds will try to connect ideas as they are presented to us and fashion some meaningful connection from them. The non sequitur is an interesting technique in writing where the reader may have a higher tolerance for mystery and unresolved information, at least for a while, than in comics.
Tillie Walden uses a seemingly non sequitur transition between chapters in her graphic novel memoir Spinning. She “defines” skating moves with a sketch and her emotional experience of the move—easy, hard, why—as chapter breaks. Although the sketches could seem to have nothing to do with the story, each move echoes and reinforces the main emotional point of that moment in the book. Although Spinning did benefit from the illustrations to support the non sequitur transition, it could be a model for trying to achieve a similar effect with words alone.
None of the novels mentioned here relied on a single transition type. The authors chose transitions to match the moment in the story, building the rhythm, whitespace, beats and melody of their piece.
"The persistence of information across time is elastic."
In a novel, as for a long illustrated piece, the persistence of information across time is elastic. It depends on the reader’s connection to the material, the pace of information, and the quality of the work as a whole. Writers have to ask themself if the reader needs to be reminded of a theme? An idea? Was information planted early in the story strong enough to last until the reader needs it? Does the reader need a reminder? Is there enough connective tissue to hold the story together?
We’re all artists trying to send information through the ether into our reader’s minds. Transitions are one of our tools. If we choose them wisely and write them well, they will carry information along the journey. The right transitions can help maximize the chances that the reader will receive the story we intend to tell.
For more craft essays about some of these books, follow the links:
“The mastery of one’s medium is the degree to which [how much of a given project truly represents what he/she envisioned it to be] can be increased, the degree to which the artist’s ideas survive the journey.” (196)