A Guide to Cementing Stories Together
by Amanda Mascarelli, The Open Notebook
Most writers learned in elementary school that a good story requires a compelling beginning, middle, and end. But how does one make the pieces fit neatly together? From my tattered memory of grade school, my teachers skipped that part. Or maybe I was home with the chicken pox the day we learned about transitions—the words and phrases, often subtly deployed, that give stories shape and tug readers from idea to idea.
Transitions serve such a critical purpose that some editors say good writing comes down to good transitions. Breanna Draxler, a freelance editor who has edited for Discover, Popular Science, and bioGraphic, likens transitions to the cement that glues the building blocks of a bridge together. And like any critical piece of engineering, transitions shouldn’t be an afterthought. If they’re done haphazardly, Draxler says, “you can definitely cement individual rocks together…. But you’re not going to have a bridge that gets you up and over the river. You’re going to have a pile of rocks that is cemented together.”
Pulling off seamless transitions can elude even the most seasoned writers and editors. Transitions can easily come across as formulaic, forced, obvious, or patronizing. And if they’re not done with finesse, they can give away the punchline and make stories feel repetitive. When transitions are ineffective—or are lacking altogether—readers may lose the thread of the story, or they may feel jarred from one paragraph or section to the next, or they may just get bored and go away.
Transitions serve such a critical purpose that some editors say good writing comes down to good transitions.
Journalist Philip Yam credits science fiction luminary Isaac Asimov with sparking his appreciation for good transitions, and says he still draws on tricks he picked up reading Asimov as a child. “After finishing a chapter,” Yam remembers, “I wanted to read the next chapter. It was getting late and I really needed to go to sleep, but he got me hooked. He put some seed at the end of each chapter that got me thinking, ‘Well, this [next] chapter doesn’t seem that long…. I’ll keep going.’ ”
Yam, editor-in-chief at the Simons Foundation and formerly a longtime editor at Scientific American, says when he wrote The Pathological Protein, his book on mad cow disease, he tried to emulate and incorporate the same tools Asimov used, planting a seed at the end of each chapter to lead the reader to the next.
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Transitions—whether between book chapters or between sentences, paragraphs, or sections of a story—can come in many flavors. Some are functional words or phrases—but, next, in fact—that stitch sentences together and provide simple cues to frame what’s coming next. Other transitions are more linguistically or conceptually complex. They might reinforce a train of thought, set up a shift in chronology or setting, present a cliffhanger or some surprise twist, deepen a comparison, or call attention to a contrast. Still others simply create a brief pause, slowing the pacing of a story at a critical moment. Whatever their purpose, when transitions are done well, they create an invisible but essential lure that entices readers to keep going.
Creating a Logical Flow
Transitions are central to the mission of holding a reader’s attention. “One good way of losing [that attention] is by creating a disconnect between something that you just wrote and the thing that follows,” says author and journalist Anil Ananthaswamy. “In my mind it comes down always to thinking, ‘Am I losing the reader?’ ”
One way to ensure a logical and pleasing progression of ideas, especially when moving from one paragraph to another, is by explicitly echoing words or concepts from the end of one passage at the beginning of the next. Here’s an example from a 2017 Nautilus story that Ananthaswamy wrote on the aging process. In this excerpt, he connects the last line of the first paragraph and the first line of the second paragraph (italics added). As Ananthaswamy notes, the first line of the second paragraph both connects it with the concept of bodies’ biological age and signals that he is now moving the story in a new direction. “If you simply delete the first [sentence] of the second paragraph, the two paragraphs are not as well connected, and you risk losing the reader,” he says.
The older the cells in an organ, the more likely they are to stop dividing and die, or develop mutations that lead to cancer. This leads us to the idea that our bodies may have a true biological age.
The road to determining that age, though, has not been a straight one. One approach is to look for so-called biomarkers of aging, something that’s changing in the body and can be used as a predictor of the likelihood of being struck by age-related diseases or of how much longer one has left to live.
Journalist and longtime editor Robin Lloyd calls these paragraph-to-paragraph connectors “head-to-tail transitions,” a concept she picked up from Yam when they worked together at Scientific American.
Head-to-tail transitions involve placing “a word or concept in the first sentence of each paragraph that refers back to, repeats, reflects, or echoes a word or concept used in the last sentence of the preceding paragraph,” Lloyd says. You don’t have to use the same word—it can be a synonym or a more oblique reference that, by echoing what came before it, helps readers follow a chain of logic through a piece.
Head-to-tail transitions are often very simple. Take the word choice at the end of one paragraph and the beginning of the next in Ingrid Burrington’s March 2018 Atlantic story on space exploration (italics added):
But Green is bullish on the tourism opportunities the spaceport will bring once the commercial spaceflights begin.
If they begin. For now, the spaceport is a futurist tourist attraction, not an operational harbor to the cosmos.
The word “begin” is a simple cue to readers that a concept introduced in one paragraph—the commencement of spaceflights—remains the subject of consideration in the next. The story’s author might have just as easily started the second paragraph by writing something like “But that won’t happen anytime soon,” or simply “But for now …”
Lloyd says head-to-tail transitions are a control mechanism of sorts—a way of “grabbing the reader and saying, ‘Look, we’re going to keep talking about this topic or thought, but we’re going to extend it a little further.’ You’re controlling the reader’s train of thought even more intentionally, more aggressively” for the sake of clarity.
Transitions are central to the mission of holding a reader’s attention.
Head-to-tail transitions can also be more subtle. For example, Lloyd points to an April 2018 story in Scientific American, in which Lydia Denworth writes about new approaches social scientists are taking to prevent suicides (italics added):
“We’re in the midst of a paradigm shift in suicide prevention,” [clinical psychologist Craig Bryan] says. “There’s this new explosion of research that is calling into question a lot of the old assumptions that not only researchers but also health care providers and members of the public have had about suicide.”
For decades, suicide has lurked in the shadows, weighed down by stigma. Once considered a crime, the act of killing oneself is still viewed as a sin in some religions. Even those who know that suicidal thoughts and behaviors stem from a brain disease or a psychological disorder have avoided or misunderstood the subject—hospitals and schools have been reluctant to screen for it, pharmaceutical trials have excluded suicidal patients and funding institutions have been unwilling to support research. The few clinicians and scientists working in the field made little headway.
At the simplest level, the repetition of the word “suicide” in the paragraph above creates a head-to-tail transition. But there are also subtler elements here. “For decades” echoes “old assumptions,” and “lurked in the shadows” echoes the idea of experts and laypeople misunderstanding suicide.
Meanwhile suicide rates have gone up. Between 1999 and 2016 the overall rate rose by 28 percent in the U.S. The rise was steeper among certain groups: for middle-aged women and men, it jumped 64 and 40 percent, respectively. Among girls between 10 and 14, the suicide rate more than tripled, although it is still very low. Since 2001 the suicide risk among veterans has also climbed—they are now 20 percent more likely than civilians to take their own lives. Almost 45,000 Americans died by suicide in 2016, making it the 10th leading cause of death. For every person who dies by suicide, nearly 300 consider it.
The buildup of numbers at the end of this paragraph signals the urgency explicitly cited at the start of the next one:
Finally, suicide has become too urgent a problem to ignore, with the rising rate among military personnel an especially powerful call to action.
Denworth’s use of head-to-tail transitions in this passage is particularly helpful, Lloyd says, because it leads the reader through some dense figures and other set-up material on an emotionally challenging topic.
Lloyd cautions that head-to-tail transitions should be used sparingly—as Denworth has done—lest the prose become too formulaic or the reading too tedious.
Not all stories need head-to-tail transitions, Lloyd notes. They’re especially useful, she says, in sections that readers might find confusing, such as in presenting background that is less cinematic in nature. “It’s really useful when I as an editor and representative of the reader am getting lost in the text and just need to thread my way through it,” Lloyd says. “Sometimes you really need that hand-holding.”
When done well, transitions can make sentences and paragraphs unspool as smoothly and (seemingly) effortlessly as a series of Vinyasa yoga poses.
Flow Yoga for the Brain
Successful transitions are seamless, says Roxanne Khamsi, chief news editor at Nature Medicine. She compares the pleasing flow that good transitions create to the flow of the body during yoga, in which each position requires a move that’s natural for the muscles. “The brain is a muscle too, in a way,” Khamsi says. “The reason that flow is important in writing is so that it doesn’t tax the brain—it doesn’t put the brain in the wrong kind of twist.” When done well, transitions can make sentences and paragraphs unspool as smoothly and (seemingly) effortlessly as a series of Vinyasa yoga poses.
She points to Maryn McKenna’s 2018 Mother Jones story on phage therapy (the use of viruses to treat deadly bacterial infections) as an example of how this can work well. “Each closing sentence of a paragraph naturally leads to the topic sentence of the next paragraph, so that the reader effortlessly reaches another layer of context in this fascinating story.” In fact, Khamsi says, the transitions are so smooth that they’re nearly imperceptible. Yet each paragraph builds on the previous one in a graceful and logical way (italics added):
To understand how phage therapy works, it helps to know a little biology, starting with the distinction between bacteria and viruses. Most of the drug-resistant superbugs that cause medical havoc are bacteria, microscopic single-celled organisms that do most of the things that other living things do: seek nutrition, metabolize it into energy, produce offspring. Viruses, which are much smaller than bacteria, exist only to reproduce: They attach to a cell, hijack its reproductive machinery to make fresh viruses, and then, in most cases, explode the cell to let viral copies float free.
The short, declarative sentence that begins the next paragraph acts like a signpost for readers, signaling in uncomplicated language that, now that we’ve explained the basic difference between viruses and bacteria, we’re going to bring phages into the mix:
Phages are viruses. In the wild, they are the cleanup crew that keeps bacteria from taking over the world. Bacteria reproduce relentlessly, a new generation every 20 minutes or so, and phages kill them just as rapidly, preventing the burgeoning bacterial biomass from swamping the planet like a B-movie slime monster. But phages do not kill indiscriminately: Though there are trillions in the world, each is tuned evolutionarily to destroy only particular bacteria. In 1917, a self-taught microbiologist named Félix d’Herelle recognized phages’ talent for targeted killing. He imagined that if he could find the correct phages, he could use them to cure deadly bacterial infections.
That was a gleaming hope, because at the time, nothing else could. (Sir Alexander Fleming wouldn’t find the mold that makes penicillin, the first antibiotic, until 1928.) Treatments were primitive: aspirin and ice baths to knock down fever, injections of crude immunotherapy extracted from the blood of horses and sheep, and amputation when a scratch or cut let infection burgeon in a limb and threaten the rest of the body with sepsis.
The first sentence of this paragraph (“That was a gleaming hope …”) provides a trail of bread crumbs for the reader, bridging the biology and historical background on phages with important context on the discovery of antibiotics. It also interjects a touch of suspense and tension.
Sometimes a story requires a marked shift in direction, perspective, or chronology from one paragraph to the next. Making these turns without throwing readers off balance can be challenging, especially in shorter stories like news pieces, in which brevity and word economy are essential.
One common way to make such pivots is by using what Draxler calls the “contrast approach,” in which the writer summarizes what is already known or has just been established, then throws in a twist. This passage from Jack Dykinga’s January 2018 bioGraphic story about quiver trees illustrates the use of contrast for switching gears (italics added):
Quiver trees support a wide variety of creatures in the desert. Birds, insects, and mammals, including baboons, rely on the nectar in their flowers for moisture and sustenance. As some of the few elements on the landscape with any height, the trees act as nesting sites for social weaver birds (Philetarius socius) and perches for raptors. The trees provide resources for humans, too; indigenous San hunters hollowed out the branches to construct quivers to carry their poisonous arrows, which is what gives the tree its common name.
While the trees have carved out an impressive niche in this extreme environment, they don’t have a lot of wiggle room within it. Quiver trees are surprisingly sensitive to changing conditions—especially high temperatures and drought, which is exactly the trend predicted for this part of the world as the global climate changes.
A similar type of widely used transition is what Draxler calls the “But wait” approach. Since so much of science writing is discovery-based, she notes, many stories follow the same basic form, first laying out foundational knowledge and then imparting what’s new: “But wait—this new discovery is what’s changing how we think about this issue.” She offers another example from bioGraphic, this one from an extended caption that accompanied a photograph by Alex Hyde (italics added):
Living beings—from ferns and ferrets to E. coli and crickets—age over time, a process of deterioration called senescence. While the rate of aging varies dramatically among species, the general rule is that the chance of mortality rises as an individual’s reproductive capacity wanes. It’s a universal and unchangeable fact of life: We all age. Or so scientists thought.
“You and I are going to age; there’s no way around it,” MartÍnez says. “But the Hydra doesn’t have to.”
Pivoting at Section Breaks
Smooth transitions are especially vital in longer stories, because these stories typically involve more layers and bigger conceptual leaps than news stories or other short pieces. Perhaps the most critical tool for creating transitions in longer stories—and especially in stories that rely heavily on narrative storytelling techniques—is the judicious use of section breaks, which are typically denoted by either a subheading or a skipped line set off by a drop cap, asterisks, or some other typographical treatment.
Perhaps the most critical tool for creating transitions in longer stories—and especially in stories that rely heavily on narrative storytelling techniques—is the judicious use of section breaks.
Narrative features often require jumping forward or backward in a story’s chronology, introducing new characters, and shifting to a different scene or backdrop. When done properly, section breaks serve as a stylistic device that allows a writer to make these major shifts without leaving the reader feeling disoriented. What makes section-break transitions effective, though, is not just the subhed or the skipped line itself—it’s the sentences that bracket the break.
In an award-winning 2017 High Country News feature about researchers who study forest fires, freelance journalist Douglas Fox demonstrates how transitions following section breaks can drop the reader into unexpected territory before then bringing them back to the central through line of the story. At the end of the first section of his story, Fox describes researchers flying through an epic smoke plume, noting that, as one scientist had earlier said, the plume was reminiscent of a nuclear mushroom cloud:
“The plume is orders of magnitude harder to study than the stuff on the ground,” says Brian Potter, a meteorologist with the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory in Seattle who sometimes works with Clements. Indeed, it took a global conflagration much darker than any forest fire to even begin laying the foundations of this work. Kingsmill’s observation about the bomb, it turns out, isn’t far off.
After a section break, Fox then offers the reader crucial backstory, looking back in time nearly 75 years. He plunges us into the thick of World War II, where British planes are sending flares down in a bombing raid over Hamburg, Germany, turning buildings into infernos. The resulting catastrophic fires and loss of life gave researchers their earliest glimpses into the behavior of firestorms:
The evening of July 27, 1943, was stiflingly hot in Hamburg, Germany. The leaves of oak and poplar trees hung still in the air as women and teenagers finished factory shifts and boarded streetcars. They returned home to six-story flats that lined the narrow streets of the city’s working-class neighborhoods. They opened windows to let in cooler air, and folded themselves into bed. It was nearly 1 a.m. when British planes arrived.
One of the tricks to introducing a new setting or point in time is to create what Fox thinks of as a “launch pad” for the reader. To build that launch pad in this story, he says, he and his editor, Sarah Gilman, worked and reworked the transition—particularly the sentence before the section break, referring to wildfires’ smoke plumes being like nuclear bombs. They wanted to create tension and give readers a hint of what was coming, while also offering sufficient information before the section break to firmly anchor the reader in the new scene that begins after the section break. Including specific details (such as, in Fox’s story, the exact date, time of day, and city in Germany where the scene is occurring) in the opening line of a new section can serve to “lessen the confusion and hopefully help [the reader] to figure out, just a tiny bit more quickly, how this seeming digression fits into the overall story,” says Fox.
Punctuating the scene with such details also signals to the reader that something important is going to happen there, he notes. “It’s the right temporal and spatial scale for talking about the bombing raid, since the firestorm was a product of the specific layout and architecture of that city, and of the weather on that particular evening,” he says. What’s more, “Cuing the reader in to a particular date and evening also tells them, on a more gut level, that something very acute and sudden is going to happen—something that is sudden on a very personal, human scale.”
The transition in the example above serves another important purpose, which is to slow down the pacing of the story, amplifying its impact. Fox says that he likes to be intentional about using section breaks to “create a little bit of a speed bump—to jar the reader just a tiny, tiny bit.”
“By the time you finish a section, things often feel fast—or at least you’ve (hopefully) built to some kind of crescendo, or some new insight, gotten the reader to think, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know that,’ ” Fox says. “The intention of the break is to slow things back down again.”
The very thing that makes transitions elusive is the subtlety we often don’t notice as we’re reading.
Here’s another example of a section-break pivot. In this case, the break is used to introduce a new character—a baby gorilla—in a recent Atlantic feature by journalist Krista Langlois (italics added):
The invention of processed, calorically dense “biscuits” packed with vitamins and nutrients and supplemented with a few fruits and vegetables eventually helped standardize gorilla diets. Animals on the biscuit diet began living longer, seemingly healthier lives, sometimes surviving into their 50s. Infant mortality rates dropped. One female gorilla, Jo Ray K, gave birth to five fuzz-headed infants, including a rambunctious baby boy born on July 10, 1987. Zookeepers named him Mokolo.
When Mokolo arrived at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in 1994, he helped establish a bachelor group with three other young males. Wild gorillas often live in bachelor groups when they’re young, and Mokolo settled easily into his new social role. From the start, says the zoo’s executive director and animal behaviorist Chris Kuhar, Mokolo stood out for his big personality. “He was the punky kid who caused trouble,” Kuhar recalls. “But he was also the peacemaker. He was the one who wanted to play, or who wanted to fight, or cuddle.”
The example above illustrates a case where the sentence following a section break picks up on the same concept (the gorilla Mokolo) that the previous section ended on. (It is also an example of a head-to-tail transition.) But section breaks might just as easily be used to start a new thread in the story, or to circle back to a previous one, and have nothing to do with the paragraph preceding the section break. For instance, Langlois uses a section break elsewhere in the same story to bring a broad topic to a close and to zoom in on a new scene at the zoo (italics added):
But in time, the work of Less, Krynak, Kristen Lukas, Pam Dennis, and others may take captive gorillas one step closer to living like their wild cousins—one step in a century-long series of steps and missteps. It’s fitting, Dennis thinks, that our understanding of human medicine and physiology is finally contributing to the health and well-being of primates, instead of the other way around.
“My feeling,” she says, “is that we learned so much about human health by doing research on primates that now it’s sort of like giving back.”
At 6:30 in the morning, when the streetlights are still on and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is closed to the public, Brian Price, the gorilla keeper, shows up for work in faded Carhartts and a hooded sweatshirt. A ring of keys, a handheld radio, and a canister of heavy-duty pepper spray hang from his belt.
Pinpointing what makes a transition work takes practice and a well-trained eye. A clumsy break—for example, one that leans too heavily on a subheading, or that comes without bringing appropriate closure to a discussion—can leave readers scratching their heads about why a story has taken a sudden turn or left an important discussion unresolved. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘Hold onto your hats, the roller coaster just took a 90-degree turn,’ ” Khamsi says.
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That’s especially likely to happen if the writer isn’t confident about where the story is heading. “Building successful transitions comes down to knowing with a certain level of granularity what the logical progression of ideas is within the story,” Ananthaswamy says.
Draxler agrees, drawing again on the construction analogy. She says writers often make the mistake of using transitions to “bridge two very small parts of the story, to get from one paragraph to the next, without zooming out and really thinking about where this is taking the whole story.”
Developing that understanding of a story’s internal logic and narrative flow, and constructing the transitions that help hold the pieces together, often involves building and disassembling and rebuilding through the course of several drafts. And it usually requires substantial teamwork between editor and writer.
But we all know a successful piece when we read it: The structure hangs together into a pleasing story that we don’t want to put down. The very thing that makes transitions elusive is the subtlety we often don’t notice as we’re reading: the well-constructed bridges have connected the roads along the way so seamlessly that we don’t even realize we’ve crossed them until we reach the end of the journey.
Amanda Mascarelli is the managing editor of Sapiens, an online magazine devoted to covering anthropology. Prior to taking on this role in May 2015, Mascarelli spent a decade as a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared in Audubon, Nature, New Scientist, Science, Science News for Students, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Yoga Journal, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @A_Mascarelli.
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