The structure and properties of ternary complexes of RNA polymerase are of central importance in understanding the mechanisms of transcriptional elongation and termination, and the regulation of these primary steps in gene expression. However, there has been no systematic study of the structure and properties of such complexes along a single transcription unit. Recently, we have described the isolation of a collection of halted ternary complexes of Escherichia coli RNA polymerase bearing transcripts from 11 to 35 nucleotides in length along two different transcription units (accompanying paper). Here, we report structural studies of these complexes using DNase I footprinting. Surprisingly, nearly all of the different ternary complexes have distinctly different footprints along the two DNA strands, and the position of the footprint relative to the 3' end of the transcript also varies for most complexes. Halted complexes bearing transcripts of comparable size do not have identical footprints; hence, DNA sequence as well as transcript length plays a role in determining the size and position of the footprint. These differences in structure are consistent with our earlier findings that ternary complexes can differ considerably in stability and gel mobility. The downstream boundary of the RNA polymerase in ternary complexes does not move forward regularly as successive nucleotide residues are added to the RNA chain. In contrast, the upstream boundary moves forward more or less in concert with the movement of the 3' terminus of the transcript. These factors lead to a general compression of the overall footprint as transcription proceeds, together with a steady movement of the 3' terminus of the RNA toward the downstream boundary of the polymerase. Ultimately, after the length of the RNA transcript has increased from eight to ten nucleotides, the downstream boundary of the complex is found to move downstream along the DNA, suggesting a translocation event. We suggest that RNA chain elongation, like RNA chain initiation, may involve a saltatory process in which net translocation of the complex along the DNA occurs only after addition of a number of ribonucleotides to the RNA chain.