Today in the Dojo: How to craft transitions that allow your readers to get from here to there without worrying about falling in.
We build too many walls and not enough bridges.
This is one of the few columns I’ve actually put time and effort into researching. The results were interesting. And somewhat daunting. It seems that transitions are the kind of thing nobody wants to talk about.
I went through every issue of every writer’s magazine I own, at least fifty or sixty mags. Out of all those hundreds of articles, covering a span of several years, I found exactly two on transitions. One dealt with transitions in non-fiction articles, which is of some use to fiction writers but far too limited for our purposes. The other purported to deal with “Transitions and Flashbacks.” Transitions were dealt with: briefly, vaguely, and with a strong sense that the author would rather be doing anything other than talking about transitions.
When I turned to my how-to books on writing, the results were even worse. Some mentioned transitions not at all. Others included a mention, perhaps two if the writer was in a particularly generous mood. All told, out of ten books that supposedly taught writing start to finish, I think I ended up with enough material to fill a page. Double-spaced, mind you. Large font.
I’m not even going to set up the staw-man questions. I’m just going to say it: Transitions are extremely important. They’re one of the easiest things to get wrong, hardest to get right, and yet are absolutely essential to making a story or novel work. You can have all of the other elements of fiction writing nailed, but inept transitions will destroy all of that hard work. Put it like this: imagine a house built with all of the finest materials, granite countertops, oak cabinets, hardwood floors, brass faucets… all of the really gorgeous, expensive stuff. Now, paint the walls with whitewash and furnish it with cast-offs even Goodwill didn’t want, and try to tell me it still looks as nice.
No? Didn’t think so.
I have no idea why such a vital component of writing has been so terribly neglected. Maybe it’s raw, naked fear. Maybe it’s one of those QED things and it’s just assumed we’re experts at birth. Maybe it’s a trade secret.
Well, my darlings, I am not afraid. I make no assumptions. And I’m about to reveal the secret.
It’s a big one. So, pull on your trenchcoat, tip your hat over your eyes, and meet me in a dark quiet corner of the park where we shall feed the ducks, pretend we don’t know one another, and I’ll pass you the first secrets on the sly…
Transitions: The Menace and the Marvel
I direct your attention to the far end of the park, across the pond. Do you see that pretty little stone bridge there, over the stream? I should hope so: you walked over it to get here. That’s a grand example of a transition, that is.
Transitions are simply a literary method of getting the reader from one place to another. It’s truly that basic. We are here, we want to be over there, but without a bridge we’d be going for an unplanned swim. What could be more easy?
Well, try building a bridge with no instructions, and you’ll see just how difficult it is. Simple in the concept, complex in the execution. And like bridges, transitions come in all shapes, sizes and styles, and can get us across all kinds of gaps, but they’ll only look nice if we know how to build them.
Knowing how also entails knowing where. Put it like this: you wouldn’t want the Golden Gate Bridge plonked across the ornamental creek in your back yard. And San Franciscans would have been pretty upset if, instead of the Golden Gate, the architects built a footbridge spanning the Bay. Transitions work the same way within a story. Six paragraph transitions might work brilliantly for a novel, but they could collapse a short story. An ornate, lyrical transition will add beauty and grace to an epic work of fancy prose, but probably won’t look right bunged down in the middle of an action scene in a suspense novel.
Transitions have one final thing in common with bridges: you must put them in the place where they will be most useful. Neither the Golden Gate nor our classic little footbridge will do much good in the flats of Death Valley or the middle of a football stadium.
But they seem nearly miraculous, don’t they? Transitions keep the story flowing, keep the reader in the know, and allow you to cut out the boring bits. With them, you can cut to the chase and show only the essentials. They’re the workhorse of “tell” vs. “show”. There are times when showing would be too much. Transitions give you the opportunity to tell what must be told without becoming a pedantic windbag.
They also perform all sorts of useful tricks. You can use them to up the tension or decrease it, control pacing, and comment on the events. They’re a great tool for characterization, especially in limited viewpoint stories like 1st Person or 3rd Person Limited. What the narrator chooses to share in detail and what they choose to gloss over speaks volumes about what kind of person they are. Let’s say your character’s going in for an operation: if they speak at length about the pre-op nerves and procedures and give a detailed description of their recovery, but gloss over the surgery itself even though they nearly died on the table, that says something. That transition – “Aside from my heart stopping unexpectedly, the operation went great!” – tells you a lot about how this person’s handling this event.
A transition is most commonly used at the beginnings and endings of scenes. In rare instances, you’ll use one within a scene. No matter where they’re placed, every transition must perform these vital functions: they must let the reader know there’s been a change, what kind, and whose eyes are seeing now. The transition must give that information right up front, or it’s not doing its job. If you remember nothing else from this treatise, remember that.
So, we come to our first task: learn where transitions are of most use, how to scout the terrain, and which sorts of transitions are available to us.
Let’s have a look at some of the places transitions are most useful, shall we?
A Shift in Time: Transitions can cover spans of time from seconds to moments, hours, days or years without having to detail each and every event that takes place within that time.
A Change of Place: Transitions move characters and actions from one location to another expeditiously, without subjecting the reader to a travelogue.
Mood Swings: Transitions allow you to change the mood without making your story look like a raving lunatic. They provide the reader a logical path to follow from happy to sad, angry to amused, nostalgia to anticipation… whatever mood fits the bill.
Change Your Tone: Transitions keep you from sounding flat. If you don’t want to get branded as a cynic, an inveterate optimist, or something else of that sort, a transition will allow you to change tone without jolting the reader.
Action(s)!: Transitions can do more than one thing in this area. You can change the pace from fast to slow (or vice versa). You can also cut between actions, either consecutive or concurrent.
Exposition Without Pain: Transitions give you an excellent option for presenting necessary exposition without bogging the story down in dry background detail or dramatizing every single thing. You can use transitions to introduce a completely different situation that will become vital to the main thrust of the plot soon, bring new characters on stage (or talk about them behind their backs), bring in the past without resorting to a flashback…. The possibilities are nearly endless. However, so is the potential abuse: tread with extreme caution. Here be dragons that could eat your readers!
Now that we know the purposes transitions serve, let’s explore some of their basic architecture. I’ll begin with what at least fifty percent of the population believes matters most: size. Well, in the case of transitions, size truly does matter. So let’s see what’s on offer:
A Word or Two: This is probably self-explanitory. We’re all familiar with the words that tip off a transition: later, meanwhile, then, before… The list goes on, as lists tend to do. Sometimes these short transitions show up as more than a single word, but here we’re talking a movement within a sentence.
Complete Sentences: Also nearly intuitive. We often see transitions accomplished in the form of a sentence. Most of us write our transitions that way.
Paragraph: Sometimes, you need a little more time to set the scene and get all the actors out of the dressing rooms where they’re having hysterics. This one’s still pretty quick and very appropriate to a short story (unless, of course, you’re writing flash fiction, in which case I wouldn’t use this length were I you).
Pages and Pages: This might take a few of you by surprise. Some transitions, especially in novels, can take up a page or more. They can be complete scenes that do nothing but act as a bridge. And it’s perfectly all right to use them!
Now you believe me when I say size matters, don’t you? Imagine a short story of ten pages in which three were a transitional scene. That’s a wee much tell for the show. When considering what size your transition should be, you must contemplate a few factors: size of the work, type of work, pace you’re trying to set, and what the transition is bridging. It’s a lot to think about, but if you’re having trouble with this part, relax. It’ll become second nature with time and practice.
But as all the ladies know, size isn’t everything. There are othe
r important elements to consider. Back to bridges for a moment: the Golden Gate would not be half as wonderful spanning the Bay if it hadn’t been painted red and if the designers hadn’t created those lovely elegant swoops. Now, these are both functional things: the paint protects the bridge and those swoops are a part of what makes it stronger. But the same purpose could have been achieved with less artistry. If the bridge had been bunged over a wide canyon in the middle of nowhere on a railway line, it needn’t be so pretty. The decorative elements of a transition are the same way. They support the function, but you won’t be wanting anything too utilitarian in a really lyrical piece of fiction, for instance. So let’s take a look at our design options and see what we have available:
Simple: Which is just what it says. If you don’t want much attention called to the transition, use the simplest language appropriate to the job. These are short, sweet and to the point normally. Even if they’re long, they’re stark.
Narrative Summary: This is sort of like the introductory bits to fairy tales that give you enough information to understand what the background is and who the people are. This type is versatile: you can make it poetic, or funny, or profound, but its common element is that it’s a sort of story within the story, without dramatization. It’s a great way to impart information necessary for moving us from here to there that doesn’t really support a fully realized scene of its own. You’ll recognize it from detective novels, especially. And stories where the main character ages forty years and leaves out the boring bits.
Connected Action: This one’s really neat. You end with one action and begin with the same action only different: different day, person, mood, interpretation, what have you. For example, you might be ending with Character A staring in dismay at a wreck on the highway, and begin the next scene with Character B also staring, but B’s a firefighter and is making sure all the victims are out of the wreckage. Another variation on this theme is a continued action: I put down my brush, I pick up my brush – two days later.
Same Setting: This seems to be a favorite of playwrights. You know: dining room, three days later…. That sort of thing. The faces may have changed, events may have moved on in the meantime, but we’re back in the place we left from the scene before.
Repetition or Echo: A little tricker. You’re taking a key word or phrase from the last sentence of the previous scene and repeating it back to establish the connection between the scenes. It can be a repetition of words or action, or just about anything else. You have to work hard to make sure it doesn’t seem contrived, but done right, it can be beautiful.
Mood: With this, you capture the essence of the scene before, whether that be sadness, anticipation, etc., and carry it on to the new scene, which of course takes place in a different time or location or with different people.
Background Element: This can be anything from the background of the previous scene. Weather, perfume, food, drink, a song, a similar place (but not the same, or that would be Same Setting), clothes….. Anything present in the background of the previous scene can carry forward into the next scene, forging strong ties between the two. It’s a subtle but powerful method. Like seasoning, it should be used sparingly in most cases.
Now, for our final bit: the terrain. How do we know where a transition is of most use? How do we know which type to use where? I’ve sort of hinted around at those issues in the above descriptions, but let me give you a quick and dirty list that might help you survey the terrain a bit more easily:
Alpha and Omega: If you’re at the beginning or end of a scene or chapter, you’re probably needing a transition.
You’ve Skipped Something: If there’s a change in time, place, action or anything of significance, you most likely need a bridge to get from here to there. Rule of thumb: the more drastic the change, the greater the probability you’ll need a transition.
Shut Up and Get to the Point!: If you’re taking forever to dramatize something and it’s not really adding much to the whole, skip the blow-by-blow and use a narrative summary transition instead. Little bits of dialogue or concrete detail could spice it up, but overall, you’ll be telling, not showing. And yes, as I said earlier, it’s completely okay to do that as long as you’re not summarizing something that should have been dramatized, or letting it drag on endlessly. How to tell the difference is a topic for another day. Just think of it this way: if your friend was telling you this, would you want them to ‘splain or just sum up?
And that’s it, folks. That’s really all there is to it. Your toolbox is full, your head is crammed full of blueprints, the surveyor’s located the proper place and your materials have arrived. You’re ready to build.