Saturday, 19 February 2011

Transitions

Transitions are a useful tool for any writer. They are commonly sentences and paragraphs that you use to let the reader know that there will be a change in the story, usually a change in time, a change of location or a change of the character viewpoint.

Transitions can take the form of sentences within paragraphs, or they can be physical scene breaks or chapter breaks.

Transitions in creative fiction are used in order to bridge from one scene to another, one chapter to another or more importantly, one period of time to another. They’re the logical connections that the reader follows. They work to keep your reader from losing their way within your story, or becoming bored. They are an important strategic tool in letting your reader know what is happening, without having to launch into several paragraphs or even pages to explain the minutiae between scenes and time.

Every story needs them. Without them, you’ll find your writing isn’t as smooth as you think. Lack of transitions will confuse a reader and make it hard to follow exactly what is going on and ultimately it might bore your reader as they try to follow the story.

The most important function, however, is that transitions move the story forward cleanly and seamlessly. Done skillfully, your reader will hardly notice the breaks.

Types of transitions

• Transition of time – when you want to move forward (or backward) in time with your story.
• Transition of scenes – the start of a new scene or location
• Transition of character – the start of a new scene or chapter another character viewpoint.

Where they occur

• Transitions within paragraphs – these can bridge the gap from one timeframe to another by skipping through long periods of time, anything from hours to decades or even millennia.

• Transitions between scenes/chapters – these can bridge the gap in the same way as transitions between paragraphs, smoothing the jump from one point to another without startling the reader.

How they work
Transitional scenes help the reader follow the action through a given period of time. For instance if you had a character in a set period of time, say August, and you had to touch on his time from leaving one job and entering another, rather than bore your reader with unnecessary description covering those months, you could write something like “The rest of the time with the Daily Writer’s Newspaper passed without event and by October he’d found a better job...” This tells us that the character had an uneventful last few weeks in his job, for however long his notice was, and found something else two months later. It does two things: it briefly sums up what happened and moves the story forward.

You can employ the same strategy with time in almost any bridging scene that doesn’t require long passages of description, for instance, if your character has to catch a flight, or travel by boat, or a long car journey etc. This will cover the ‘boring’ time and move on swiftly to the next important scene or chapter or paragraph within the story.

There will be instances with your characters as you progress through your story that do not need to be recorded in every possible detail, like the preparation of going to bed and then sleep, or the daily routine in the bathroom each morning, driving to work and being stuck in a traffic jam, trips to the bathroom etc. Transitions help you leave the peripheral boring stuff out of the story and let you get on with what’s important, and that is moving the story forward. If you don’t include transitions, you are in danger of jarring the reader because you haven’t led the reader into the change of time or scene.

Poems are like short stories, but in verse…

Wait a minute… Poems? Confused? You’re wondering why the sentence above doesn’t make much sense. It doesn’t quite belong to the article as a whole and it confused you for a moment. This is exactly what your reader might experience if you don’t bridge your writing correctly. It jars the reader, confuses them, and it interrupts the flow of the story.

Most scene transitions rely on a couple of double-spaces to indicate a break in time or place. This prepares the reader for a transition without confusing or irritating them, and more often than not a few carefully chosen words at the end of the scene should indicate what will happen in the following scene(s). For example:

Ending the scene: ‘It’s a fabulous surprise. I’ll see you in London.’

Beginning the new scene: ‘I can’t believe you’re going to leave for London,’ John said.

Or, alternatively, you can bridge the time by beginning the scene like this: Jane emerged from the jumbled chaos of the underground into the sunshine grazing across London…’

You can see how simple it can be. They are useful and easy for any writer, and done well they will ensure a seamless transition of time, characters, scenes and chapters without the reader even realising.

All fiction (rather like a movie) is life with all the boring stuff taken out.


Next week: Flashbacks – how to use them.

9 comments:

  1. It's a really good and simple explanation. I've had problem with transisions for a long time, and at long last I'm beggining to grasp it. Thanks for this post :)

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  2. I've always liked 'meanwhile, back at the ranch'... and one day I'll right a story where I can use it.

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  3. Really well explained and very useful examples. I'm glad you highlighted using key word to bookend transitions. It's amazing how often you find a scene that just leaps from one place to the next like a jump cut in a film. Of course that's fine if that's the intended effect you wanted to create.

    But using the carefully placed words as you suggest makes the transition so much smoother. Of course this can be done without a key word if you are brave enough or skilful enough to try it. Using a sense, objects with the same colour, the weather or any other environmental or sensual link can work wonders.

    You could always use opposites too, so from sun to rain, white to black, day to night for example. This can create a very dramatic and powerful transition.

    Loving the blog and really enjoying the posts.

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  4. Thank you all for the comments.

    Transitions will become easier the more you use them to full effect and you're right Tony, opposites are a useful, symbolic way of using transitions and should be used more often!

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  5. Great advice!
    It's important not to jar readers and transitions help with pacing

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  6. Thank you for the clear explanation!

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  7. I enjoyed this simple yet important lesson on transitioning scenes and chapters. Thank you.

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