In fiction, transitions don’t get much attention. Unless they fail in the basic duty of orienting the reader when one scene becomes the next, they pass by unnoticed. With a few exceptions, noted below.
Which is odd. In life, transitions are everywhere, deeply explored and often ritualized. Christening. Coming of age. Graduation. Marriage. Death. With science, we’ve added gender reveal to the list.
In architecture, we have vestibules (and I can clearly remember my disappointment when, as a child our new church did not have a space for welcome, casual community, and transition to the sacred). We celebrate the changes of the seasons, licenses, new jobs, and retirements. We have voting and inaugurations, and even draft days for sports. Champions and kings are crowned with pomp and circumstance. Inflection points shape our lives and are celebrated in fiction, but largely ignored in the writing. To my knowledge, there is no book dedicated to how to write effective story transitions. (Though there are some effective articles. Noted below.)
This is odd because story transitions fulfill many important roles.
- They orient, clearly and simply alerting readers to the location, time, and participants in a scene.
- They may prepare readers for what’s coming next, especially in terms of tension, stakes, and goals.
- They direct attention, setting up what’s important in the scene.
- They often remind readers of what has already occurred, providing a context for what follows.
- They verify information that may have been intentionally ambiguous earlier, but now must be definite.
- They create anticipation through questions, concerns, or charm.
- They often provide satisfaction by resolving the tension of the cliffhanger at the end of a previous scene.
- They may provide a “yes, but” situation, turning the focus of the story while finishing an earlier concern.
With all the ways transitions support story telling, it seems strange to me that there aren’t courses detailing when transitions should be used, which kinds are most effective for different story situations and how to revise your transitions to make them more effective. Why don’t they get the same treatment as marriage, graduation, and death? (I don’t know.)
By the way, the exceptions (which you may have guess by now) are titles (which transition readers into the story), openings (which catch interest and raise questions), and, perhaps, cliffhangers (which take people out of chapters). Each of these can be explored almost as much at plot and characterization. Hooks and cliffhangers (which need to create anticipation), have uses not just at chapter beginnings and ends, but for many scenes as well (especially if you’re looking to create a page turner).
So, with all the value, the questions become:
- How are transitions created?
- How do writers choose between options?
- How might they be subverted in beneficial ways?
- What should be avoided?
- And how should revision be approached?
That’s a lot to cover, so more will be discussed next week.
Articles on story transitions: