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Transitions That
Move Characters Along

© 2008 Anna Furtado

A good transition, artfully done, is written in such a way that it's hardly noticed by the reader. Transitions take us from one place, one mood, one scene to another, giving the story momentum, becoming the lubricant along which characters travel from one phase of a story to the next.

These transitions can be accomplished in a variety of ways. They can be a time for the character to take a breather and react to a previous event. (Dwight Swain calls this sequel, the reaction to what happens following each scene.) It can be a time to analyze and reflect on what's been happening in the story. In addition, it may be a time to consider some previous, similar occurrence that the reader will learn about for the first time as the character ponders it. Or it may just be a time to step out of one scene and into another as simply as possible, ensuring that boring, unnecessary details are omitted.

For example:

If our heroine is about to rescue the fair maiden from a fate worse than death, do we really need to know that she stops for gas (tapping her foot and wishing the pump worked faster, of course), then goes through a Starbucks drive-through (because who could even think of saving anyone without first having her daily mucho mochachino?) before heading over to slay the dragon and save the damsel in distress?

The main character can glide along quickly, filling in brief details of what has transpired over the past few hours, days, or years, leaving out the minutia that is of little consequence to the story. For, in spite of the insignificance of what has happened during that time, the passage of time must be acknowledged.

When the reader is taken back in time with flashbacks (or traverses to the future), transitions act as anchors, grounding the reader in the present while they take these brief side trips. This underpinning prevents a loss of place while coming and going.

There are many types of transitions that can be employed to guide the reader from one scene or one mood change, to the next. Transitions are set apart by white space within a chapter or by starting a new chapter altogether. Here are some examples of how transitions can occur:

The Jump

Action ends followed by white space on a page (or a new chapter). Think of a film where the scene is cut before the completion of the obvious action. At the beginning of the next scene, we've jumped ahead in time or in place and the story goes on without so much as a stumble.

Here's an example of a jump from one person's perspective to another within the same action:

Our heroine is in a storm cellar as a tornado swirls and howls all around her. The next scene jumps to her distraught lover who sees the tornado heading directly for her girlfriend's house.

We can also stay in one place with the same character and simply move forward in time as in the following example:

The heroine is in the storm cellar. All night long she has crouched in a corner, waiting out the tempest as it howls overhead in the form of a hurricane. The transition may tell us that, sometime during the night, emotional stress and fatigue took its toll and she fell asleep in spite of the storm with a statement that begins, "Sometime during the wee hours of the morning…." or simply, "The next morning…."

Or how about that transition to a flashback?

The thirty-something heroine is hiking up a mountain, trying to come to grips with the death of her father. She stops and looks up at the vibrant morning sky in bemusement, remembering other climbs. When we get back into the character's skin, she's 10 years old and following her father up that same mountain on her first of many hikes with him.

Transitions to places of fantasy and "otherlands" should make sense while still inspiring a feeling of awe and wonder. Could anything be more perfect than Alice falling down that rabbit hole? Or Captain Jean-Luc Picard, stunned by a probe, finding himself living an alternate reality on a doomed planet where he leads a simple life filled with love and family? How about Dorothy, getting conked on the noggin and waking up in Oz?

The Slide

When our characters slide into the next change-up, they take a little more time to do it. It's a good time for them to use the transition to summarize some event they have experienced, either recently, or in the distant past. It's also a good time to have the character relate and react to surroundings, showing us more of the scene from her or his perspective.

For instance:

While rushing from one location to another, our heroine experiences the traffic, the city, the smelly cab, the curses of the driver (or perhaps he's the smelly one), and the honking of horns.

A transition can resemble the slow "fade" or "dissolve" in film:

As the plane climbs and banks, our character watches from the window of the aircraft. The airport and the surrounding area get smaller and smaller-and she knows that it's time to say goodbye. (This is probably either the end of the story or the end of a chapter.)

The Roller Skate

When we roller skate, some work is actually required. Our progress is slower and more deliberate than if we're just gliding along with lubricant under out feet. This is similar to when we are shown a transitional event as it unfolds.

For example:

The character gets into a car and drives, block after block, to the cheating girlfriend's apartment to confront her. Her progress is linear-in real time. She works on moving from one minute to the next. This might be an opportunity for the character to reflect on her relationship, to catch us up. Is the cheating incident out of character? Or has the relationship been fraught with occurrences like this? Perhaps the character should examine what attracts her to women who don't seem to have any respect for her?

Transitions may be the one place where it's okay to tell rather than show. In an effort to transition from one point to another, important information or details can be relayed to the reader in the form of facts.

While speeding along in that taxi to confront the lying scumbag of a girlfriend, the character might muse on why she has put up with hercheating ways for three years. This is new information. We didn't know this has been going on for a while. It gives us insight into both characters.

However, if we already know that the relationship has been a volatile one for several years, we don't need to be told again. If there is no knew information to be conveyed during that taxi ride, this may be a good place for a jump-right from getting into the taxi to arriving at the devious girlfriend's apartment.

Transitional elements have a certain look and feel about them. Here are some examples:
  • Fading night or new dawning light
  • A passing storm/a car ride
  • The passing of time (minutes, hours, days, years)
  • Focusing on objects to draw us out of and back into the scene (flickering candles, a scratchy, skipping vinyl record)
  • Everyday activities (students putting away their books, exiting and locking a door)
  • A character's appearance and health (graying hair, a newly acquired limp)
  • Sounds/interruptions (just as the character settles in with a book, the doorbell rings)
  • Datelines (dates at the beginning of chapters or scenes indicating the passage of time - see The Heart's Desire, which uses the Roman church calendar, around which all things revolved during the 1400s, the setting for this story)
No matter what your transition looks like, if done well, it can knit scenes together and give the story momentum. The type of transition should be dictated by the purpose the writer intends to accomplish with it.

We may only need to know that the hero got into that taxi. The next scene may start with her entering the building, knocking on an apartment door-or perhaps she's already in conversation with the resident. Maybe we don't need to know about the taxi ride or how abominable traffic was or how the driver cursed and laid on the horn every time someone did something he didn't like. Unless this information reveals information relevant to the story-or unless the trip causes her to reflect on some past incident that will tell us something more about her or another significant character in the story, the details of the trip should be left out.

Well done transitions should be almost imperceptible to the reader. However, those same transitions done well will evoke a "Wow!" reaction from another writer. Strive for both reactions in your transitions.

Above all, keep writing!
Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist) and The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.