Transitions: how to move your readers from one scene to the next
You don’t want to use the clichéd “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” So how do you make those leaps from, say, breakfast to break-up, or colonial Bangladesh to modern-day Bermuda?
by Jennifer Silva Redmond
I recently heard a violinist playing a song from “Fiddler on the Roof,” so I can be excused for thinking of a title song for this post: “Transitions!” sung to the tune of “Tradition!” from that classic musical. Now you’re sure to be humming the tune while you read. I apologize in advance for the ear worm.
Transitions don’t get enough love, and they certainly don’t get much respect. In life, we tend to gloss over other people’s life transitions with phrases like “It’s just a phase,” “this too shall pass,” “you’ll get over it,” and even, sadly, “get over it!”
In judging an author’s writing, editors and agents often say, “the transitions were weak,” but what exactly does that mean? In my experience, it means that either you took too long to get from plot point A to plot point B, thereby boring the reader, or that it happened too fast and left us wondering, so make sure you know which problem your text suffered from. (When in doubt, ask for clarification, and if the judgement came from someone you don’t feel comfortable following up with, then ask a beta reader.)
Transitions don’t get enough love, and they certainly don’t get much respect.
Sometimes plot or story events surprise readers unintentionally. In that case, it isn’t really the transition itself that is to blame, but all that came before it. A surprise can be a good thing in some genres, but not a completely surprising surprise, if you know what I mean. We’ve all read those where we say, “WTF? That character would never have done that!” The good news, if you get that reaction from readers, is that it means you’ve created a character that was believable, so now you just have to choose a more character-revealing action for her, or a new direction for her to head in.
In order to improve your transitions, you must first find them. You can spot them pretty easily by highlighting what they are not. Transitions are not usually whole scenes, they are the connective tissue between scenes. There is action/reaction in a scene (a “beat,” if you will) and then the scene ends and, at some point, another scene begins. That connecting section is your transition.
Chapters can start with transitions, or be broken into parts by other transitions. They are usually fairly concise, like this: “Janet was rummaging through the detritus on her kitchen table when she came upon an unopened letter in a stack of yesterday’s mail.” The transition puts you into a new setting—the kitchen—and sets you up for the scene of her reading the letter, or noticing its return address, or the special air mail stamp on it, or where it was mailed from, or whatever.
Ray Bradbury wrote a one-sentence chapter that read, “Nothing else happened the rest of the night.” Great transition, but it won’t work in too many books.
Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and sometimes a whole chapter—usually, a very short one—works as a transition in a book. A great example, in Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, was a one-sentence chapter which I’ll try to recall here: “Nothing else happened the rest of the night.” Great transition, but it won’t work in too many books.
Sometimes a transition has to do some heavy lifting, like jumping through space and time, and— unless you’re Zane Grey—you don’t want to use the clichéd “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” So how do you make those leaps, from breakfast to break-up, or from colonial Bangladesh to modern-day Bermuda?
The best answer I can give you is to read. Read the great writers of your genre, and see how they do what they do. When you find a well-written transition, jot it down or highlight it (marking passages is easy on a Kindle or most other e-reader apps). Remember that transitions are like musical interludes in a score—they don’t have distinctive melodies because they are meant to blend in and not stand out—so read carefully.
Keep a list of the ones you’ve chosen for inspiration. Next time you are sitting down to rewrite or edit your work-in-progress, reread the transitional passages you’ve selected and see which one moves you. Try setting your timer and writing for five minutes in the same vein of the transition you chose. See if you can improve on it, making it even subtler or more concise. That exercise should serve as a jumping off place to craft your own brilliantly crafted transitions.
Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, as well as a popular writing instructor and speaker. Long-time editor-in-chief and acquisitions editor at award-winning Sunbelt Publications, she teaches at the Southern California Writers Conference, San Diego Writers, Ink, was prose editor for A Year in Ink Vol 3, and co-founder of the critically acclaimed Sea of Cortez Review. Her essays, articles, and fiction have been published in anthologies, magazines, and books, including Latinos in Lotusland and A Year in Ink; More info, a select list of edited books, and client testimonials can be found at www.jennyredbug.com.
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