I have a transition in my current work-in-progress that has been giving me headaches for a while now. It shouldn’t be so difficult—I’m just moving the main character from one scene location to another—but every time I try to revise it, I still get that niggling “this isn’t working” feeling.
And, okay, I’ve had readers point it out, too, so I know it’s not just me. But what to do about it?
Recently, I’ve been reading Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost. It’s an older craft book (the original copyright was in 1990), but it’s proving to be one of the most helpful I’ve read when it comes to crafting on a sentence level. Plus, the prose is engaging and very readable, which is surprisingly rare in writing craft books.
Lucky for me, Provost has an entire section about transitions in his chapter on pacing.
Provost gives three different types of transitions:
- Transitions of Time
- Transitions of Place
- Transitions of Subject
Regardless of what type of transitions you’re dealing with, all good transitions will “make a connection between what the reader has just read and what he is about to read, by implying the relationship between those two bodies of information” (Provost 89).
In other words, a transition can’t be abrupt and confuse the reader. Readers hate being confused.
Provost also gives ten suggestions for transitions:
1. Don’t Use Long Transitions
Sometimes if days, weeks, months or even millennia pass, writers feel like they need to fill in that gap and explain what happened during that time. If nothing happened during that time that’s directly related to your story, readers don’t need it. If your character is just going about life as usual and nothing happens at his office job that will affect the plot, readers don’t need it. Keep transitions short.
Remember: “A story is not everything that happened. It’s every important thing that happened” (Provost 91).
2. Don’t Write a Scene When a Transition Will Do
This goes along with the previous suggestion. Sometimes we are so worried about telling everything that happened, that we will write entire scenes that are unnecessary. I know I’ve done this before. If nothing really happens in a scene and nothing changes in the story, consider cutting the scene and using a simple transition instead. Often, that will help with pacing issues.
3. Don’t Explain When You Don’t Have To
If your character is doing something that your reader already understands, like driving a car, for example, you don’t need to explain your character going through the motions of it. Simply acknowledging that they drove from one place to another is all that readers need.
4. Don’t Acknowledge When You Should Explain
However, if your character is doing something uncommon, something that the readers wouldn’t necessarily know how to do, like escaping from a dire situation, you can’t simply say that they escaped. Readers will feel cheated.
5. Do Not Use Transitions to Conceal Information
If something big happened during a transition, like a woman going into labor as she drove across town, you can’t simply say that she drove across town and then surprise readers when the baby shows up. Readers assume that you’re telling them all they need to know and the woman driving across town was not all they needed to know about that trip.
6. Don’t Write Transitions That Distract the Reader
According to Provost, “In general, your writing improves as your words become more specific. If you can make your character trot, dash, or lope, the writing will be more effective than if she simply “runs.”…However, in writing transitions your goal is somewhat different. You don’t want to attract attention.” He goes on to use the example of having a woman cross the street. “If…you write “Diana dashed across the street to Penelope’s” you will distract your reader with the vivid picture of Diana dashing and you will also occupy him with the question, “Why is Diana dashing?”” (Provost 94).
Keeping it simple is much better when writing a transition.
7. Point to the Transition
If the transition will be coming later in the story, like the main character travels to Europe, the readers need to be warned ahead of time that this trip is coming or it will throw readers out of the story.
8. Use Key Words
This goes along with pointing to the transitions. Provost uses the example of a wrap-up party after filming a movie. By using the key word “wrap-up” when the actor is invited to a party that evening, readers are automatically oriented when the wrap-up party starts even if several other events have happened during the day before he actually reaches the party.
9. Use Bridge Words
We do this all the time in conversation with phrases like, “This reminds me of…” or “Speaking of…” These are the “similar words and phrases” that we use “to imply a connection” when we make a transition (Provost 97). Find some way to make a bridge between the time, place, or subject in your story.
10. Make Transitions Seem Logical
This usually isn’t a problem in fiction since “your scenes emerge from something that happened in a previous scene” (Provost 97), but it’s definitely something to think about, especially if you’re working on a non-fiction piece.
I don’t know if I’m the only one who struggles sometimes to find the right transition in a piece, but these suggestions have helped me think through the specific issues I’ve been having. Hopefully now I can come up with a better transition for my story.
Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.