Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I don't always respect my reader. For reasons beyond me, I'm allergic to transitions that would provide perfect guideposts through my stories. Time and time again, my critique partners point out these oversights in bold red Sharpie-marks "I'M LOST!" I take it for granted that I've made the connections-why should they need the vanilla staples of transitions such as "Later that night" or "Afterward"? Ick.

Because they do. According to Jessica Page Morrell in her craft book Between the Lines, transitions are a courtesy to the reader to help them keep the fictional dream going. They help the reader to trust the author to lead them through the turns while freeing them to anticipate what's ahead. She cautions, however, "Do not imagine your reader is an intellectual invalid. While you should always guide the reader along in the story, there is no need to hover or announce every change." So how to find the balance?

In my quest to finally put this shortcoming to rest, I dove into Morrell's eight purposes of transition:

1. Moving readers through time

The most used of all transitions. Let's face it, sometimes we just want to inject the vitals. If a writer skips around in story time, the lost moments, hours or weeks must always be accounted for in the reader's mind.

2. Bridging the gap between scenes

Scene cuts are useful in a well-told, well-paced story, but if every new scene jumps into a new viewpoint or setting without warning, the reader will grow tired. These can be in the form of clues about where the scene is taking place or how the character arrived there. This type of transition is especially important when crafting an emotional sequel.

3. Compressing time

Not every moment in the story is of equal importance. This type of transition summarizes events when the reader doesn't need to know a huge amount of detail. If you find you've cut a scene because it doesn't advance the plot, but the information is necessary to the story's greater understanding, a transition is the perfect writer's tool. Morrell suggests, "It's a good idea, when you compress information, to focus on a few poignant details. Piecing together memories emulates the fragmented recollection we have in actual life."

4. Anchoring flashbacks

Indicates to the reader a shift backward in time or forward to present story time. Use of a sensory device or object is a full-proof way to make the transition believable and natural, as it is often how we access our own memories.

5. Indicating a change in setting

If a scene drops your reader into a new location, especially abrupt or surprising settings, a simple transition using sensory clues will keep the reader from becoming disoriented. Also, if a writer is employing multiple viewpoints, often in more than one locale, make sure the reader is re-grounded in the new viewpoint.

6. Indicating a shift in mood, tone or emotion

According to Morrell, "Shifting mood, tone and emotion as the story progresses ensures variety in your story. If every scene plays out as light and hilarious or somber and distressing the sameness of mood and tone will flatten out the story and cause the readers to become bored or restless." Although this is the most difficult transition to pull off, emotional shifts are often underscored with setting and lighting changes.

7. Indicating a shift in point of view

Morrell highlights Cold Mountain as a good example of point of view shift. Charles Frazier establishes the simple pattern of one viewpoint per chapter, which, in itself, serves as a transition the reader can easily internalize. Clues are still necessary to let the reader know how much time has elapsed since he last visited the viewpoint character.

8. Clarifying relationships

Often when a new, secondary character is introduced, a short transitional biography accompanying the physical description can help the reader "make room in his imagination."

Morrell's most important piece of advice about transitions? Variety, variety, variety. Be sure when you edit, you've sampled many different ways to transition. Here are some further transition cues found in Between the Lines:

Lighting, weather, seasons/years/eras, objects, mundane activities, a character's appearance and health, specific references to time or date, indirect references to time passing (ie--a garden growing, a crowd thinning), activities, interruptions (telephone, doorbell, arrival of another character), sound, space breaks and chapter breaks and datelines.

Lastly, (did you like that one?)I'll gush, again. If you're looking for fresh topics on writing, an examination on the subtle aspects of fiction and a comprehensive list of transitional words and phrases, you need Between the Lines. It's absolutely one of my favorite craft books.


Charles Gramlich said...

Good advice. I haven't read this but it sounds worthwhile. I always like to let the reader know exactly where we are in the tale as for time and place and character point of view. Sometimes I fail spectacularly, especialy in first person where I'm seeing the action myself from the character's head and forget to describe everything I need.

Jen FitzGerald said...

I'll have to check this book out, L.A.--I have a hard with those important transitions. I know I do, but struggle to create good, appropriate shifts.


Kim Lenox said...

I've never heard of BETWEEN THE LINES. I think I have to get a copy!

Barbara Martin said...

This was a fabulous post for me as I tend to write more than I should, and then find I have to tweak much of the excess out. My transitions are all right, but changing point of view within a chapter is tricky.

Sue L said...

Excellent post LA. Good transitions were hard for me to learn, but they are needed to keep the reader following the story.

Katie Reus said...

I've never heard of Between the Lines, but it sounds like a great craft book. Thanks for the informative post :)

Melanie Atkins said...

Good points, L.A. I use a lot of transitions. For some reason, I don't have a problem with them.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Charles...I've never tried first person before. That's my goal for the next novel.'s hard to get a variety of transitions in there. I thought the list might help :)

Barbara...with changing POV, I think I just have to give myself permission to allow for short chapters. For some reason, it doesn't feel comfortable to me, but it's another thing I need to break free of.

Sue...I guess it's something that really stays with you once you conquer them...I'm hoping!

Katie...I was surprised b/c I'd never heard of it either. I'm always looking for fresh approaches to writing.'re the Queen of WAY too much, you talented chica :) Can I still tease you about the Disney animals, though? lol.