This is a concept I’ve sat on for months, mentioning it here or there when I needed it. A couple times, I’ve started to write a post about it, but stopped. It seemed too elementary, too high school essay writing class. Transitions are technical, boring– useful, but the world is fully survivable without them. But recently, I’ve begun paying attention once again to transitions. Books, movies, anything with a scene break. Transitions make a story run smoothly.

Transitions are fairly self-explanatory. They bridge from one thing to another. When something is running smoothly, such as paragraphs in a scene, no transitions are necessary. But the moment something breaks, such as a scene, a chapter, or a viewpoint, a transition either exists to smooth it over, or doesn’t.

A chapter ends with a plot twist to make the reader want to keep reading. A transition makes it easy to keep reading.

So what is a transition, really? In essence, it’s an image in your subconscious. How it’s created is up to you; through dialogue, description, or anything you like. One image bridges the gap between scene ending and scene beginning. The transition is in two halves, on either side of the break. By beginning a scene with the image that ended the last, you tie one to the next. That’s it.

With a single scene, split into two chapters, it’s easy to see. A convenient plot twist right in the middle of a long fight or conference turns one dragging chapter into two– yet, where the reader would grow bored with one scene, they easily read straight through both chapters. They get the sense of brevity from the two chapters, but why don’t they stop reading? Because of the transition, built into the scene break. The plot twist and inevitable reaction act as a single image; the plot twist to end the first chapter, the reaction to begin the next.

“I have to tell you, Jenny. I wanted to say after the wedding, but you wouldn’t give me a chance. Our plans won’t work, darling– not together, at least.”
“Jimmy, what are you saying?”
“Jenny, I…I like pickles.”

“But pickles are green.”

You get the idea. One chapter begins where the other leaves off– that’s the essence of a transition. The trick is creating an image when they aren’t as forthcoming as the example above.

Plot twist to reaction is a solid transition, even if the reaction comes after a scene change. Jenny’s reply above could come immediately after Jimmy’s revelation, or it could come two hours later, when the carnival is over and the two are once again in private. The image remains intact, and thus the transition as well.

So how else to do a transition? Tie a spoken word to the visual of that word. At the beginning of the Avengers, Steve Rogers tells Fury he should have left the tesseract “in the ocean”. A split second later, we’re underwater with Iron Man. The following scene is completely different, but the transition serves to bring us from one place and set of characters to another. That would have been jarring, without the transition.

You can also go image to image, and you see this in movies all the time for flashbacks and viewpoint changes and place changes. The character looks up, and the moon completely fills the screen. When the camera zooms out again, new place, new character, new time. Image to image transition.

Mention a character and the next scene is about her. Say something will never happen and it immediately does in the next scene. Have a character scream to end a scene and the phone ring to begin the next. End with an image or sense that you can immediately pick up to begin the next scene.

When does this happen? In a book, that’s easy: at a chapter or scene break. In a movie, you’ll see it at scene breaks, when time passes, when the place or characters change, and absolutely at any viewpoint shift. The TV show Castle is my favorite source for this; it begins with a murder, then seamlessly hops over to Richard Castle with a transition like the scream/telephone transition I just described. Peter Jackson and Joss Whedon do this effortlessly. It’s more difficult to find thoughtful transitions in books.

Plot twist to keep the reader interested, a transition to make it easy to continue. No better combination for the end of a scene.

Is it necessary? No. You can live without it. However, those writers who have learned to implement this trick have seen their stories read like thrillers, with nothing more than good transitions between chapters. Must this be done in the first draft? Absolutely not. Occasionally, a transition such as the pickle one above will present itself. Generally, however, these images can be added after the fact. Something to think about, nothing to stress about.

Look around. Find transitions in movies, in books. Look for ways you can work with them yourself. You might be surprised by their power.


30 thoughts on “Transitions

  1. Don’t worry. Simple is nice once in a while. Nothing to stress about it definitely nice.

    Well, speaking of high school essays, that’s what I’m procrastinating on at the moment, so I’ll make this last a bit longer and go see if I can find a place where I had a decent transition.

    …Okay, so suddenly realizing my book has two POVs and they always switch at the end of a chapter. What do you do with transitions there? Sometimes they’re in the same area, or interacting with each other, and it’s easier to create a transition like you described, but sometimes they’re not. What then?

    Another thing that comes to mind is “transitioning” from book one to book two, per se. I imagine that looks a bit different, but perhaps the idea is applicable here as well.

    …So far, I’m noticing only sentence-structure transitions. That is, high school essay transitions. (“My sister joined in and we laughed all the way back to the apartment. * * *
    As I was lying in bed that night, my mind roamed wild.”) Hm. I’ll keep looking and post this comment before it gets too long.

    1. Oh, look–first time my viewpoint characters were together. End of chapter five running into chapter six.

      “We’d just reached the door of the coop–which was more like a small building–when Jaegar made a noise that sounded like a squeal and set down the buckets quickly to open the door.
      ‘It’s Thron,’ he whispered urgently. ‘Get in!’

      My heart pounded so fast and loud I was sure Ara could hear it. Why hadn’t I just told
      her to go? It would’ve been a hundred times safer than hiding out in a chicken coop every
      time Keren or Thron, but especially Thron, walked by.”

      Another chapter ends with one viewpoint character crying and falling asleep in a stable, and the chapter following it begins (sort of) with the other character finding her. It’s not immediate, but he sees someone who makes him look for the girl, so I guess it works.

      Okay, I guess that’s enough transition hunting. My remaining observation/question is, what happens when the scene or chapter ends, time passes, and the next scene or chapter has nothing to do with the previous one? Is it still possible to have some kind of transition other than the “after such-and-such” or some other prepositional phrase?

      1. See, this is the difficult thing to explain about transitions. It’s great when one scene leads into another, but you’re right— they don’t always. That’s where a transition comes in, a really deliberate transition. That’s what I talked about with the Avengers example and the Castle example. It isn’t sentence structure as much as an image, even if the scenes are completely unrelated. One scene ends in the rain, the other begins with a pouring bucket. One scene ends with television flashing meaninglessly, the next begins with lightning (also flashing meaninglessly). One ends with a birdcall, the next begins with someone whistling. It doesn’t matter if they’re connected or not— between the last paragraph of one chapter/scene and the first paragraph of the next, you build parallel images that bracket the scene/chapter break.

      2. Hmmmm. I can see how that would take some thought, especially in writing as opposed to something that is by definition visual like a TV show. I’ll have to watch for that as I’m reading for a while and see if I can find some better examples from books. Thanks.

  2. Awesome post. I’ve always had trouble with my transitions- either I draw them out too long or I skip them completely. And I don’t think this sounded like a high school essay- those transitions are usually into a new paragraph of an argument, not a chapter of a story, which is much more interesting.

  3. Great post! I need to learn to do this better. According to all my teachers, transitions are the weakest point in my writing (though I think they mean transitions in my essays, which, sadly, is an entirely different thing…) I should probably practice both versions of transitions. I love adding visual, emotive, auditory, etc. parallels in my writing. Maybe I should just think of this as another way of doing that.

      1. Right. I wonder if it will help if I link this chapter to the next one by the sound of a screen door being slammed around by the wind. Big changes are coming–I need to tie it all together somehow.

  4. Do you think that maybe that was the problem with the chapters in Way of Kings? Or is that something different?

    Anyway, good post! I’m back to using “good” and “great” again, apparently. Hehe. I think I’m pretty good with chapter transitions, but I struggle more with scene transitions, for whatever reason. And sometimes I struggle with, believe it or not, transitions between paragraphs. That’s totally a technical thing, and I don’t always have that problem, but it’s actually rather annoying. And unrelated to this post, sorry.

    Have you seen the t.v. show called Motive? I think that’s what it was called, anyway. It has the image-to-image transitions, but the way they do it, it’s really, really cool.

    1. I think so. All those little epigraphs he’s got before each chapter destroy the pacing. But again, Mistborn did that and it worked fine— perhaps it’s just the way he concluded each chapter, fulfilling promises and such.

      I haven’t seen that show, but a lot of cinematic stories nail transitions really well.

  5. Oh my goodness. Some of the transitions in the Avengers (“War isn’t won by sentiment, Director.” “No, it’s won by soldiers.”) are just absolute brilliance. They hint at what’s coming next so smoothly….

      1. I made the mistake of only watching half of Iron Man 3 with my little sister today. Now I’m kind of jittery because though I know how the story ends… um… well, it happens all the time when I’m watching Hornblower. The thing is, I forget how awesome the movie is and end up on the edge of my seat until I finish it, even if I have to stop in the middle. *sigh*

      2. I KNOW RIGHT?! It’s the best Iron Man movie, in my opinion. Pepper is so awesome. Also, it was so sweet! And the scene where Tony leaned his forehead against Pepper’s shoulder almost made me cry. And I was a bit annoyed because apparently most of the Clone Wars season finale was ripped off from the plot of Iron Man 3. Holographic recreation of a crime scene and all. EVEN DOWN TO THE NO-BOMB-RESIDUE AND HUMAN BOMBS. *facepalms* Frankly, I knew that all other Disney properties have Marvel envy, but really!?
        They did have to go out with a bang, I guess. (Pun intended.)
        I was kind of annoyed by the ending, though. Did Tony just stabilize the Extremis, or did it filter out of Pepper’s system?! It seems like it would, given that it looked like they had to inject–or was it inhale?–it repeatedly to keep the effects around. If it’s like a normal drug, they’d have to do that. But if it was an inorganic compound it could hang around in the tissues for quite a while and would take longer to flush out. And then, comparing it to the supersoldier serum, which seems to have thrown several switches in Cap’s genetics and completely re-written other stretches *coughcough* hand-wavy impossible reflexes, for one thing *cough*… in terms of Marvel science, it really could be anything.
        Also, so Tony could’ve had the shrapnel removed at any time but didn’t due to phobia from the first surgery and not wanting anyone to mess around and crack his chest open?! Ummm… what? I can totally understand that, but why didn’t they explain that before? Sure, it was a good ending, and I’m not at all ticked that they removed the arc reactor from Tony’s chest (how are they going to fill that hole?) but it was a bit… obscure. Call me a nit-picker, but I like to know how things work. (Like Tony, I like to take things apart and put them back together again… unlike Tony, I’m a visual, not a kinesthetic, learner, which means I normally look at things before I stick my hands in their guts.)

      3. About the Extremis thing, the experiment meant to put new synapses into a hole in the brain, and other cells— the pain center, remember? I’m guessing it was mostly brain surgery, to remove whatever foreign objects Killian put in there. Not a very good explanation, but it makes sense to me.

        I have no idea why Stark didn’t get rid of the shrapnel earlier. Probably just too busy being awesome.

      4. X-D
        That’s a good theory… I’m not entirely sure how it worked, but the funny thing is, Extremis could not have been the same sort of thing as the serum in “The First Avenger”… because it seems like, to continue to receive the benefits of the effects, they have to inject or inhale it repeatedly…
        I just saw “The Winter Soldier” on Sunday. (Yeah, I know, kind of a pathetic/odd thing to do on Easter… but we were all too tired for an egg hunt. We were too tired for “The Winter Soldier,” to be honest… I think I know now how Loki felt after being slammed repeatedly into the floor by the Hulk. Metaphysically, anyway.) It was a great movie, but now I’m curious–how, in your opinion, do they handle the inherent corniness of the identity in “The Winter Soldier,” in your opinion?

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