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.