By Mike Klaassen
In the television series Star Trek, people routinely teleport through space (“Beam me up, Scotty.”). In some episodes they even slip back and forth though time via wormholes and other gaps in the space-time continuum. In the world of fiction-writing, these leaps through space and time are called transitions.
Fiction, by its very nature, involves movement of one sort or another, and that requires transition. Even though fiction is filled with transitions, they can be so subtle that a casual observer may not even be aware that transitions have occurred.
According to Jessica Page Morrell in Between the Lines, transitions are the words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs used to bridge what has been said or has happened with what is going to be said or will happen.[i] “Transitions aid the seamless unfolding of stories,” notes Morrell, “yet it’s downright shocking how often writers neglect to use them.”[ii]
Apparently fiction-writers aren’t the only ones who ignore transitions; most how-to books about writing fiction barely mention them. Not so with Jessica Page Morrell, who has clearly put more thought into the subject than most; her Between the Lines devotes an entire chapter to transitions (which by itself makes the book worth studying).
As explained in Writing A to Z (edited by Kirk Polking), “Transitions in fiction lead the reader from character to character, from place to place, or from present to future (or past).”[iii] Transitions may also be used to signal changes in other aspects of a story, such as mood, tone, emotion, and pace.
TRANSITIONS AND THE ELEMENTS OF FICTION
Transitions play a role in each of the fundamental elements of fiction (plot, character, setting, theme, and style).[iv] Transitions pave the way for readers as the story moves through location and time, i.e., setting. And transitions help the reader shift from one character to another in multiple-viewpoint stories. Transitions provide links between the structural units of plot from the smallest to the largest:
- Between stimulus and response
- Between scenes and sequels
- Between sections and chapters
- Between beginnings, middles, and endings
How and when transitions are utilized throughout a story and the skill with which they are presented are important aspects of an author’s unique writing style. The influence of transitions may be profound yet subtle: what a story is really about is often anchored in the transition of the main character’s situation at the beginning of the story to his or her situation at the ending, capturing the essence of a story, its theme.
TRANSITIONS IN TIME
By far the most common transitions in fiction are those reflecting changes of time. As stated by Morrell, “. . . in fiction time must always be accounted for. If six hours, six days, or six years have elapsed between scenes or chapters, you need a means to express this, and transitions are one of your tools to do so.”[v] Jordan E. Rosenfeld, in Make a Scene, notes that “Transitions are the way you speed past the dull and the mundane, and condense time and space so the characters can get right to the important work of the plot.”[vi]
Transitions reflecting changes in time may be compared to the control buttons on a video player:
- Action and dialogue modes, showing the story in real time at a normal pace, compare a PLAY button.
- Section breaks and chapter breaks, which allow the writer to leap forward in time, equate to a SKIP button.
- Summary mode, which allows the writer to compress time and events, compares to a FAST FORWARD button.
- Recollection, where a character thinks back briefly to recall events, compares to a SLOW REWIND button.
- A flashback, where the character relives a scene prior to the “now” of the story, compares to a FAST REWIND button.
“Some stories,” says Morrell, “must be told through more than one viewpoint because of the scope, interconnection, and depth that this structure provides. When you use more than one viewpoint, the reader has access to a wider range of information, emotions, motivations, and sensibilities.”[vii]
The use of more than one viewpoint character, however, entails risks and challenges. Orson Scott Card, in Characters & Viewpoint, warns that “A change of viewpoint character is the most difficult transition for readers to make.”[viii]
Jerry Jenkins (Writer’s Digest, October 2003) notes that plenty of secrets can be kept from the reader, but you don’t want confusion as to who is telling the story. Bouncing in and out of more than one character per scene will make your reader feel like a neglected party guest, wondering what’s going on. Jenkins makes several suggestions: “Immediately establish a new character, use whole names to start, continue with solid signals . . .”[ix]
Jordan E. Rosenfeld suggests another potential solution when she writes that “Many authors dedicate an entire chapter to one character at a time, which is a very simple, direct way to communicate whose point of view the scene is in.”[x]
TYPES OF TRANSITION
Transitions may be created three ways:
- Transitional words or phrases
- Other fiction-writing modes
TRANSITIONAL WORDS AND PHRASES. As observed by Jessica Page Morrell, “Simple transitions are generally, but not always, subordinate clauses placed in the beginning of a sentence or paragraph and used as an indication of change. They take the reader quickly and smoothly from one place to another, connect ideas, and add to the overall coherence of the story.”[xi]
Transitions by themselves may be considered a fiction-writing mode. But transitions can also be delivered through each of the other ten fiction-writing modes, thus providing the writer with a vast toolbox from which to select the best means for dealing with a specific challenge. For example, a transition signaling that the story has moved forward three hours may be presented in any of the ten other fiction-writing modes:
- NARRATION: Now dear reader, we jump ahead three hours where we find our heroic character . . .
- SUMMARIZATION: Three hours later . . .
- DESCRIPTION: The scorching sun blazed across the afternoon sky for another three hours, and Cisco . . .
- ACTION: Cisco reined his horse to a stop. After three hours of hard riding, they both needed a rest.
- CONVERSATION: “It’s three o’clock,” said Cisco. ” Bart swore he would be here at noon.”
- EXPOSITION: Cisco and Gabby had been sitting in the saloon for three hours expecting Bart to show up as promised.
- SENSATION: A blast of wind chilled Cisco. The temperature had dropped at least twenty degrees during the last several hours.
- INTROSPECTION: Cisco glanced at the clock over the bar and realized Bart was three hours late.
- EMOTION: Cisco slammed the shot glass down on the bar. Three hours was the longest he had waited for anyone.
- RECOLLECTION: The clock over the saloon bar chimed three o’clock. Cisco looked up from his cards and recalled that just that morning Bart had promised to meet him at noon.
Punctuation may not be the first thing writers consider when thinking of transition, but in reality, punctuation is all about transition. According to Rene J. Cappon, in the Associated Press Guide to Punctuation, “Punctuation in skilled hands is a remarkably subtle system of signals, signs, symbols and winks that keep readers on the smoothest road.”[xii] Those signs and symbols are indicating change of some sort; in other words, they are facilitating transition.
Transition exists on three levels of punctuation:
- Micro-level transitions punctuate sentences: periods, commas, semicolons, colons, dashes, dots, question marks, exclamation marks, etc.
- Meso-level transitions define paragraph structure with paragraph breaks.
- Macro-level transition includes the bullhorns of punctuation: section breaks and chapter breaks.[xiii]
As observed by Les Edgerton, in Hooked, “Transitions have come a long way from the earliest days of writing, even more so in the past few years.”[xiv] Words, phrases, punctuation, and fiction-writing modes might be the means of delivering transition, but that still leaves numerous other issues, variables, and techniques to be considered:
- Consistency vs. variety
- Headings and datelines
- Disguised transition
- Reader involvement
The ability of Star Trek characters to rapidly teleport from one location to another and occasionally slip backward and forward in time adds depth and complexity that helps make the series an ongoing success. Writers interested in improving the effectiveness of their own fiction may well want to learn more about the mechanics of transition.
Authors need to be able to change point-of-view characters and to move through time and space, feats accomplished using the fiction-writing mode of transition.
Mike Klaassen is the author of Fiction-Writing Modes: Eleven Essential Tools for Bringing Your Story to Life, which is available for order at traditional and online bookstores. You may “Look Inside” the book at Amazon.com.
This article was published by Helium.com on June 26, 2009. Copyright 2009 and 2022 Michael John Klaassen. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this article with others.
[i] Morrell, Jessica Page. Between the Lines. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2006, 281. ISBN: 9781582973937.
[ii] Morrell, 295.
[iii] Polking, Kirk. Writing A to Z, Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1990, 495. ISBN: 9780898794359.
[iv] Klaassen, Fiction-Writing Modes, 2015, 4. ISBN: 9781682221006.
[v] Morrell, 283.
[vi] Rosenfeld, Jordan E. Make a Scene. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008, 265. ISBN: 9781582974798.
[vii] Morrell, 289.
[viii] Card, Orson Scott. Characters & Viewpoint. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1988, 158. ISBN: 9780898793079.
[ix] Jenkins, Jerry. Writer’s Digest, October 2003.
[x] Rosenfeld, 263.
[xi] Morrell. 292.
[xii] Associated Press. Stylebook. New York: Basic Books, 2004, 1. ISBN: 9780465004881.
[xiii] Klaassen, Fiction-Writing Modes, 184. ISBN: 9781682221006.
[xiv] Edgerton, Les. Edgerton. Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2007, 200. ISBN: 9781582975146.