The Process of Novel Writing: Transitions
The chronology of novels move at two different speeds. The bulk of the novel is made up of scenes which occur in the now of the novel and open up the world to make it more real, but the actual movement of time within a scene is often mere moments. Scenes show, but showing eats up word count and takes time. Transitions (which are the parts of the novel that compress time) jump readers ahead in time or place quickly. Since most novels take place over days, weeks, months or even years, clearly not everything in the novel can happen in scenes. If we tried to do that, the novel would be about the size of a house. Because of this, we sometimes have to leave the reality and engagement of the scene and skim ahead via a transition.
Some writers are tempted to transition with mechanical device like using an ornamental division, such as ***, and simply jumping to a new scene without any transition at all, trusting the reader to realize that divider means we’re moving to a new time and place. Another trick to avoid transition is to build each chapter from just one scene and then open the new character in a new place in time, trusting the reader to catch up. This can work some of the time, but if used for all transitional moments, the writer risks confusing the reader and readers won’t tolerate much confusion before giving up on your book.
Jumping the Boring Bits
Actual written transitions have value for a variety of reasons. One big one is that they help you skip the boring bits. If we followed every living moment of each character we’d have to watch them change clothes, use the bathroom, clean the house, and do other mundane things that would quickly bore the reader right out of your book. So good transitions let us know that nothing exciting happens in x-amount of time so we’re going to jump ahead until something worth your attention happens.
For example, suppose all the exciting things in our novel happen at school and then again at bedtime. The transition between the school tension and the bedtime event could read something like this: “After the embarrassing fight in the lunchroom, Janet did little more than zombie walk through the rest of the day. Even after she got home, her mom kept asking her what was wrong, and didn’t give up until Janet fled to her room, muttering something about homework.”
Do you see how much time is moved through in that transition? It doesn’t linger on the moments between the school conflict and the next scene, but it avoids sounding dull or generic by including interesting word choices and conflict. We can imagine the scene with the mother, even though we don’t get to see it, because every reader remembers a time parents asked, “What’s wrong?” By linking to this kind of shared experience with the reader, the transition can stay engaging even though it’s technically “telling” and not “showing.”
Transitions Can Be Short
Sometimes it’s possible to transition in very few words, especially if you really only need to share one element. For example, if the characters are going to stay in the same place doing similar activities but hours are passing, you might transition from the end of one scene to the beginning of another with no more than: “By late afternoon Janet was ready for a break.” or “Hours later, Carl finally leaned close to whisper in her ear.” or “At the end of class, the bell freed everyone and Janet joined the stampede.” These are very short transitions that get us in place for a new scene with little effort because they suggest that nothing really happened in the interim. Transitions that jump over repetitive action or expected action can often be quite short.
Short transitions can sometimes work even in longer periods where more happens, if the intervening action has nothing to do with the plot of the story. For example, you might have a transition like this: “Janet spent the summer on her grandfather’s farm and soon forgot all about school drama. But even the busiest summer had to end.” This kind of transition gives us a hint at what sorts of things might have happened in the unexplored time, but doesn’t really delve into any of it as it’s not relevant to plot.
Clarity is King
One thing to keep in mind with very short transitions like “Later in the week” or “The next morning” is how easy they are to miss if the reader isn’t fully engaged in the text. This can mean a reader suddenly feels lost because they didn’t notice that you jumped hours or days ahead. Most of the time, if you make your transition at the beginning of a paragraph, it won’t be missed. But beware fitting transitions into the middle of a paragraph as those are the ones that are easiest to overlook. Let’s look at how that can happen:
Glad that her uncle was gone for the week, Helena finally relaxed. She plucked burrs out of Dazzle’s tail, sneaking glances at Michael when she knew he wouldn’t see. She wondered what it would happen if she simply marched over and told him how she felt. The very thought sent her cheeks aflame. But in the busy days ahead, they returned over and over. She often felt flushed by the end of her chores. “What’s wrong with you, girl?” her uncle demanded.
Now the reader who missed the transition about the busy days, might wonder why the writer said the uncle was going to be gone for the week, then suddenly had him in the scene. That kind of confusion can happen more often than you’d expect. So when you do transition, make certain you do so in a way that grabs the reader’s attention and makes the passage of time or the change of place clear and easy to follow.
All transitions are telling. They compress time and move us quickly to new places or new times or into the heads of new characters. They are road signs for clarity and thus as essential for a good novel. So keep in mind that not all telling is bad. Sometimes it’s downright vital.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.