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Recently when judging a novel contest, I saw writers who needed to learn to write simple transitions. Sometimes I read many pages to get a character from one town to another—I didn’t see the character do or learn much, or struggle or grow. Sometimes it was moving characters across the room, or in and out of a room, that was done step by agonizing step. As editor Beth Hill says in her article “Mastering Transitions,” “Transitions are important in fiction because the writer can’t possibly portray or account for every moment in a character’s day, week, or life.”
This is the purpose of transitions—to move quickly to action or important scenes in the story. I usually don’t need to know what Aunt Maude had for breakfast or what time she got up, when the important thing is what happened at ten o’clock. After Aunt Maude’s evening event, all I need is “The next morning at ten o’clock, Aunt Maude drove her ancient Beetle to the cabin to meet the real estate agent.” The scene can unfold from there. A transition can use time relationship as in this example or can use a place relationship. E.g. “At the apartment, John . . .”
Think of how movies flash a character from one location to another. If the character was at work and is now home, readers assumed they got there in a normal way without the movie showing every aspect of the trip. Those are the same kinds of scenes where writers need to use transitions.
I know part of the problem is we’ve been told to “show not tell.” Sometimes that means we show too much. Transitions are the time for telling.
Don’t know what should be a transition and what should be shown? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
What does the character learn in this scene?
What does the character accomplish in this scene?
What emotional change happens in this scene?
What is the point of this scene?
If your answers are “not much” to the first three questions and “to get from here to there” for the latter, use a transition. You can always work necessary details into another scene. Or you can make this scene do much more than it already is.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.