Transitions are nearly invisible, or should be, whether in fiction or non-fiction. However, they serve a vital purpose. They usher the reader logically from point A to point B. They are the guideposts that make your writing clear because they establish the logical connections from one idea to another or from one event to the next.

Transitions include such words or phrases as therefore, next, then, however, first, in addition, on the other hand, for example, later, once, now, and so on.

Unfortunately, transitions can go awry in two different ways. First, a writer may fall in love with a particular transition and overuse it. Here’s an example from an excerpt of “The Other Open Door” with the transitions altered from the original:

If she didn’t love [her brother] so much, and owe him so much, she’d happily let him believe his gruff exterior had her fooled. Anyway, she knew how the conversation would end—the same way all their discussions about God ended. Anyway, after belittling her and dredging up the past, Darnel would yell and storm from the room. Anyway what made her think he’d listen today? What made her think anyone would ever listen to what she had to say about God?

Anyway, as her rangy brother shuffled toward the back of the house, that open door coaxed her, suggesting — promising? — this time would be different.

When a transition is repeated over and over, as the word anyway was above — even when that repetition isn’t in such a small section — it draws attention to itself. Rather than serving to seamlessly connect one part of the story with another, the transition becomes a distraction and disrupts the flow.

A second problem with transitions occurs when an author chooses an inappropriate word. In the following fable “The Cat And The Fox” I’ve altered transitions (words in red) to illustrate the point.

Surprisingly a cat and a fox were having a conversation. The fox, who was a conceited creature, boasted how clever she was. ‘Why, I know at least a hundred tricks to get away from our mutual enemies, the dogs,’ she said.

‘I know only one trick to get away from dogs,’ said the cat. ‘You should teach me some of yours!’

‘Well, maybe some day, when I have the time, I may teach you a few of the simpler ones,’ replied the fox airily.

Now they heard the barking of a pack of dogs in the distance. The barking grew louder and louder – the dogs were coming in their direction! Later the cat ran to the nearest tree and climbed into its branches, well out of reach of any dog. ‘This is the trick I told you about, the only one I know,’ she called down to the fox. ‘Which one of your hundred tricks are you going to use?’

The fox sat silently under the tree, wondering which trick she should use. Before she could make up her mind, the dogs arrived. They fell upon the fox and tore her to pieces.

A single plan that works is better than a hundred doubtful plans.

If you plug in the correct transitions — one day, just then, at once — you’ll see that the story reads more smoothly, with a logical flow.

In conclusion, transitions aren’t showy — they’re actually meant to be invisible. When a reader starts to see them, that’s when they aren’t doing their job.


Filed under Word Use

2 responses to “Transitions

  1. Great post.

    And I agree that the transitions shouldn’t be noticeable. I think we can get creative with them, sometimes, though. I don’t have the book here, but in the Sorcerer’s Stone, I remember the delightful way Rowling transitioned us across three months of summer to get us back to the school year. She told about Dudley and his 37 birthday presents, and then she told us how over the course of the summer he’d managed to destroy them all because he was spoiled and careless. She said something like, “By the time summer holiday was over, Dudley had broken this, bent that, destroyed the other, and while riding his bike, he’d hit Mrs. Whats-her-name and broken her leg while she was crossing the street.” Dudley was like all the bratty kids in Charlie and the Chocolate factory, rolled into one.

    So the transition is “by the time summer holiday was over’ which is, as you say, invisible, but then Rowling moves us through time in an inventive and comical way. Some of us would cover the summer by saying the leaves had started to turn colors. Others would show the progression of time by saying the boy had grown two inches by the time school started up again. But Rowling gave us a list of all the destruction Dudley have wreaked. It was, I thought, perfect.

  2. Sally, that’s a really good example and also shows how important narrative is as a transitional piece of prose. Even in selecting the transitions we have an opportunity to deepen the character or enrich the mood. Nothing should be wasted in fiction!


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