Transitions are the ways a writer gets the characters from scene to scene. You can make that move easily, clearly, cleverly, and even delightfully, or you can make them so badly that they become stumbling points, place where the reader has to stop being in the story and ask 'where am I now?'
If they are asking 'where am I now?', the answer is: in a story with bad transitions.
Scenes are units of your story containing a set of related actions in (usually) one time and one place. They serve exactly as scenes do in films and stage plays. Movies also need transitions, and these are the simple cut, the wipe, the dissolve, the fade out and so on. Sometimes films use textual transitions, where a word or phrase sets up the new scene explicitly: "1849" or "London", or they show us a detail, a 'fixing detail', to pinpoint exactly when or where we are now. "1849" might be an aerial view of a gold-miners' camp, or a steamship's poster for 'passage to the gold-fields of California'. London might be signalled by Big Ben or a double-decker bus swinging through Piccadilly Circus.
Modern novels have borrowed from film, but film borrowed from earlier novels. Novels have always used a range of transitions, and all of these techniques continue to be used. I call them (1) date-stamps, (2) embedded sign-posts, and (3) splices.
Date-Stamps are straightforward statements of a change of time or location (or both) to the reader.
One of the simplest is writing heading for a new scene or a chapter that gives the day or month or season: Sunday or September or Spring. Or even Later or Many Years Later or "Childhood".
In the same way, a Date-Stamp can be a location stamp: London or The Office; or Wall Street.
If you have a story happening at two different times, for instance, you can date-Stamp: Winter, 1849 and April, 2004, letting your readers know that you are now cutting over to the other story thread. It could be the same time in two different locations: East bank of the Mississippi, June 1849 and Smith Farm, Massachusetts, June 1849.
Date-stamps are often seen in thrillers and action novels, where they sign-post rapid changes of time, location or both, speeding up comprehension (why say Kate was now in Las vegas, having caught the red-eye from London when you can just say Las Vegas: 5:00am?), Date-stamps in a thriller give it a subtle authenticity and the sense of time running out.
Time-travelling novels often rely on Date-Stamps. However, this is not the only way to signal a change in time, and I think it is more fun for the reader and more fun for the writer to use splices, (I give an example udner Splices, below).
Date-stamps are convenient, easy, and make the change from scene to scene clear. They are a standard narrative device and should be used without ornament, in the same way as 'he said' is part of the furniture. It is better to say "California 1849" than to waste your readers' time and patience with The global center of greed, the hell of hope, that corner of Pacific paradise turned into a maestrom of mud and violence and desperation as tens of thousands of gold-maddened prospectors descend into it through its mountain passes. Have pity. Keep a Date-Stamp a Date-Stamp and don't believe that turning it into purple prose makes the transition or the story better.
A slightly less direct Date-Stamp is a transition that is included as information within the narrative: It was in the reign of King Xog IV, Imperator of the Lands of Vassillas, during the Time of the Black Famine, when I first set out to seek my fortune. or "But," he said, "President Kennedy has been dead for ten years.". The most famous is probably In a galaxy far, far away. Something like: She took the next flight out of London is an Embedded Sign-Post: you know where she was and where she is now (on a plane) and that time has passed.
A character writing a letter or a diary is one form of Embedded Sign-Post: September, 1848: we have arrived. Our first visit was to the Claims office to find out what land is still to be taken. I have come away dejected. Another example: She had forgotten that it would be Thanksgiving in the USA. The airport was almost empty. (Remember, these examples would be used to end or begin a scene; they are the portals between set chunks of action.)
A common version of Embedded Sign-Post is a short phrase that is hardly read as words, but which tells the reader about a change of time or scene or both: After dinner that evening... or She woke at dawn. Again, they have no more emphasis and purpose than 'she said' and they serve the same purpose, but they are part of the narrative flow and so are less of a conk over the head. A section with the title Two Weeks Later is a conk on the head. She spent the next two weeks planning the break-in simply slides the transition into the story. This sentence would either end one scene or start the new scene. It combines the signal (time has passed) with the action, and combining is always good, because it offers density and stops wasting the reader's time. She spent the next two weeks driving across the desert planning the break-in gives you a time and location shift. The next sentence could be the first of a new chapter: The hotel in Las Vegas overlooked her target.
Characters in a time-travel story can be shown arriving by using an Embedded Sign-Post. Let's have one scene end: ...the sharp smell of milk boiling over in the microwave. and the next scene begin He turned and the air was dark, flowing around him like tarry vapour, filled with a stench of latrines and dogs and other unpleasant things he could not name until the darkness wisped away from around him and he stood ankle-deep in frozen mud beside two dead piglets and a discarded yellow liripipe as stiff as a snake. That is more fun to read than a heading Paris 1383 and still tells the reader: we've moved date, time anbd location.
A splice has to do two things: (1) to move the story in time or place and(2) to be part of change or conflict.
Splices are intrinsic parts of the narrative, woven in rather than dropped in (as with Embedded Sign-Posts). They are not hinges between the scenes that are hard to make interesting, but are the narrative, and so must be interesting.
For instance, you might have one scene ending: ...and she walked towards him through the young cherry blossom that was dancing in the breeze like notes seeking a song. and you now want to signal indirectly that ten months have passed. First, you have to know why you are having ten months pass, because the change from spring to winter is also an emotional change, which you'll convey as well. They are braided into each other.
Here's how the next scene could start: The stark ice-gloved twigs of the cherry tree were dark against the snow.". This immediately tells us that we have a change of season, we aren't in the place where cherry blossom is blowing in the breeze, and so it's a transition of time, but we have also picked up a new emotional temperature as well. You have chosen to show a man looking at an ice-encased cherry tree: it won't be with joy in his heart – a coating of ice isn't a detail anyone would use to signal buoyant gladness. The emotional change is in the transition, the 'fixing detail' of the ice. But don't leave it at that. Combine your fixing detail and an action that reveals feeling: The stark ice-gloved twigs of the cherry tree were easy to break, and he flung them down to slash the snow."
The reader will understand the man's frame of mind in part because you have chosen this particular moment in time to show it to us. His feelings are harsh: ten months of loss and thought cohave brought him to this point. The transition is not unimportant, but it is not the dominant purpose of the sentence; the emotional change is. When you know the purpose of a transition, it arises naturally from the story with fresh and vivid words and supports the dominant emotional state.
Know why you are making a transition. What purpose does that location or that gap in time have for the story? Is he older but wiser? Older and feeling parked at the side of his life? Fulfilled and contented, having seen the fruit of his labour? Each one of these new scenes will be about him in that moment a year later. They could even start 'A year later...':
A year later, he looked at his daughters dancing in the blowing cherry blossom and knew she had been right to leave him. He had learned that time is endless only to children; to him, it had become sad and precious.
The same cherry tree blew the same blossom into the vacant air in the same prodigal way. He had given her up, and knew now that life was a just a cycle of giving up, giving up, whether it was blossom or love.
He smiled as he watched the cherry blossom blowing into the bright air. They had planted it together and she had been right: he would always look at it and remember her.
What do you take from each example? That a year has passed? Or that a year had to pass so he could think this particular thought? When you have clarified what the scene is doing, you can re-write the sentences as you choose. You don't need 'A year later'.
He smiled as he watched the cherry blossom blowing its beauty into the bright air. When they had planted it together, she had been right: he would always look at it and remember her, and be in Spring again.
Transition, emotion, the closing of a narrative loop. They all happen together, because life is like that, changes of time, of place, of the heart, and a good novel captures life.
To close our earlier examples:
Jane's voice was flat. "Kate, you must get the next flight. Will you?"
Kate looked at the row of placid geraniums on her window-sill, the cat watching the evening swallows swoop over the church spire. She said nothing. Donald had always been a gangerous loser.
The soft, charcoal desert became angular stacks of lights, winks and blears, chemical colours, lines of white and red of traffic busy even at this hour. The sky paled behind her with a sun about to rise. Kate leaned her forehead against the oval glass, landing-lights winking at the edge of her eye. Somewhere in that restlessness below was her target."
This is a Splice, conveying emotion, conflict, mood, and as much more as you can fit in. Again:
Autumn chill was sharpening the air and he began to dig, Liam's rising and falling pick counterpoint to his shovel.
"By Christmas," Liam grunted, "we'll be rich as kings."
Rain was making the straggly, yarn-decorated Christmas tree outside the tent-flaps shudder as he crouched under the drumming canvas, pencil cold in his fingers. Liam remains convinced that we are about to have a splendid success, my darling, and I still wish to believe him.
The time transition has been achieved without a lot of fuss within the action: it's Christmas-time and so at least two months have gone by, but the story hasn't slowed down for this, but has been built with it.
Beginning writers often get hung up on the difficulty of transitions. Keep it simple. Don't work on a wordy and complicated bit of technical building when the sign-post By December he... will do. But a story filled only with Date-Stamps and Embedded Sign-Posts is a less scenic drive, and the flow of the landscape is visually stuttered. Use the simple where simple is best, but try always to make the transition the narrative, and concentrate on inserting the forward impulse of change and conflict into everything.
If you are sweating over a transition, remember that your entire novel is a transition made up of transitions: your characters start out in one place and time and you bring them to another place through time via a chain of scenes, each scene with its own complete change, each scene part of a greater change held in a chapter, and groups of chapters creating internal arcs of change, all of which are your novel. Transitions are only a change in miniature, a fractal, of the same kind and degree as the entire narrative. To master one is to master both.
Copyright Caro Clarke - www.caroclarke.com