Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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Transitions: getting your story through time and space

Transitions are the ways a writer gets the characters from scene to scene. You can make them move easily, clearly, cleverly, and even delightfully, or you can do them so badly that they become stumbling points, places where the reader has to stop being in the story and ask 'where am I now?'

If your readers 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 work exactly as do scenes 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", for instance, might be an aerial view of a gold-miners' camp, or a steamship line's poster advertising "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 these techniques continue to be used. I call them (1) date-stamps, (2) embedded sign-posts, and (3) splices.

1. Date-Stamps

Date-Stamps are straightforward statements of a change of time or location (or both) to the reader.

One of the simplest is writing the day or month or season for a new scene or a chapter: "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, you can date-Stamp: "Winter, 1849" and "April, 2004", letting your readers know that you are cutting over to the other story thread. It could be the same time in two different locations: "West bank of the Mississippi, June 1849" and "Smith Farm, Massachusetts, June 1849".

Date-stamps are often used 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 an 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 under Embedded Signposts, below).

Date-stamps are convenient, easy, and they make clear the changes from scene to scene. They are a standard narrative device and should be used without ornament, in the same way as we use "he said", that is, as part of the furniture. It is better to say "California 1849" than to waste your readers' time and patience with "The global centre of greed, the hell of hope, that corner of Pacific paradise turned into a maelstrom of mud 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 expanding it into purple prose makes either the transition or the story better.

2. Embedded Sign-Posts

An Embedded Sign-post is a slightly less direct transition, because it is information that is within the narrative: "It was in the reign of King Xog IV, Imperator of the Lands of Vassyllas, 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." "She took the next flight out of London" is an Embedded Sign-Post: it tells you 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 a form of Embedded Sign-Post: "September, 1849: 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 scenes or chunks of action.)

A common version of Embedded Sign-Post is the 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, nonetheless, they are part of the narrative flow and so feel less like a conk on 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 be the end one scene or the 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, filled with a stench of latrines and dogs and other unpleasant things he could not name, until the darkness whispered away and he stood ankle-deep in frozen mud alongside 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: I've moved date, time and location. 

3. Splices

A splice has to do two things: (1) move the story in time or place and (2) 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, but are the narrative, and so must be interesting in and of themselves, and not merely furniture.

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, in the next scene, that ten months have passed. First, you have to know why ten months have passed, because the change from spring to winter is also an emotional change, and you have to convey that 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, and so we have 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. 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: "They were easy to break, and he scattered them idly 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 dour: ten months of loss and thought have 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 precise and vivid words and supports the dominant emotional state.

Again I stress: know why you are making a splice transition. What purpose does that location or that gap in time have for the story? Is he older but wiser? Feeling older and parked at the side of his life? Fulfilled and contented, having seen the fruit of his hard emotional 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 precious and sad.


   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 cycle of having and losing, whether cherry 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, changeful and beautiful, as she was, 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".

Transition, emotion, the closing of a narrative loop: in a splice, they all happen together, because life is like that, and a good novel captures life.

To let's revisit 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 dangerous loser.

    Kate leaned her forehead against the oval glass, landing-lights winking at the edge of her eye. The sky paled behind her with a sun about to rise. Below, the soft, charcoal desert became angular stacks of hotels. She thought about what she had come to take."

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 pick rising and falling in counterpoint to his shovel.
   "By Christmas," Liam grunted, "we'll be rich as kings."

   Chapter Three
   Rain was making their straggly, yarn-decorated Christmas tree outside the tent shudder. He crouched under the drumming canvas, pencil cold in his fingers. Liam is still convinced that we are about to have a splendid success, my darling, and I still wish to believe him.

This splice transition has been achieved a lot without a lot of fuss and within the action: it's Christmas-time and so at least two months have gone by, but we have more than a transition: we see what has happened with these two men.

Don't get hung up on transitions. Keep them simple. Why churn out a complicated bit of prose when the sign-post "By December he..." will do? But a story filled only with Date-Stamps and Embedded Sign-Posts is a little pedestrian, certainly less scenic, and they can make the flow of the narrative a little stuttered. Use simple where simple is best, but try always to splice the transition into the narrative to avoid slowing down the forward impulse of the story.

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. You do it via a chain of scenes, each scene enveloping a small incomplete change, each scene part of a greater change held by each 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 entire narrative. To master one is to master both.