Transitions: What are they and how should writers handle them?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Recently I received this question from Mary: "I'm working on my 4th manuscript draft and suddenly having difficulties (even getting badly stuck) writing by scene. I can't seem to pass large chunks of time where little (yet somewhat critical) events take place. I don't feel like I have enough material for a full scene, yet I can't compile it into a different scene because of where it needs to take place in the story."

There is no one right answer to Mary's dilemma. In fact, there are a number of techniques she could employ to piece in the pesky material giving her trouble. For example she could write very short scenes to include the information and then immediately cut to the next important scene. There are no hard and fast rules for how long scenes need to be. I've seen some that are only a couple paragraphs long. As long as it serves an important role in the plot, then readers won't mind the length.

Another way Mary could handle those troublesome chunks of time is to take a closer look at transitions.

If scenes are the action parts of the story that our characters perform on the stage for our readers, then transitions comprise the stuff that happens off stage in between scenes. Transitions usually describe the passing of time, and they're like tunnels that transport readers from one spot of action in the story to the next important action.

How should writers use transitions?

A story that spans a greater length of time will likely need more transitions. Obviously when our plot covers months or years, we can't possibly include every little thing that happens to our characters without writing a tome. We will have to summarize, usually briefly, so that our reader still feels a part of the character's life even when it happens off stage.

When a story takes place in a shorter span, several weeks or months, then we'll have less lapse time between scenes and so likely won't need to share as much about what is going on during the other hours of the day we're not writing directly about.

Where should writers use transitions?

1. In between scenes. When we write the last word of one scene, the next sentence or paragraph can be a transition. We can briefly summarize something that happens off stage before we jump back into the dialogue or the action of the next scene. To the reader's eye, everything flows together smoothly. In fact, they may not even notice the transition.

2. At the beginning of a new scene. Often I end a scene with a distinct cut. In my first drafts I mark such spots with an "xxx" which lets my editors know to put a break there in the final printed book. After cutting off a scene (preferably with some kind of read-on-prompt), sometimes we'll need to open the new scene with a line or two of transition. Sometimes we may even need a paragraph.

We just need to be wary of dumping too much transition at the beginning of a scene. Remember the modern reader prefers to open books, chapters, and even scenes in the middle of the action. So dumping too much transition at the beginning could bog them down.

3. Weave the transition into the scene. When we jump cut from one scene to the next without any of the in-between transitions, then we may need to weave in some of the off-stage happenings as we write the scene.

For example, in my current WIP, one of the scenes opens with my heroine teaching her students. As the scene unfolds, the reader gradually learns that a couple of weeks has passed because as heroine looks out over the students, her heart aches at the number of children who've died during the recent Scarlet Fever outbreak.

I didn't stop the scene or the action to include the transition. Rather I piece it into the current scene in bite sizes so that the reader understands what has transpired during the blank space between scenes.

A word of caution: 

Don't use transitions for KEY plot points, especially for anything having to do with the romance. Don't summarize the first meeting, the first kiss, or the first date, or any other "firsts." Those are things readers want to experience right along with the character.

In addition to the "firsts" we want to make sure we don't gloss over any other important, life-changing events. Save the transitions for the more mundane, every day kinds of occurrences that really have no direct bearing on the plot. And then show the rest.

What about you? How do you handle transitions in your stories? Any other words of advice for Mary?


  1. Transitions are tough for me, especially in the first draft; I was reading over a first draft for a story and realized that I didn't clearly indicate how much time had passed. One way I make a transition is by including a cut, like you said, between certain scenes.

    1. Yes, I think it's important to keep our readers grounded in the timing of our story. There are lots of subtle ways to do that! :-)

  2. I read a tip somewhere about using a calendar to track the time in a story. Make things happen on a specific date in the era of your story. Knowing the exact amount of time between events could help with writing transitions.

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