We love reading dramatic stories. However, in order for the events of the drama to be meaningful, we need to see it in context to understand what is going on. We need just enough artfully inserted exposition to show us what is really going on.
Within the narrative, moments of transition are critical, yet they are often done clumsily. These linking scenes can be too long, conveying far too much unneeded information. Conversely, they can be nearly omitted.
Neither of those well-meaning faux pas serves the story.
Good transitions establish many things. The opening paragraphs are a critical transition. They show us
- the general location (Alternate world, London, Seattle, a space station, etc.)
- the setting (the immediate environment),
- the era (past, present, future) in which the narrative takes place.
These first paragraphs are the doors through which the reader takes the first tentative steps from their real world and enters our invented world.
When a reader opens the book, they are a visitor, but they’re searching for something, questing for a good story. They hope you have supplied whatever it is they are looking for in the pages of that book.
Good opening paragraphs sink the hook and suck your reader into your world.
As the narrative moves beyond the opening scene, more transitions come along. These are the places where we must end one dramatic scene and open another—and do it gracefully. Sometimes it’s a moment where we must show the passage of time between events. Whatever the case, with each transition, we want the reader to remain engaged.
Transitions are more doors for the reader, portals that open at the end of the dramatic scene. By moving through them, we arrive at the next event.
Transitions are critical. Without good transitions, dramatic scenes have no context. Instead of progressing in an arc, the narrative leaps and falls along to a conclusion that may make no sense.
But transitions can be fraught with danger for me as a writer because this is where the necessary information, the exposition, is offered to the reader. This is the “how much is too much” moment.
In my first draft, the narrative is sometimes almost entirely exposition. This is because I am telling myself the story, trying to get the events down before I forget them.
In the second draft, I look at words like “went.” In my personal writing habits, “went” is a code word for the transition. In fact, all passive phrasing is code for the author. It is the code laid down in the first draft that indicates to the author that the characters are in the process of transition. They, or their circumstances, are undergoing a change. Is this change something the reader must know?
For example, when I see the word “went,” I immediately know someone goes somewhere.
I ask myself, “How did they go?” Went can be changed to
- they walked (to the next room, or down the street, or to Mordor.)
- they drove (a car, a wagon, a space ship.)
- they rode (a horse, donkey, motorcycle, or dragon.)
- they took a plane (bus, ferry, space shuttle, or sleeping pill.)
- they teleported (vanished into the ether)
You get the idea. I have to find the “telling” paragraphs that connect my dramatic scenes together and decide what will stay and what should be cut. If the necessary information requires a paragraph, I have to consider how to rewrite it so that it is interesting and not a mind-numbing wall of words.
Many times, a transition can be cut to only a sentence or two because the necessary information it imparts can be consolidated.
This is where being a part of a writing group is most beneficial. Within the writing group, you will find a person you can bounce ideas off, someone you can trust and who will say, “This is not needed as it doesn’t advance the story” or “this scene seems to come out of nowhere. It needs more foreshadowing.”
Consolidating the transition into a sentence or two is optimal but isn’t always possible.
If it takes more than a paragraph to make the transition, I must be vigilant in my revision, and if I must give information, I must find and change all the passive code words to active prose. To that end, I look for these codes:
- All forms of To be (see my post on subjunctives)
- Too many emdashes
- Exclamation points (usually not needed)
- I think
- Its / it’s
- –ize –ization (global search)
- -ly (global search)
- Said (decide if speech tags can be eliminated and shown by actions)
- That (often not needed)
- Then (often not needed)
- There was (a subjunctive)
- –tion (global search)
- Very (usually not needed)
- Which (not a substitute for ‘that’)
We know that each scene can be a chapter, or a chapter can consist of several scenes. In this regard, each author constructs the layout of the story the way they feel works best. The reader gets into the swing of it and rarely notices the overall structure. Whether a chapter or a series of scenes, dramatic passages have universal commonalities:
- All scenes have an arc to them: rising action, climax, reaction.
- These arcs of action and reaction begin at transition point A and end at transition point B.
- Each scene will end at a slightly higher point of the overall story arc.
- Each scene must blend so smoothly to the one that follows that the reader doesn’t notice the transition.
- Pacing is the rise and fall of the action, drama and transition, the ebb and flow of conversations.
Conversations make great transitions. Inserting the necessary information into conversations and then fading to black and beginning a new chapter/scene can be the key to making the transition unobtrusively.
When we rewrite something, we are making revisions. Think about that word, revision.
re vision = to envision again.
Transitions are small connections that are woven into the larger narrative. When we begin revising them, we are looking at small passages of our work with new eyes and seeing how they might be changed to better fit the story—usually condensed, but sometimes expanded.
On the surface, it’s a daunting task, but it’s one of the most important parts of the writing process.
Credits and Attributions
Tavern of the Crescent Moon by Jan Miense Molenaer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Jan Miense Molenaer 003.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Jan_Miense_Molenaer_003.jpg&oldid=302686494 (accessed November 9, 2018
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:David Teniers de Jonge – Peasant Wedding (1650).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:David_Teniers_de_Jonge_-_Peasant_Wedding_(1650).jpg&oldid=225700063 (accessed November 2, 2018).
Autumn on Greenwood Lake, ca. 1861, by Jasper Francis Cropsey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons