Life is one long uninterrupted scene that we star in, each second bumping up against the next, all of them trailing off behind us, forever unretrievable. We move from place to place and interact with different people but the camera is always there, incessantly recording every movement, utterance, blink and heartbeat from first to last breath. That is not, however, the way that stories are presented.
Writers put forth their plots in chunks. There is no reason to bog down a story with intervening details about taking out the garbage or curling one’s hair unless it is germane to the plot. If it doesn’t advance the story line then it should be left out. I go through the same routine every workday morning but who would want to read all the details about my showering, shaving, dressing, feeding the cat, retrieving the newspaper and brushing my teeth before embarking on my morning commute?
In the written world we move quickly from scene to scene without all that boring in between stuff. The pages of a book present us with an edited view of world and we are privy only to what is important or what the author wants to reveal. So how do we effectively move between events? There are three basic type of transitions: cued, soft and hard transitions.
A scene is a moment and place in time. If there is a change in time, place or both then there is a change of scene. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to several points in his life as a boy and young man. Dickens was fairly heavy handed in a number of his scene transitions
“The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, ‘Let us see another Christmas!’”
In other words, this scene is over and we are heading on to a new scene.
This is called a cued transition where the scene change is announced: “We take you now to a garage in Canoga Park.”* Unless done for specific stylistic reasons this kind of hammer-over-the-head approach is not used much in contemporary fiction.
A soft transition is a logical flow from one event to the next. A character is driving down a country road and his car breaks down so he calls a tow truck. An hour later the tow truck driver pulls up. That is a logical progression of events and even an anticipated progression based on the information provided in the first scene.
Passage of time is a common soft transition. There are many ways to show that time has ticked by without resorting to such heavy handedness as writing, “three hours later” or “early the next morning.” Certainly you can come up with something more evocative like “the sun had nestled down onto the horizon” or “Ray opened his eyes to bits of dust floating in lazy circles in the warm slanting rays of sunlight.” Even those examples are a little hackneyed but are still better than announcing the time passage outright.
A hard transition is an abrupt seemingly unconnected shift in time and or venue. In one scene you may have Amanda hanging laundry on a breezy afternoon and the next scene might feature Derrick drowning rabbits in the dark of night. These are two unrelated scenes that the author will have to later connect. Maybe Derrick is a deranged and dangerous psychotic who is on the run and eventually randomly takes refuge in Amanda’s basement.
Hard transitions can be an effective part of your arsenal as long as you have the time to make those connections. As stated earlier if the scene doesn’t advance the plot then it should be cut. Adding hard transitions to a superfluous scene simply for the purpose of breaking up the action should be avoided. Writers often effectively employ hard transitions to jump back and forth between two different plot tracks that eventually converge. In a novel you have plenty of pages to bring all the loose ends together. A short story (depending on how short) can prove to be more of a challenge to establish the connection between events or characters because of their length limits.
Read lots of books. That is where you will see these transitions in action. How do other authors tackle transitions? What is jarring, what is effective, what is innovative? Reverse engineer a favorite book. You can learn a lot by paying attention to how an author writes as well as what an author writes. I also pay attention to movies and some television dramas as a source for honing my craft. How are the stories constructed? What kinds of transitions do they employ? What can I adapt? What should I avoid?
And… cue the announcer: “We now return you to your regularly scheduled life already in progress…”